Ramaphosa’s SONA Misses Opportunity To Decisively Deal With Land Issue

Lucas Ledwaba

President Cyril Ramaphosa tactfully avoided making any commitments with regards to the issue of land restitution in his State of the Nation Address in Parliament on Thursday night.

The land issue remains an emotive issue that threatens to divide the country along racial lines and parliament is meant to finalise the decision to amend section 25 of the Constitution; however Ramaphosa glanced over the topic in a non-committal way.

Pressure has been mounting on the government to amend the section to allow for expropriation of land without compensation after the EFF succeeded in forcing the ANC to support the motion in parliament in 2018.

The issue has dominated the political discourse in the last two years and it was expected that Ramaphosa, in his third SONA since ousting Jacob Zuma in a carefully mastered party engineered putsch in 2018 would make some bold pronouncements.

But he chose to stick to the ruling party’s consistent tact of tip toeing around the land issue replaying the same old stuck record of the amount of hectares government has given back to claimant communities.

“This year, we implement key recommendations of the Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture to accelerate land redistribution, expand agricultural production and transform the industry,” Ramaphosa said.

The panel chaired by deputy president David Mabuza recommended in its report handed over in May last year recommended among others that the Expropriation Bill of 2019 should be finalised.

It stated further that “it is important that the Bill must specify much more clearly the meaning of instances that would amount to “nil” compensation…”

The panel further commented in its recommendation that “alternatively, this [Bill] could be a matter for clarity by the courts.”  

Revelations by the land audit in 2017 that whites owned 72% of the total farms and agricultural holdings with different categories of blacks owning only the remaining 28% has further fuelled calls for radical action.

But there was nothing radical in Ramaphosa’s speech – in which he dealt with the land issue in just five, passive, dry paragraphs that offered no sense the matter would be afforded the urgency it warrants.

“Government stands ready – following the completion of the Parliamentary process to amend section 25 of the Constitution – to table an Expropriation Bill that outlines the circumstances under which expropriation of land without compensation would be permissible,” he said.

Although he did touch on the issue of releasing land for restitution, Ramaphosa was careful to ensure that he was specific to mention the land in question would be “state land.”

“To date, we have released 44,000 hectares of state land for the settlement of land restitution claims, and will this year release round 700,000 hectares of state land for agricultural production,” he said.

One of the key recommendations by the panel is that the Land Claims Court be conferred into a new Land Court. The panel argued that this would enable the court to adjudicate on all land related matters, and not only restitution as it is empowered to do currently.

The panel recommended also that the Land Court could be given additional responsibilities, both judicial and extra functions.  

Communities and individuals who lodged land claims before the closing date of 31 December 1998 and are still waiting for their finalisation would have felt deeply disappointed that Ramaphosa didn’t even touch on this important issue.

Government was interdicted in the famous Lamosa judgment in 2016 from amending the Restitution of Land Rights Act 1994 to allow for the opening of a new period of submission and lodging of land claims.

This was largely on the basis that there were still thousands of claims lodged before 1998 that were still outstanding and reopening the process would have a negative impact on the existing ones.

Clearly this is a matter Ramaphosa should have delved into, to assure land claimants, many of them elderly citizens who witnessed first-hand  the brutality of forced removals and dispossession – that something was being done.

But the president’s silence on the matter which returned to the Constitutional Court early last year after government missed a 24-month deadline to make submissions may send a message that there’s actually no movement on the cases.

Ramaphosa said government is prioritising youth, women, people with disabilities and those who have been farming on communal land and are ready to expand their operations for training and allocation of land.

“A new beneficiary selection policy includes compulsory training for potential beneficiaries before land can be allocated to them,” he said.

But this is said in almost every speech made by government with regards to land reform. What the president could have revealed in this regard, perhaps, was a solid plan, an area and timeline of when this would be implemented and achieved.

The commercial white farmers who fear talk of expropriation without compensation and the landless who are eager for action on restoring and reforming land will probably agree the speech left them at the same point they were this time last year – it just didn’t do justice to the land issue.

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