Witness: Land rights for the poor

Land rights for the poor
24 Sep 2008
Lisa del Grande

Working for 30 years on land rights issues does not make one an expert
in land reform. This has been our experience in South Africa anyway.
Every day brings new and interesting twisted lessons for us on how to
make land reform work — for anyone. Given the recent reports on the poor
success rate of our land reform programme to date any new ideas must be
good ones right? Wrong. But we can now put a price on how much it costs
to make a land claim go away —R515 575 000.

This latest lesson is a sad and strong reminder about how land has
become a playground for the wealthy few while the poor majority’s access
to land has been reduced to symmetrical rows of cement block houses so
they can be fed with infrastructure and services in the cheapest
possible manner. For some, land use is about feeding a lifestyle. For
many others, land use is about feeding a livelihood.

So isn’t it interesting that both the “lifestylers” and the
“livelihooders” are complaining about the restitution process in
KwaZulu-Natal. Now they have also found an ally in the staff employed to
implement this process. In a recent bizarre twist the restitution
commission staff have gone public over their internal complaints about
their manager — the KZN regional land claims commissioner. Is the
stumbling restitution process really the fault of one land claims
commissioner? While the Association for Rural Advancement (Afra) would
love to join a finger-pointing session, we were forced to consider the
situation more carefully when we witnessed another recent lesson in how
land reform really works. Those who value their lifestyles or their
livelihoods should pay close attention to this story.

The restitution process, ostensibly a rights-based programme to redress
dispossession, started with the passing of the Restitution Act in 1994.
All potential claimants were required to lodge their claims before a
prescribed cut-off date, which finally was December 2000. One such claim
was lodged by a group of people who had faced repeated removals from the
area in and around the Dukuduku forests. Prior to lodging a claim they
had in fact resettled on some of the land they were to claim, in a
desperate attempt to reclaim it. This led to a dramatic growth in new
homesteads in the natural forest area as others supported their claim to
the land, in return for a place to live. For the past eight years the
claimants have struggled to get the Regional Land Claims Commission
(RLCC) to process their claim. They have had many “lifestyle”
detractors, in the government, the development and tourism sector and
the environmental sector who attempted to criminalise their legitimate
claim to the land. In this time our government had a large part of the
area they had claimed proclaimed as a world heritage site. In this time
the government tried to entice them out the forest into a formal housing
settlement, ostensibly to save the forest. In this time the established
Greater St Lucia Wetland Park (now called the Smangiliso Wetlands Park)
gave out BEE concessions for development of tourism lodges in the park.

In this time the RLCC tried unsuccessfully to dismiss their claim as
invalid. The claimants contested this in the Land Claims Court and won.
Six years into the claim and after the court case the RLCC informed them
that their claim happened to overlap with another group. It then took
more than a year to convince the RLCC that this was a mistake. And
finally in this time of eight years, the claimants have witnessed the
position of the commissioner being changed three times. From
commissioner Cherryl Walker to commissioner Thabi Shange to the current
commissioner Duduzile Sosibo. However, the most recent coup d’état in
this eight-year period, in attempts to undermine their land rights, is
not one brought about by an allegedly by incompetent RLCC commissioner.
Rather it is one that has seen the provincial Minister of Local
Government, Housing and Trade Affairs, Mike Mabuyakhulu, with the
support of the provincial cabinet, announce that part of the land which
they have tried to reclaim will now become a housing project. On fairly
good word it seems that not even the RLCC official handling the claim
was consulted.

On August 27, 2008, in a local stakeholder meeting comprised mainly of
traditional leaders and councillors, Mabuyakhulu announced that the KZN
cabinet had decided to “legalise” the Dukuduku settlement through
on-site resettlement. Essentially the government will turn the settled
area of the forest into a housing project and move the heritage park’s
boundaries to secure “conservation bottom lines”. Two bottom lines are
the securing and fencing off of the remaining natural forest areas that
have not been settled, like Futululu forest, and secondly moving
subsistence and small-scale farming by families away from the flood
plains. It should be noted though that even the Futululu forest and the
flood plains fall under the Dukuduku-claimed area. And the estimated
cost of the solution to this battle for the land will cost R515 575 000.

While housing and services will always be a critical part of supporting
families to improve their livelihoods, the Umkhanyakude district is
renowned for its high unemployment and poverty rates. With much land
under forestry, conservation, game farming and commercial farming,
increasingly dense rural settlements face poor prospects for upliftment.
Currently the highest sector of employment remains the service sector.
Agriculture and access to land for small-scale family farming seems
critically important even with the proposed tourism potential of the
area. With battles between tourism developers over large tracts of land
and restitution claimants growing increasingly acrimonious what prospect
is there for self-sufficient or secure livelihoods?

The development stakes are clearly high. The year 2010 is looming and we
have partially banked our economy on a potential tourism industry. That
the Dukuduku land claim and a settlement agreement with the people in
the natural forest area of the claim is long overdue smacks of
government high-handedness. This will be the third attempt in 30 years
to settle the Dukuduku matter and this will be the third time that
political decision makers have not consulted those directly affected
despite the fact that they have legitimate land rights over the area.
While the restitution process is turning out to be protracted and messy,
it could be the developers who finally win, through back- door deals
like Dukuduku. An early score for 2010: development 1 — people 0.