Opinion Piece

Communal land tenure system not homogeneous and possibly not well understood

A friend of mine often say you need not to have been a great footballer to make a great coach.

Introductory notes

Prof ASM Karaan (May His Soul Rest in Peace) used to advocate that information is power when we were at University of Stellenbosch. As part one of his module, we were expected to do book reviews and use the institutional economics as basis of our reviews. The proper functioning of institutions is premised on a number of facts and one of them is information. When complained about the bulky nature of the information involved in the reviews, he indicated that the world operates on the basis of information and asymmetry normally disadvantage those with-it limited amounts or not properly synthesised.

A closer look at his approach indicated that it was based on the economic notion of “bounded rationality”. Since this is not an economic opinion piece I will not focus on the theoretical basis and explanations of the concepts but rather use these concepts in arguing that the communal system is not wholly understood of what it is and therefore presented as a faulty system. Let me acknowledge that I will not be providing a whole picture of the communal tenure but a small a contribution to the big puzzle (heterogeneity of communal system). I must say upfront that this but contribution is based on my village communal system which is at Mbashe Local Municipality, Ward 8 – Qombe location.

Communal system points

In agricultural production, the system of farming on communal agriculture is often associated with failure by those who have access to print media, TV and radio. There are compelling reasons that are put forward to conclude the way they conclude.

However, their commentary about communal tenure system has a feature that seem to suggest that the communal tenure system is homogeneous and therefore, the reasons for its failures are standard. This is the point I would like to add my views that it is not homogeneous in as far as I have seen it and at least experienced. Having had the opportunity of moving around the provinces of South Africa and some countries around the Continent (Africa) I have observed “not using any scientific approach” that the land ownership custodianship differs across areas.

The uniform aspect, however, in that Traditional Councils are primarily the custodians or owners of communal land on behalf of the people residing within their jurisdictions. The people are the users and determine the parameters of use within acceptable norms and standards. This bring me to the issue that the management aspects the use of communal lands are very different across the areas I have referred to. Perhaps before I get to present many of my views, I need to define that which I am referring to in this opinion piece.

Defined in a simplistic way “communal farming” involves the use of commonly owned and shared veldt for animal grazing and the use of individually owned small crop land in a given geographic area that often has many of these small plots. The veldts are mainly used through a communally agreed way of managements system.

The concept of amadlelo (veldts) which in other areas is interpreted to mean reserved veldts coupled with the crop land under planting that are used during the winter months for grazing. Therefore, areas with better management systems of the land use[1] and where crop production (mainly maize) still strives have striving cattle and sheep populations. I am putting the previous point to argue that the success or failures[2] of the communal tenure system are not imbedded in the system itself but management of it.

Secondly, I want to also highlight that communal tenure management system is not homogeneous across the country and even within provinces of South Africa. The land allocations are some areas done by the Head Men while in others the village leaders – iziBonda/iBhodi do the land allocations on the basis of request that depend on the by-laws of such areas. It must be noted that these village leaders report to the Head Men of new allocations. Noteworthy, there are by-laws that are used to do the allocations vary from one area to the other and must be understood before they are criticised.

I earlier indicated that these by-laws need to be agile or flexible and indeed their agility is practical. The advocacy for the issues of women in getting land allocated to them have been addressed in some areas while not in others – the fight to correct this societal injustice against women must be won and tenure reforms done.

The challenge with arable land is its fixed nature, most of the crop fields in my area were allocated after the betterment planning. Even though the Betterment Planning could have had hidden agenda/s it served to separate residential, arable and veldt lands. That separation is visible where in that respect, however, those crop lands that were allocated back then are not uniform in size and the reasons for that differ and not documented.

There was about 60 hectares (kuKhomba-khmba) that was subdivided into one-hectare plots in the early 2000s done by iNkosi and the Department of agriculture. The good feature about the land that was recently allocated is that all are equal while those that were done before differ in terms of size. There are historical reasons why land allocation was done the way it was done.

My observation is that in terms of ownership and transfer across generations that is not an issue and the cultural norms are clear on how land ownership arrangements work. In my area, the first boy to emerge from marriage of the households is normally the one to take over the immovable assets such as the household and the crop land. I must admit that things are changing depending on the wills of the parents.

Conformity: The banking fraternity finds it difficult to provide credit to smallholder farmers who are operating on communal lands because they mainly do not conform to the banks funding requirements. It needs to be argued that the banks are in the business of making money like all other business and need to ensure that their risks of losing out are covered. One of the reasons for not complying is the issues of the security of tenure which advocates for private ownership so that land can be used as a collateral. Unfortunately, the communal tenure does not provide for a perfect fit to such a requirement and therefore gets to be faulted.

These communal farmers have their own savings (stokvels) that are used for other purposes such as the funeral covers and glossaries which can be adopted to provide the much-needed credit to the productive aspect of communal livelihoods. It is my wish that one day that a product that will not be advocating for change in the system will be developed where innovative ways of protections of the capital will be found or the communal stokvels will be adjusted.

Structural deficiencies that lead to misrepresentation: there are many cattle that are slaughtered in the formal system that originate from communal areas and yet not recognised by the system as originating from communal farmers by design of the system. This unfortunate reality of the misrepresentation emanates from a traceability system that is not calibrated to recognise communal farming.

The existing traceability system presents an output that seem to recognise the middlemen as the owners of animals that are primarily “harvested” or collected from the communal environment. Until this matter is corrected the true contributions of communal farming to the meat market of this country will remain at the levels that are used to discredit it.

The geographical spread of Agro-processing infrastructure in some areas does not follow the logic of natural endowment rather the historical injustices and other factors. I am sure that this is not the only example of disregarding the communal system even where it is playing its part, regardless of how minimal it maybe.

Concluding remarks

My take home is that, if conformity will define what has to happen in communal system, then its true potential will not be achieved any time soon. Land ownership in communal areas is deeply embedded it culture of which this culture is flexible but its flexibility must be treated with tender hands. The communal land tenure is not necessarily the problem, its management could be and lack of innovations in formal system to service it as it is without wanting to wish it away.

Article by: Mr Bonani Nyhodo

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Mzansi Agriculture Talk or its members.

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