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South Africa’s upcoming National General Elections – A crucial turning point for rural development and land reform

A look at the post-1994 policies to address historic land dispossession while maintaining food security and encouraging agricultural investment

Written by Vumelana Advisory Fund Chief Executive Peter Setou

As South Africa prepares for the May 29 National General Elections, the nation stands at a critical juncture.

These elections are arguably the most highly contested since the historic 1994 multi-party elections that marked the dawn of democracy. South Africa faces a new set of challenges, including perennial electricity shortages, a struggling economy, rampant crime, and widening inequalities. Long-standing issues such as rising unemployment, poverty, and racially skewed land ownership also persist.

Since 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) has introduced numerous policies to address historic land dispossession while maintaining food security and encouraging agricultural investment.

The consensus is that despite significant progress, challenges remain. The willing buyer-willing seller policies have fallen short of adequately addressing the allocation of land to previously dispossessed people, while lack of post-settlement support has seen vast, once thriving tracts of land degenerate into unproductive ruins.

Before 1994, rural areas, especially former Bantustan regions, were neglected, leading to economic stagnation. Post-1994, the government prioritized rural development through initiatives like the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). The RDP aimed to improve living conditions and promote smallholder farming to ensure affordable food production.

Under President Thabo Mbeki, the government adopted the Integrated Sustainable Rural Development Programme (ISRDP) to address rural poverty. President Jacob Zuma later established the Ministry for Rural Development and Land Reform, launching the Comprehensive Rural Development Programme (CRDP) to enhance social and economic well-being in rural areas. Despite different approaches, infrastructure projects like electrification and water delivery have significantly spurred rural development.

South Africa is renowned for its policy-making prowess, but effective implementation is often lacking. The Agriculture and Agro-Processing Master Plan (AAMP) was introduced to transform the agriculture sector and enhance food security but has seen slow progress. Post-election, there is a need for the government to prioritise operationalising the AAMP, with a dedicated task team to ensure timely and effective implementation.

Rural development and land reform should be a priority and not political rhetoric

Land reform remains crucial for social cohesion, yet political parties have largely overlooked the impact that can be realised through an effective land reform programme, where beneficiaries are supported to ensure that they can make their land productive. There is a need to give this issue priority, evaluate and measure progress and begin to set practical targets to put fallow land to productive use.

The National Development Plan (NDP) outlines detailed steps that need to be taken for an effective land reform programme, including expanding irrigated land by at least 500 000 hectares through better use of water resources and developing new water schemes. Currently, only 1.5 million of land in South Africa is under irrigation.  The expansion of irrigated land would ensure the sustainability of agriculture, particularly among smallholder farmers. This would also help stimulate the development of the agro-processing industry.

Furthermore, the NDP proposes the repurposing of under-utilised land in communal areas for commercial production and providing support to commercial agriculture sectors and regions that have the highest potential for growth and employment.

In addition to this, we need to implement recommendations of reports such as the Motlanthe Report which was commissioned by Parliament. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Since 2012, for example, Vumelana has facilitated 26 partnerships between land reform beneficiary communities and private investors to put restituted land to productive use, through its Community Private Partnership Model (CPP). Such partnerships have enabled communities to put 76,000 hectares of land to productive use, and in turn, created or saved 2,500 jobs in the process, benefiting 16,000 households.

The CPP model aims to facilitate partnerships between land reform beneficiaries and private investors. The private investors bring capital, and access to markets and can share their skills to enable beneficiary communities to reach a point where they can independently run their land successfully with the skills they acquire from the partnership. It is important to note that these partnerships do not happen naturally. There is a need to fund transaction advisory services to ensure communities are adequately supported in negotiating such partnerships. These initiatives should be actively supported by the new administration through funding support so that we can expand reach to cover more land reform beneficiaries.

The NDP also calls for greater support for innovative public-private partnerships, and there is proof that these partnerships can yield positive results in land reform and can serve as a catalyst that drives the success of this national imperative. Let us look at areas where we have registered some successes and replicate these.

Photo by Karabo Mdluli on Unsplash