OPINION: Fair, just ruling on land rights

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ON the eve of the local government elections that will be the latest litmus test of public confidence in the ANC, the ruling party suffered another defeat in the courts by having its Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Act declared invalid by the Constitutional Court.

The court has given Parliament two years to re-enact the law and said no new land claims can be processed until it does so, or until the backlog in outstanding land claims is cleared.

There were widespread concerns when the government decided to reopen land claims for another five years in 2014. The previous deadline for submitting claims was in December 1998.

Many of those claims have still not been attended to or resolved. The fear of past claimants was that their outstanding claims would be superseded by newer claims, sometimes with more than one community claiming historical ownership of a piece of land.

Land rights organisations behind the court challenge argued that reopening the window for lodging land claims would prejudice those who applied before the previous cut-off date.

Farmers who had been spared from any claims to their land in the previous round of claims were unnerved by yet another sword of Damocles hanging over them in addition to the department of rural development and land reform’s ongoing pressure, and with the Expropriation Bill waiting in the wings.

The amendment act looked very much like a ploy by the ANC to get votes from disaffected communities, after its original land reform programme slowed and faltered.

It also created the spectre of spurious and illegitimate claims being lodged, creating even more instability in the agricultural sector.

Land reform has been plagued by government’s own inability to meet its objectives, its unwillingness to account for how much land is already in government hands, and disastrous outcomes with once-viable farms falling into ruin after changing hands.

In response and in deflection, the ruling party has rattled sabres about abandoning the willing buyer/willing seller model, and Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti has come up with outlandish ideas such as the 50/50 proposal whereby farmers would have to give away half their land to farm workers.

Token consideration is given to proper public consultation.

Sometimes the courts are the only thing holding the ANC back from implementing laws that would be unjust and catastrophic.

So, it is encouraging that it was land rights organisations and communities that took the government to court to finalise outstanding claims first. The process has to be fair, orderly and just.

– Jon Houzet

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