Various role players in the agriculture and land reform sectors have come out in full support of newly appointed Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, Thoko Didiza.
With the tough task of implementing government’s land reform resting on her shoulders, Didiza has her work cut out.
Didiza is no stranger to the portfolio, having served as minister of agriculture and land affairs from 1999 to 2006 in former president Thabo Mbeki’s administration.
But with land reform – and especially expropriation without compensation one of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government’s top priorities – she is venturing into uncharted waters.
Agri SA, a federation of agricultural organisations, last week said it welcomed Didiza’s appointment as she is “vastly experienced… with the wisdom of hindsight on what went wrong in terms of land reform”, the NGO’s president Dan Kriek told News24.
“She is someone of stature – we need someone like that with the merging of the two departments and the critical stage that we are [at] in this country regarding land reform,” Kriek said.
Chairperson of the expert advisory panel on land reform, Doctor Vuyo Mahlati, is equally positive about Didiza being responsible for heading this challenging portfolio.
“I am very excited,” Mahlati told News24. “She has worked in both agriculture and land reform before and, after leaving government, she worked at Unisa where she did her master’s in the same area. What is great about her journey is that it is now continuing.”
Associate professor in land and expropriation law at North-West University, Elmien du Plessis, said Didiza’s new tenure was a “very wise and pragmatic appointment”.
“She has vast knowledge about both the land reform process, and she is well-liked and respected. She is known as a level-headed leader which will be an asset in this challenging portfolio. She has a network of people in both the public and the private sector that will support her,” said Du Plessis.
Professor Ruth Hall from the University of the Western Cape’s Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) agreed with Du Plessis, describing Didiza as a seasoned politician with extensive experience.
Hall told News24 that Didiza’s appointment as “signalling that land reform and agriculture will be a priority for [Ramaphosa’s] administration”.
What are the challenges and priorities?
Despite Didiza’s credentials, the road ahead is not going to be easy.
“She faces many challenges, both from the land reform side and from agriculture. I think a good start will be for the Presidential Advisory Unit to give a general, overall direction that the government wants to move into, and then to decide how this will be coordinated. Land reform and agriculture cannot just stand alone,” says Du Plessis.
“With an effective 10-year vacuum in policy, such policy direction is therefore crucial before action can be taken. Included in this will be ensuring that an accurate land audit be done. Then to co-operate to implement the policy.”
Kriek says combining agriculture and land reform is a big challenge.
“There are a host of issues that warrant focused attention from the new minister. Top of the list is probably disease control, insurance, the establishment of an agricultural development fund in partnership with the private sector and effective drought and disaster mitigation measures,” Agri SA said in a separate statement.
“Plant and animal diseases are regularly occurring and capacity at Onderstepoort and within the department to deal with diseases needs to be radically improved.”
Agri SA also cited a decline in agricultural research and drought-related issues as challenges.
According to Mahlati Didiza’s first challenge is “making the department work”.
“We’ve had problems with the department of agriculture [under the previous administration]. She has to make sure that the engine works. And the engine is very challenged at this point. One individual is not going to make it work, though. It will only work with the help of people who are focused and efficient and respected.”
Hall says one of the biggest challenges will be tackling the issue of land acquisition for redistribution of land.
“There is a proposal from the Motlanthe panel appointed by Parliament which proposed new legislation to promote equitable access to land as well as the Expropriation Bill that will be put before Parliament in 2019, and the question of whether the Constitution will be amended for expropriation without compensation.”
The 17-member panel, which was headed by former president Kgalema Motlanthe, was tasked with examining how laws passed by Parliament since 1994 had affected the lives of South Africans – especially with regard to poverty, inequality and job creation‚ the redistribution of wealth‚ land reform, rural development, security of tenure and restitution, and nation building and social cohesion.
It also had to identify legislative gaps, according to Business Day.
“I would imagine that Didiza will be looking to how selected test cases can be taken forward to clarify how the State approach land reform,” Hall says.
Threats to land reform and agriculture
Du Plessis agrees, adding that land reform is not restricted to agricultural land.
“So, co-operation with human settlements for urban areas are important. In the rural areas, the so-called Bantustan Bills are in the process of promulgation, with much resistance thereto, so cooperative government and traditional affairs become important.
“Land reform and agriculture are both threatened by mining (both open cast and fracking), so some sort of agreement of how these issues will be resolved needs to be reached with the Minister of Minerals.
“Didiza would therefore, before she starts, have to carefully plan and decide how co-operation will take place, and what will be prioritised, and ensure that policy gives every one of these departments a clear goal of where we want to go, and what we want to achieve,” Du Plessis says.
Mahlati agrees that the challenges go beyond agriculture.
“The ecosystem makes agriculture viable. Agrarian reform is about agriculture, transformation, land reform and rural development. The reason we have struggled with agrarian reform is because we’ve been dealing with it in separate parts. Addressing all those issues in one department will give us the opportunity to refocus the attention on agrarian reform.”
Balance and policy certainty
Kriek says Agri SA is “cautiously optimistic” about the merger of the portfolios of land reform and agriculture.
“We have to strike the balance and get policy certainty,” says Kriek. “We will have to see whether the sixth Parliament has the appetite – like they had before the elections – to amend the Constitution.”
Kriek cited issues such as investor confidence and policy certainty as crucial.
“How do we move forward with land reform, how do we get the private sector involved, how do we establish a development fund, how do we set up partnerships between between government and the private sector and emerging farmers? Because, really, that’s where the progress is going to come from.
“We will have to engage with [Didiza] as soon as possible to set up a working relationship with her. We had a good relationship with her in the past and I think this time it will be no different.
“We all understand the necessity for sustainable land reform and for a vibrant agricultural sector and we need to grow it inclusively.”
What should change?
Mahlati says co-ordination will play a key role. “The minister will have to deal with the structural alignment within the department but also between other departments and the provinces.
“What is important is immediate engagement with all stakeholders, especially the farmers’ unions. We want to be able to engage directly with the minister to make sure that the changes that she will be focusing on are aligned to what we do.”
Urgent changes are the promulgation of the Expropriation Bill (by the Department of Public Works under Minister Patricia de Lille) and the drafting of a Redistribution Act that gives direction and enforceable rights and accountability mechanisms, along with policies, says Du Plessis.
“Properties held in the name of the state on behalf of beneficiaries can also be transferred to the beneficiaries in order to unlock the economic potential of the land.
“We have seen a few court cases the past year, where beneficiaries took government to court to force the transfer the land into their name.
“On the commercial agricultural side, this needs to be done when there is sufficient access to affordable capital, ideally through the Land Bank in specially crafted mechanisms to enable access to affordable credit that is linked to flexible or longer periods of paying back. State grants (in line with policy) should also be implemented as soon as the possibilities for elite capture is addressed through legislation,” says Du Plessis.
Mahlati agreed: “The point for us, as black farmers, is that you cannot have a Land Bank that has a portfolio and loan prospectus which is over 80% white farmers.
“Currently, the farmers’ support programme is fragmented at all levels. So we will be pushing for a farmers’ support programme that is aligned with the needs of the farmers. However, we have a serious problem with budgeting. Investment in both agriculture and land reform is not adequate. [Didiza] will need to prioritise this.”
Challenges of climate crisis
Hall says the department will have to focus on the realities of the climate crisis as well. “Among this is recognising that South Africa is a semi-arid country, water resources are scarce, water-allocation reform has not proceeded, so I think that the issue of reorientating agricultural development in the context of climate change and water scarcity will be a priority.”
The backlog in land-restitution claims will also need to be dealt with, says Hall.
Added to this, the agricultural training colleges need to be revived to ensure that people have the requisite skills, says Du Plessis.
“The private sector can also step up in this regard and offer skills transfer where needed. In instances where the private sector and existing farmers want to become involved, there should be mechanisms that appropriately protect the beneficiaries, checks and balances to prohibit elite capture, and incentives to owners who contribute voluntarily to land reform.”
According to Du Plessis, there is also an urgent need to protect the rights in property of people living on communal land, “So legislation that protects the rights of the people and that give them the power to decide how the land will be utilised, is urgently needed.
“Policy aimed at alleviating household food insecurity in rural areas, as well as addressing rural poverty, will have to set out the extent of state support to do so,” said Du Plessis.