The Vumelana Advisory Fund, a non-profit organisation that helps communities in the land reform programme to develop their land post-settlement, has welcomed the progress made so far in efforts to pass the new Land Court Bill.
The Bill has been sent by the minister of justice and correctional services, Mr Ronald Lamola, to the National Assembly for consideration, and is aimed at speeding up outstanding land restitution claims.
Peter Setou, chief executive of the Vumelana Advisory Fund, points out that a coherent policy, guiding legal framework and capable institutions with clearly determined mandate are key to successful land reform. By contrast, the Land Claims Court is not appropriately resourced to deal with land claims and other land-related matters. “This has been one of the obstacles to speedy resolution of land claims,” he said.
The High-Level Motlanthe Report Panel Report and the Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform both argue for stronger judicial oversight over land claims, which will lead to better settlements, reduce the scope for corruption and avert the bundling of claims into dysfunctional mega-claims that lead to conflict.
As an example, a dedicated Land Court will ensure that the necessary feasibility assessments are conducted before a claim is settled, which is key to sustainable land reform.
Dedicated courts at High Court level
Setou highlights that civil society has for many years been advocating for changes to the Land Claims Court. The Presidential Advisory Panel had even recommended for the establishment of a National Land Rights Protector to manage higher-level conflict especially between the State and the citizens. In its response, however, Parliament felt that the expanded mandate of the Land Courts Bill should be able to address this recommendation.
“The promulgation of the bill will capacitate the Land Claims Court and expedite the resolution of outstanding land claims,” Setou says.
Currently the Land Claims Court is battling to deal with the backlog of old order land claims and this has left many land claimants disgruntled and frustrated. The backlog for land claims is attributed to the absence of permanent judges and insufficient staff capacity to process claims efficiently and timeously.
In addition, appeals against a ruling by the Land Claims Court can only be decided by the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), and those take a long time to finalise.
To address these issues, the Bill proposes abolishing the Land Claims Court and replacing it with a specialised Land Court and Land Court of Appeal with a limited lifespan to deal with claims for the restitution of land. The Land Court will be a High Court that has the authority, the legal powers and the standing in relation to matters under its jurisdiction, equal to that of a Division of the High Court of South Africa, in terms of the Superior Courts Act.
“Our view is that the passing of the Bill will be a step in the right direction, as it will facilitate the expeditious disposal of cases and contribute towards the development of appropriate jurisprudence in relation to land matters,” says Setou. “This development will promote equitable access to land which is necessary for the restoration of dignity and justice to thousands of communities who were forcibly removed from their ancestral land.”