Why security of tenure is vital

Laziness in communities and incompetence in government are driving farmers off the land.

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A few weeks ago, Farmer’s Weekly ran the story of Abram Motlhabane, a small-scale Bonsmara breeder in the Northam area on the border of North West and Limpopo. Abram is an enterprising farmer who has had a great deal of success with his cattle; since starting his feedlot, he has entered eight Samic carcass competitions and won every single one.

It seemed clear to me that Abram had a bright future. That is, until a few days ago, when I received an SMS from a mutual friend to tell me that Abram had been kicked off the farm he had been leasing from the Ba-Phalane community. (The farm had earlier been returned to the Ba-Phalane community as restitution.) Initially, Abram had had access to the entire 800ha farm.

When I visited him recently, however, he told me that the community had reduced this to about 300ha, and mentioned how uncomfortable he felt. “They can kick me out anytime for no reason,” he said. Now it had finally happened. After I received the SMS, I phoned Abram to find out more, and learnt that he had been given just two weeks to vacate the farm.

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In desperation, he said, he had inquired about leasing a farm from government but had given up in disgust after being asked for a R50 000 bribe. And it seems that the Ba-Phalane community too has a perverted sense of morality. According to Abram, they explained that the reason for cancelling his lease was that they wanted to use the land. Yet this is extremely unlikely.

They have never farmed the 500ha which was left when they reduced Abram’s leased portion to 300ha. And they are content to continue leasing additional land that they own across the road to a commercial farmer. So, why do they want to get rid of Abram? The reason, it appears, is pure jealousy. Here is a small-scale black farmer who is successful and stands out due to his work ethic. This, it seems, is too much for the community to tolerate.

A tenuous future
If Abram does not succeed in finding a suitable farm within a fortnight, he will have only two options. The first will be to take his herd to communal lands. This, however, would severely compromise his operation. He has spent years building up an award-winning Bonsmara stud; it will be impossible to run this properly on unfenced communal lands. In effect, Abram would be going right back to where he started years ago – a situation he left precisely because he wanted to start farming commercially.

The second option will be to sell his herd and give up farming. This would be a tragedy not only for Abram, but for the country – for here is the loss of yet another farmer. It seems that South Africa’s land reform process is causing the loss not only of white commercial farmers but black smallholder farmers too!

Of course, theoretically, the Ba-Phalane can farm on their land, but so far they haven’t displayed the slightest interest in doing so. And we may have lost a productive small-scale farmer in the process. It is government’s responsibility to make sure we don’t lose farmers like Abram – by making sure that they place the right people on farms, and give them proper security of tenure.