Dealing with farmers’ fears

In general, white commercial farmers are not against the principle of land reform but have serious concerns about the way in which it is implemented
Issue date 14 September 2007

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In general, white commercial farmers are not against the principle of land reform but have serious concerns about the way in which it is implemented. There are too many uncertainties regarding key aspects. Still, the impression has been created that land reform is seriously being delayed as too many farmers are unwilling to cooperate. Trying to grasp the fears and trauma of these farmers and handling them with empathy rather than with threats would help to drive matters more smoothly. Going backwards to go forward One should understand what effect the trashing of most of the highly productive, well-developed commercial farms that have been bought out over the last 40 years (for the settlement of mainly small-scale farmers) has had on the perceptions of any commercial farmer whose property is earmarked for redistribution.

The dominant picture is one of destruction – homesteads being stripped, infrastructure being demolished and sold as scrap, productive orchards being allowed to die and then used for firewood and rangeland being degraded. This trend actually started with farms that were bought out for homeland consolidation during apartheid but has continued in the current land reform programme. Considering the above, farmers who declare that they will not sell their farms simply mean that they are not prepared to hand over an asset that their families have built up over generations, just to see everything go to ruin. W here there is a willing seller there can surely be no obstacle to buying the land and redistributing it. That’s why a clear undertaking by government to first buy up all farms that are available for sale from willing sellers, before pressuring reluctant or unwilling sellers, would speed up the process, ensure that more land can be bought and enhance the cooperation of commercial farmers.

This would also help maintain higher productivity of SA’s scarce farmland and improve food security. It would also mean much to farmers if government does not only target privately owned family farms for expropriation if the goal of 30% cannot be reached by purchasing from willing sellers. To be fair, the vast areas of farmland owned by mines, big financial institutions and foreigners should be included in the pool. But big companies and foreigners could quickly squash any possible suggestion of expropriating their land by arguing that such action could damage international investor confidence. It would further improve cooperation from commercial farmers if government gets serious about settling and developing black farmers on the grossly under-utilised, good-quality, non-tribal agricultural land in the former homelands, especially farms that were bought out during apartheid as well as degraded irrigation schemes not yet earmarked for revitalisation.

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This would prove that the state wishes to establish a productive black agricultural sector and alleviate rural poverty – and that land redistribution is just one facet of an overall plan to achieve these objectives. An inconvenient truth One forgets that for some white farmers this may be the second time a farm they have built up is about to be bought out. The first time was during the homeland consolidation era when some farmers relocated to areas from which black communities were removed as part of the same process. That land was invariably underdeveloped – such as Tsitsikamma, which was subsequently turned into productive dairy farms by white farmers from the Balfour-Seymour area. In land redistribution cases the land in question has been in a family for several generations – as far back as before the 1850s in the Eastern or Western Cape and the late 1800s in the Free State and former Transvaal. these families this is the land of their fathers, built up from nothing, where they lived and buried their loved ones.

Had the land reform process been actively pursued in a manner conducive to creating a viable, productive commercial black agricultural sector, commercial farmers would be less sceptical about it. To complicate matters, instead of starting the buyouts with land that is readily available – and so could be bought quickly and without hassles from willing sellers – specific farms were targeted by willing buyers and/or government. It’s wrong to write off less attractive, less developed farms that come on the market as being bad investments. Such farms may have as high or higher inherent potential than the highly developed ones. The difference may be due to differences in the vision and management skills of the respective owners. – Roelof Bezuidenhout Prof Laker is author of The Development of a General Strategy for Optimising the Efficient use of Primary Water Resources for Effective Alleviation of Rural Poverty ([email protected]). |fw