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South Africa: Cool Heads Needed in Land Reform Debate

South Africa: Cool Heads Needed in Land Reform Debate
White settlers still control the vast majority of South Africa’s land and economy

AFRICANGLOBE – It is time for a clear perspective on the emotive issue of land reform in South Africa. Only if we cut through the disinformation, bad analysis and political opportunism can we approach consensus and make the progress we need to make.

Just in the past few weeks the waters were again muddied by the Afrikanerbond’s grossly insensitive, offensive and ahistorical analysis of land ownership and reform; former president Thabo Mbeki’s condonation of the violent land grabs in Zimbabwe; and ANC MP and chief Mandla Mandela’s renewed threats that commercial farms would be expropriated.

Mbeki’s statement came as a surprise. Speaking at the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute at Unisa on August 23, Mbeki said he had engaged Robert Mugabe years ago to discourage the way land was redistributed in Zimbabwe. And then Mbeki added: “But fortunately the Zimbabweans didn’t listen to us, they went ahead.”

If the ANC and the government could for once paint a true, clear picture of agrarian reform and land redistribution, a lot of the heat around the issue would dissipate and we could proceed sensibly and with better focus.

Nineteen years after liberation, the 1913 figures of 87 percent land in white hands and 13 percent in black hands are still bandied about. It is completely wrong.

The total surface area of South Africa is 122 081 300ha. Cities, towns and municipal commonage make up 8 percent of that – the eight metropolitan areas account for just 2 percent of the land, but are home to 37 percent of the total population. Another 10 percent is owned by national or provincial departments: conservation areas, military, police and prisons, schools, hospitals, etc. Communal land represents 15 percent.

Which leaves 67 percent to privately owned commercial farmland, until 1994 owned almost exclusively by whites. That has since changed substantially. The figure already includes farms transferred to black owners or groups through the redistribution and restitution programmes. Minister Gugile Nkwinti told Parliament early this year that 4 813 farms had been transferred to new black owners between 1994 and January 2013. It translates into 4 123 million hectares benefiting 231 000 people.

An unknown but probably substantial number of commercial farms have also been bought privately by black farmers and black-owned companies, like those associated with Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale.

Giving land to new black farmers has been a painfully slow process, but land restitution, the handing back of land to people who had previously been forcibly removed, has progressed well. But it also skewed the figures – of the 80 000 land restitution claims received by 1998, only 5 856 preferred land, the rest preferred cash payouts, totalling R6 billion. But farmland is not just farmland, and this is where the numbers game the government is playing makes little sense. A thousand hectares of fertile land with good rainfall are simply not equal to a thousand hectares of arid, undeveloped land such as the Northern Cape.

The government keeps on blaming the principle of willing buyer, willing seller. I agree that it should never be an impediment. But it is far from clear that this policy was responsible for the slow progress of land reform.

White settlers have begun to make contingency plans just encase South Africans decide to seize back their land

Here is the astonishing truth: the amount of money spent on land reform since 1994 could have bought 37 percent of all commercial farmland at market value, 7 percent more than the government’s yet unmet target. So, even if the state had been forced to use the willing buyer, willing seller guideline and never expropriated any land, we would have been well beyond the target for land redistribution by now if the money spent had been used properly. The only conclusion: billions must have been lost through bureaucratic bungling, bad management and corruption.

It is time South Africans clearly understood the distinction between the need for successful and productive agrarian reform and the political, symbolic need felt by the black communities to see a reversal of the dispossession of land during the colonial and apartheid eras.

Smallholder farms are part of the solution, but the cold facts tell us that food security will always depend on large-scale commercial farming, which is a capital-intensive and risky business.

The government needs to be politically brave to change the 18 023 102ha of communal land into private ownership to make it more productive.

Unlike Zimbabwe or anywhere else in southern Africa, almost two-thirds of South Africans live in cities and towns. To these people, home ownership is more crucial.

We should guard against the hotheads on all sides of the debate and methodically get on with this important task. The National Development Plan’s proposal to form local bodies of stakeholders in every district to identify and transfer 20 percent of land to emerging black farmers and then for commercial farmers to provide them with support is the way to go.


By: Max Du Preez

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