Court-defying, State land refusal victimises black farmer - Biznews

29 January 2020 - And it’s a salutary lesson for anyone vesting their own hopes in government’s ‘land reform’ drive.

Terence Corrigan

The case of David Rakgase is back in the news. An elderly black farmer who has worked a farm on state-owned land for close on three decades, he made news last year when he took the government to court to try to force it to honour an agreement to sell it to him. 

Given the flamboyant official rhetoric about the need for land reform, about ‘returning’ land to ‘the people’, and about providing land ‘to those who work it and need it’, this was a remarkable case – since it was the government that fought fiercely to refuse him ownership.

Indeed, the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform was emphatic that ownership was not envisaged for ‘black farming households’. Rather, they could have ‘long-term leases’.

Mr Rakgase had a well-founded and entirely justified desire to be a landowner. Not only was this a matter of status, but also – Rakgase argued – of great practical importance, since his lack of title had precluded him from acting against a land occupation. He was not asking for any favours, merely to conclude a transaction that the government had previously agreed to. 

The court judgment, delivered in September, roasted the government on its stance. It found the state’s position to be unreasonable, irrational and contrary to the constitution:

‘There is no explanation why, when the well-motivated occasion for conversion of a right presented itself, it was shied away from and the elderly Applicant was presented with a much lesser right, being a long-term lease, the end of which he will not see in his lifetime. The argument on behalf of the Minister that the Applicant has security of tenure and that there are no imminent eviction prospects on his horizon smacks of callousness and cynicism (sic), particularly given our country’s historical deficiencies in dealing with land reform.’ 

It went on to order the government to sell him the land.

‘The First Respondent is ordered to take all necessary steps, within 30 calendar days of this order, to sell the Farm to the First Applicant on the terms and conditions and price that would have applied if the Farm had been sold to the First Applicant under the Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development (LRAD) Programme in January 2003 and to thereafter see to the transfer of the Farm to the First Applicant at the State’s costs.’

Incredibly, on receiving the judgment, government indicated it would appeal. In so doing, it signalled that this was a case it was fighting as a matter of principle, not just to justify inertia or accumulated incompetence. 

That it quickly backed off from this – perhaps owing to the bad publicity and perplexing optics – was to be welcomed.

However, there is now a twist to this. An offer to sell has reportedly been made, and the government has demanded some R5.5 million for the property. This represents a nine-fold hike on the ‘terms and conditions and price that would have applied if the farm has been sold’ in 2003 – at which time, as the judgment states, it was valued at R621 000.

It is hard to read this as anything other than another hurdle deliberately being put in the way of Mr Rakgase’s desire to be the owner of his acres. Having failed to deprive him of this through the courts, it now seeks to do so through the price tag.

And perhaps there is something doubly cynical at play in all this, given that Mr Rakgase is now in his late 70s. It may be that each obstacle is a means to ensure that the issue is deferred sufficiently that it will one day disappear without being resolved.

It is also revealing about the trajectory of land reform. Mr Rakgase has been by all accounts the sort of person who might be put forward as a veritable icon of the farming economy. Yet government has chosen to see and deal with him as a problem. 

And perhaps he is. He embodies the deep attachment that South Africans have towards private property. This is well-attested to in opinion polls, and is even referenced by people in government from time to time.

Yet government’s stance is one of state ownership and official control. Its aversion to honouring even the wishes of a lone farmer who has shown himself worthy of it (if indeed, it should be necessary in a free society for a citizen to prove that – a matter of concern on its own!) speaks volumes about what lies in store.

The ‘return’ of the land will not be to dispossessed communities or deserving farmers. At least not as owners with secure title and the pride that comes with it. Rather, it is the ‘return’ to the state, the world of impenetrable bureaucracy, official indifference and political patronage. It is a world in which – without irony – ‘black farming households’ are expressly to be accommodated as perpetual tenants.

Mr Rakgase’s legal team has indicated that it will pursue contempt of court charges against the state for demanding their price, against the judgment of the court. Sadly, he will need to wait and continue to struggle against the vast resources and even vaster obstinacy of the state. 

And it’s a salutary lesson for anyone vesting their own hopes in government’s ‘land reform’ drive. 

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to join the IRR by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).