Corruption Watch research suggests authorities are working with crooks to deprive people of land | Land Portal
Melusi Ncala
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Corruption Watch is participating in an eight-country study on land-related corruption and a recent baseline survey of four local communities suggests that not only has corruption become deeply embedded in issues of land redress, but it is perpetrated by figures of authority, including municipal councillors and members of the police. 

orruption in South Africa is so endemic that we can assume with certainty that most people are aware of its presence in all layers of society and that they understand its daily impact on the public at large. At Corruption Watch, our data analysis based on tens of thousands of whistle-blower accounts, as well as our engagements with community members that add to our body of evidence, illustrate the suffering and struggles of ordinary people as a result.

Corruption in the land sector is a particular area of research focus — an area seemingly avoided by government when questions of accountability are asked.

It is infuriating that, almost three decades into democratic South Africa, we still grapple with the land question, which was meant to be a beacon of redress. Inextricably tied to the conundrum it presents is the manifestation of corruption and the state’s ineffective ways of addressing it.

It is one thing to recount the history, at times even romanticising the telling of it, of how land was captured from the natives — a narrative that is told as though the displaced descendants are emotionally, mentally, spiritually, historically, and economically removed from those traumatic events. The full atrocity comes into sharp focus, however, when it is viewed for what it is — an economic crime and an act of pure corruption.

But it is infinitely more criminal when the so-called liberators, those who call themselves champions of democracy and constitutionalism, unashamedly perpetuate the same injustices of the past while paying lip service to promises of reform and an end to wrongdoing.

As part of the second phase of Transparency International’s Land and Corruption in Africa (LCA) project, we embarked on a baseline study in four communities in KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape, to gauge South African residents’ land corruption awareness levels and experiences. Corruption Watch is leading the LCA project in South Africa, which is one of eight countries participating across the continent.

We interviewed 66 households for this study, and found that in more than 18% of the total sample of 357 family units — including families from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Cameroon, and Madagascar — community members believed wrongdoing is commonplace and widespread. They also were despondent and uncertain about the state’s interest in or ability to tackle the problem.

In contrast to Ghana and Cameroon, where approximately a fifth of households claimed to be aware of land corruption, 97% of persons from our own Bhambayi and Umlazi communities in KwaZulu-Natal, and Ceres and Vredendal communities in the Western Cape answered in the affirmative. More than 60% of local participants were willing to say that they have been directly affected, while the rest opted not to say or were unsure — a caution indicative of the volatility of the whistle-blower environment and the necessity to capacitate ordinary people with land corruption and land rights knowledge.

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Participants allege that councillors, the police, and politically connected individuals threaten violence to those who speak out against corruption, and victimise women and the elderly. Furthermore, a lack of information means that they often do not know how to respond to these instances of thuggery and criminality.

Households experience corruption in the form of fraud, bribery, abuse of authority, extortion, sextortion, and cronyism. Examples of the corruption manifesting in some of these communities were highlighted in our 2019 report Unearthing Corruption in the Land Sector, in which we discussed issues relating to political corruption and irregularities in the allocation of public housing.

In the new dataset of three sentinel communities, we learned that government’s farm worker equity schemes, particularly in farming communities in the Western Cape, are fraught with acts of bullying, while shareholders reported being defrauded of their earnings, shares, and property. Meanwhile, in a peri-urban area such as Bhambayi near Phoenix, amid the squalor in which people live, there are so-called committees headed by political networks that steal people’s property, and section and resection plots of land based on solicited bribes.

Participants know all too well who is responsible for their suffering. Nearly 26% of households point a finger at local authority, including municipal councillors. A similar percentage also claims that corporations operating both in and outside South Africa are to blame for the corrupt activity playing out in their communities. To add insult to injury, dodgy police officials and some traditional authorities, instead of protecting community members, act as henchmen for the corrupt.

South Africans are resilient, brave and steadfast people who do not generally cower and falter at acts of intimidation, violence, and malfeasance. Four out of five persons interviewed stated firmly that if they were to be asked for a bribe when trying to obtain a piece of land, they would report such corruption. This figure is not too dissimilar from the average across the survey region where 77% of households responded positively.

Nonetheless, when the 17 sentinel communities across the eight countries were questioned on their willingness to pay a bribe to acquire a portion of land, about 20% said that they would. The only anomalies in this regard are Zambia and Uganda where the figures are 7% and 31% respectively. There are wide-ranging theories as to why this cohort of people is likely to participate in bribery. These include many years of frustration with corrupt networks that use bureaucracy to deny land to vulnerable groups, fears of victimisation, and not trusting the intentions of those in power.

Against the backdrop of this information and upon the request of community members, we are adding our voice to the chorus of those striving to right past and current wrongs. Our intention is to aid those who have asked us to intervene, despite the difficulty of getting government officials to join hands in helping marginalised communities.

We aim to respond to requests to dig deeper into what is happening in communities throughout the country, and we will work alongside willing public servants and the social justice movement.

We shall tell the stories of ordinary men, women, and children who tell us the state has forgotten them. In strengthening activism for corruption-free redress in the land sector, we shall mobilise and inform communities of their land rights and what means to combat land corruption are available to them. DM

Melusi Ncala is a senior researcher at Corruption Watch.

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