Restoring land, fostering dignity

Phumla WilliamsThis year, as we mark the 20th anniversay of freedom we recall with pride that the advances our society has made were expressed through our founding democratically elected President Nelson Mandela. 

President Mandela would be proud to see the signifcant progress we have made though much still needs to be done. “Today, all of us do, by our presence here, and by our celebrations in other parts of our country and the world, confer glory and hope to new-born liberty. 

Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud.” These are powerful words of our former President Nelson Mandela delivered during his inaugural speech in 1994. 

His prophetic words and vision continue to inspire us today as we mark twenty years since our new nation was born. As we enter Freedom Month, we should all be proud of the advances made towards realising the country that was envisioned in 1994. Society has fundamentally changed in countless ways, and we should all be proud of our successes despite the continued triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment. 

The Twenty Year Review Report released by the Presidency last month tells a good story of how far we have come in undoing the devastation inflicted by the 1913 Natives Land Act on the country, its people, economy and culture. This Act had changed the course of South African history. 

It robbed black people of their dignity as they became dispossessed, disrespected and humiliated in the land of their birth. It dispossessed them of 87 per cent of the land and restricted their ownership to just 13 per cent, despite them making up more than 87 per cent of the population. 

Sol Plaatjie wrote that the 13 per cent of land allocated to the majority of our people was chosen because of its “unsuitability for cultivation and its unhealthy climate”. The idea was to make black people dependent on whites and unable to earn a decent living. As a result they were forced to seek employment in the booming mining industry and on farms as cheap laborers. 

The end of apartheid brought freedom for the dispossessed to own land. Freedom also enabled people who had been restricted to rural areas to move freely and migrate to urban areas in search of better economic opportunities. The democratic Government identified the need for land and agrarian reform as part of national reconciliation. 

The Twenty Year Review states that government policy for agrarian transformation involved ensuring more equitable access to land, water, economic institutions, finance and infrastructure for landless people, farmworkers and smallholder farmers. This included raising productivity and diversifying rural economies, and rural employment. The equitable distribution and ownership of land is important for various reasons. 

The three drivers of our economy, namely mining, agriculture and real estate largely takes place on the land which was illegally seized in 1913. In 1994 Government enacted the Restitution of Land Rights Act to return land to persons and communities dispossessed of their property rights or to alternatively compensate them. 

In terms of the Act, a person, a deceased estate, a descendant or a community that had been dispossessed of land rights after 19 June 1913 was entitled to lodge a claim for the restitution by no later than 31 December 1998. Out of approximately 80 000 land claims lodged before the cut-off date, more than 74 000 have been settled. 

Land acquired since the start of the programme in 1995, amounts to 4001 land parcels, translating into 1.443-million hectares. 

Government has spent R16-billion on restitution, R10 billion to settle 77 148 claims for land acquisition and R6 billion on 71 292 financial compensation claims. Parliament recently passed the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill to extend the date for the lodging of claims for restitution to 31 December 2018. This demonstrates that Government is committed to give more dispossessed South Africans the opportunity to lodge claims and ultimately own land. 

Speaking at the opening of the National House of Traditional Leaders in Cape Town earlier this year, President Jacob Zuma stated: “Work continues to acquire more land, and to improve the ownership patterns of land in our country, to correct the historical injustice of 1913." 

The Twenty Year Review points out that despite good progress made to transfer land to black people, land reform has not yet realised its full potential to stimulate economic growth and employment, especially in the agricultural sector. According to it, only 24 per cent of black households are involved in agricultural activities and very few commercial farms are owned by black people. In addition, a large number of land reform beneficiaries are not using the land productively. 

It is against this background that Government is providing support in terms of training and development to those who have received land through the land reform programme. We are addressing the challenges as a matter of urgency while at the same time ensuring food security, economic and political stability. 

During Freedom Month and while celebrating our 20 Years of Freedom, we should look back with pride at how we have changed the landscape of our country for the better. 

Land ownership has improved the economic status of a number of communities and fostered a culture of entrepreneurship and has led to increased self-reliance in food production. We are indeed a country that is better off than we were before 1994.

Phumla Williams is acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)

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