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South Africa’s land obsession

By Fabienne Pompey
Posted on Monday, 23 November 2009 15:57

New delays in the land reform process demonstrate that the ‘willing

buyer, willing seller’ model of redistribution has not offered

government a quick fix, nor met the expectations of commercial farmers

and dispossessed rural communities

Will South Africa be the next Zimbabwe? This persistent question has until recently mainly been the worry of white farmers, panicked by the winds of reform. “Yes, we are obsessed, actually. People out there, they really talk about justice and redress and, at some point, you can see that this is an area that has a great potential for polarisation in South Africa. You have seen it happen elsewhere – next door,” said Gugile Nkwinti, the minister of rural development and land reform in early November.

For Nkwinti, making reform an “obsession” is the best way to avoid the “land grabbing” which ravaged the Zimbabwean economy. He wants to do more, and better. Even if the government players involved don’t express it publicly, up until now the redistribution of land has been a failure.

The democratically-elected government inherited a particularly unjust system where the white minority – making up about 10% of the population – controlled 90% of arable land. White farmers also benefited from a system of state support which opened the doors to banks. These farmers had another advantage too, an inexpensive and ?dispossessed labour force.

Few have called into question the legitimacy of current reforms, the goals of which are to correct past injustices. A programme developed in 1992 and supported by the World Bank aimed to transfer 30% of arable land – some 24.6m hectares – into black hands by 2014. Governments since then have maintained the same targets.

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The first transfers were conducted within the framework of redistributing land seized under the apartheid regime. Until 1998, the procedure allowed rural communities to file petitions to reclaim territory. With lengthy examinations of the petitions, hundreds of conflicts to resolve and fair prices to determine, the process was long and entangled in the twists and turns of administrations that were not always effective.

For its part, the state accused farmers of claiming inflated prices for their property in order to make the transactions fail. The owners said they were asking a fair price for the land, considering the investments they had made. With this deadlock in mind and before the ruling party’s Polokwane conference in 2007, authorities began calling into question the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ model and started discussions on new legislation to allow for land expropriations. However, the government announced in November that the 2014 deadline would have to be pushed back to 2025, due to the difficulties in obtaining land and the lack of state funds to facilitate purchases.

More than 15 years after the end of apartheid, the land-reform process is still way off the mark. According to official statistics, less than 7% of arable land has changed hands. Half the farms are considered bankrupt, not developed or – in the best cases – subdivided into small plots to grow market vegetables.Properties which tended to support three or four families of white farmers and groups of agricultural workers were often allocated to village groupings of hundreds of people. Farm management has deteriorated from a lack of leadership, organisation or discipline. The transition from growing market crops, which requires gardening skills, to commercial farming, which requires money, technology and know-how, has not been smooth.

A lack of financing is a major ?obstacle. New farmers do not have easy access to the banking system and those who succeed in obtaining funds often find themselves unable to make repayments. The Land Bank, which was supposed to ensure that credit was given to new farmers, is now at the centre of a corruption scandal. There has also been a rise in client bankruptcies and at least 283 new farmers are unable to pay back their loans. The Treasury had to refill the Land Bank’s coffers with R3.5bn ($469m) this June, almost all of which will be used to support black farmers, agricultural reform and the creation of jobs. In addition to the Land Bank scandal, the Sunday Times revealed in October that R100m had disappeared from the AgriBEE (Black Economic Empowerment) Fund and had been used to purchase luxury homes and vehicles.

According to minister Nkwinti, the state has so far spent $800m. “The ?biggest problem is there is no real vision as to what it is they want to achieve with land reform,” says Karen Kleinbooi, a member of the Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape.

The government under President Jacob Zuma, perhaps more so than that of former President Thabo Mbeki, is ?under pressure from the left wing of the ruling African National Congress and the unions, who are calling for more rapid reforms. In attempting to ?address the injustices of the past by going back to the status quo ante, the African ?National Congress has taken an enormous risk: that of slowly destroying a fairly successful agro-industrial sector without satisfying the mass of people who were cast off the land.

While waiting for the progress of ?reforms, more than 80% of South ?Africa’s commercial farmers are left in limbo. Unsure whether they will be able to farm their land in years to come, many are rethinking their investments. AgriSA, the most important agricultural union, has recently been on the hunt for land outside South Africa.

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