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Experts show reformers the lie of the land

A researcher says South Africa must learn from Zimbabwe's experience of land reform and give people more than just land if it wants to improve the lives of the rural poor.

It's all being kept under wraps, but experts hope when the government finally unveils its promised wide-reaching strategy to tackle rural poverty, it will provide beneficiaries with more than just land.

South Africa only has to learn from the experience of neighbouring Zimbabwe, they say. President Thabo Mbeki's office says the plan marks government's most serious attempt yet to address the problem.

Until now the main focus of the government's rural policy has been to encourage small-scale black commercial farming, partly through land reform programmes. These include giving land back to families who were forcibly moved under apartheid, a controversial policy which is coming under increasing fire – and not just from white farmers who stand to lose their land.

On the face of it, restoring people to their ancestral lands would seem an ideal solution to dispossession and poverty. But some experts say it has done little to help the families, who often remain poor, or worse, see a decline in their living standards.

Carolyn Jenkins from the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University draws parallels with Zimbabwe's experiences of land reform over the last 20 years. In her paper, Post-independence economic policy in Zimbabwe – lessons for South Africa, Jenkins says most of President Robert Mugabe's high-profile land reform programmes failed to help the poorest because the government did not provide welfare services, financial grants or jobs when it handed over the land.

"If you've got nothing to start with, and you are given a plot of land, you have no means of farming it. You have no capital to buy a plough or seeds or fertiliser and you may not even have much water," explains Jenkins.

Dr Charles Mather of the Wits University Geography Department agrees: "Handing over land without additional subsidies does indeed benefit mainly those who are well-resourced. Others need state funded infrastructure if they are going to use the land as a base for economic activity."

Much of South Africa's rural population is made up of women, children and the elderly.

Unemployment levels average at over 65 percent, and most depend on pensions or wages sent back from male relatives in the cities, rather than farming.

But there is an added dimension to the government's land policies: to redress some of the wrongs left over from the apartheid system.

In 1910 a constitution was introduced which deprived blacks of the right to vote and to own land. In 1913 the majority was forced to live on some 8,550 hectares, or seven percent of the country, which had been set aside for blacks. Most of the remaining land was reserved for ownership by whites, who made up only 20 percent of the population.

In 1994 Nelson Mandela's government sought to reverse some of the effects of these policies by introducing a radical land reform programme. This included returning land lost under the 1913 Natives Land Act, or compensating people for their losses where it was not possible for the government to buy back the land; giving the poor and disadvantaged grants to help them buy land; and changing the law to improve citizens' legal rights over their land.

The Land Affairs department now cites an impressive 745,015 hectares of land which have been handed to 58,921 people through the programme. It says the size and "success" of land reform projects prove that they are on the right track.

Rural Cremin in the second poorest province of KwaZulu-Natal is one such programme – black families were forcibly removed from Cremin decades ago. Then in June 1998, 103 families were given back title deeds to their land by Nelson Mandela. "This community wants to do everything you can think of from keeping cattle and sheep to growing crops. They just want to go back to their lives before they were removed," says Zithulele Mbonani, the department official responsible for the project.

According to Mbonani, a government grant of R3000 ($476) per claimant will be handed over to the local municipality to provide basic services such as roads and water. "We have the grants now, the business plan has been compiled and the engineers have been hired to start work on the infrastructure," says Mbonani.

Andile Mngxitama, Land Rights Co-ordinator of the influential National Land Committee lobby group, says Cremin is an isolated case and that the discretionary grant is not always enough. "R3000 (each), when pooled by 100 families, might go some way to building infrastructure but in smaller communities, it's a joke," he said.

The money allocated annually for land reform is about R67 million ($10.6 million) – less than one percent of the national budget. "So these good stories cannot be sustained over a long period of time unless there is more money," says Mngxitama.

But it seems unlikely that additional funds will become available, especially in the current climate of economic reform. The government is introducing wide-reaching changes through its Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) plan. Its aim is to attract foreign investment and transform the country into an export-driven economy.

One result has been dramatic cuts in spending on social services. Instead, GEAR places a strong emphasis on small-scale commercial farming to create jobs in rural areas.

The government is also slashing import tariffs, allowing cheap farm produce from other countries to enter South Africa and putting small local producers – who unlike Western farmers receive few, if any, government subsidies – at a disadvantage.

A third goal of the GEAR plan is to pay off the country's national debt, which was mostly built up during the apartheid years. Interest on the debt is currently the third biggest budgetary item, standing at almost R50 billion (eight billion dollars) per year.

Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, who campaigns against repaying the 'apartheid debt', says: "The interest alone from the 'odious debt' is three times the national health budget and could provide running water and electricity for rural people across the country."

Jenkins of Oxford University cautions that the cost of similar economic reforms in Zimbabwe were "borne disproportionately by the rural poor" and reiterates that providing jobs and free services, alongside land reforms, is the best way of assisting the poorest. She points to a sample study of 14,000 rural households in Zimbabwe which showed that the standard of living improved when people had jobs that paid a regular wage.

Mngxitama agrees, and is among a growing number now calling for "real solutions" to rural poverty – "…. through solid funding initiatives and co-ordinated government activity."

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Panos London

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