Land reform: Namibia 27%, South Africa 8%*

Arid neighbour’s land reform policy seems to work better than SA’s.

As South Africa enters into a next phase of land reform, it may be worthwhile for policymakers to compare results with what Namibia has achieved over the past two decades.

Namibia has a totally different approach to land reform and, at face value at least, seems to be more efficient and effective than the South African equivalent.

The South African process is delayed and marred by inefficient administrative processes, and an inherent distrust between the farming community and the state.

Namibian example

The pedestrian reforms stand in stark contrast to the Namibian situation, which seems much more successful than what we see in South Africa.

I immediately acknowledged that the Namibian process is not perfect and that there are many perceived problems, but there are fundamental differences, which are responsible for a much-accelerated process north of the Orange River.

Sakkie Coetzee of the Namibia Agricultural Union identified two major differences between the respective land reform processes:

  • The first is that ancestral land rights are not acknowledged in Namibia. This decision was taken way back in 1991 where it was decided that redistribution would be based on the willing seller/willing buyer principle and that there would be no recognition of ancestral land rights. This means that there are no direct land claims on individual farms. This is a significant departure from the South African policy, which is predominantly based on this principle.
  • The second is that the Namibian government has the right of first refusal on all land sales. If a Namibian farmer wants to sell his lands, he or she needs to first offer it to the state.

The Namibian government has set clear land reform targets. There are 35 million hectares of arable agricultural land in Namibia of which the government has set a target to transfer 15 million hectares or 43% to previously disadvantaged individuals and communities by 2020. Of the 15 million hectares, the Namibian government will procure 5 million for communal purposes, while individuals would be assisted to acquire the remaining 10 million hectares through the free market with the assistance of very favourable loans.

According to Coetzee, approximately 9.4 million hectares, or more than 60% of the 15 million hectare target has been acquired in terms of this program. This also equates that 27% of the total agricultural land in Namibia has been transferred to blacks Namibians.

South Africa

The South African case study is slightly different.

South Africa’s target is to transfer 30% or 24.5 million hectares of the 82 million hectares of agricultural land to black farmers. The initial target was to achieve this by 2014.

In 2012, Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti confirmed that a total of 6.7 million hectares of agricultural land had been transferred. This represents 27% of the overall transfer target of 24.5 million hectares, or 8% of the total available 82 million hectares.

The situation did not improve much in 2013 as only 157 556 hectares were transferred in this year, less than half the target of 321 1222 hectares.

A matchbox calculation therefore suggests that of the total available South African agriculture land, only 8% has been transferred in 20 years. This is less than a third of the 27% Namibia managed in the same period.

This is also not only in relative terms: The reality is that Namibia transferred 9,4 million hectares and South Africa managed less than 7 million.

South African land claims

One of the main reasons for this slow progress is the actual ancestral right principle, where individual farms are being targeted for redistribution following land claims. The first window closed in 1998 and approximately 80 000 claims were submitted. To date some 8 471 claims have not been settled.

The state has now reopened the process and Nkwinti expects an additional 400,000 claims before the second window closes in 2019.

Great cost

Government has spent in excess of R29 billion on land reform, which according to some media reports would have been sufficient to buy approximately 37% of the agricultural land in South Africa.

This means the current 8% could have been 37%. Maybe it isn’t a fair comparison, but you get my point.

It is therefore a fair question to ask why government has not considered an approach similar to the Namibian example? Unfortunately, it seems as if this proposal was rejected on two occasions.

Dr. Theo de Jager of Agri SA says the first proposal was made in 1992 at the Codesa negotiations, but it wasn’t adopted.

The second one was in 2011 when Agri SA approached Nkwinti directly and presented him with a similar right of first refusal proposal.

This proposal was again rejected.

5% of agriculture land

De Jager also states that approximately 5% of all farms in the country are in the market during any given year. This means that government could have procured much more land on the open market in only a few years that was transferred in the preceding 20.

Emotion and closure

The current pace of land transfer is too slow, and needs to be accelerated. Land is a very emotional topic in South Africa and it is becoming more so. Unfortunately, the current land reform process has ignited emotional tension and uncertainty, and established an inherent distrust, which benefits no one.

The Namibian example, which has problems I admit, has showed that it is possible to do it quicker. And the quicker South Africa can reach a scenario where more than 30% or even 50% of agricultural land is in the hands of black farmers who want to farm, the better it will be for the country.


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