Families go hungry – land reform to blame?

They received over 2 000ha from land reform, but the inhabitants of the Muden area are still going hungry. James Martin consolidates research from the International Land Coalition showing how over-complicated, under-delivering systems let them down – and suggests ways to streamline the land reform process.
Issue date : 13 March 2009

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They received over 2 000ha from land reform, but the inhabitants of the Muden area are still going hungry. James Martin consolidates research from the International Land Coalition showing how over-complicated, under-delivering systems let them down – and suggests ways to streamline the land reform process.

Muden is situated in a fertile but dry valley near Greytown, KZN. Families living on five farms in the area – Mission, Lonsdale, Luneberg, Scheepersdaal and Golden Valley – were among the first to receive land through South Africa’s land reform programme, amounting to 205ha suitable for crops and 1 940ha suitable for grazing.

But even though the 350 families housed on the five farms are landowners, most of their domestic income comes from social grants. Ninety-four of the families were interviewed in 2007, as part of an International Land Coalition (ILC)-funded project, which concludes in 2009. Only six have enough food for the whole month, and 80% to 90% live off less than R1 000 per month. In an average family of 6,5 people, that’s R4,96 per person per day.

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Despite their poverty, many households don’t have food gardens. Mission has 150ha suitable for crops, 900ha suitable for grazing and 145 homesteads, but 17 of the 25 respondents there don’t have gardens. Only four of the 17 homesteads on Golden Valley were using theirs. Families rely heavily on borrowing food from each other.

Authority figures
One matter blocking progress is the number of authority structures: the chief, the community trust, the elected councillor and the non-profit Zibambeleni Community Development Organisation. As their jurisdictions overlap, matters aren’t dealt with, developmental projects don’t happen, infrastructure crumbles and the environment is degraded. Political allegiances also hamper development and support.
It’s virtually impossible to maintain a common focus amongst this sort of extreme poverty, mistrust and conflicting interests.
Instead, families stop engaging in community affairs and take what they can from the environment.

Business plans
Farm business plans and governmental developmental plans haven’t materialised. For a farm to be handed to a community trust, legislation requires a business plan to be drafted. All the farms in Muden have pockets of land with undeveloped commercial potential. Luneberg has potential for 23ha of crops and 320ha of grazing while Scheepersdaal has potential for 10ha of crops and 220ha of grazing.

Mission, with 150ha of prime arable land and a canal system, first rented its land to a neighbouring white farmer and then to a community group. Both arrangements failed. Even with high-potential land looking on an irrigation scheme, people will go hungry unless there are coherent institutional structures and state support.
At Golden Valley, the infrastructure for a nursery is ignored. Only two families have enough food each month, 89% of families live on less than R1 000 per month and a chicken project promised by the Department of Agriculture has yet to materialise. Pecan nut farming is well-suited to the valley, yet Lonsdale’s pecan orchard was chopped down for firewood.

Muden remains a highly productive area, with a few white-owned commercial farms among the community-owned ones, but small-scale farmers can’t compete and there’s no incentive to produce commercially. It’s questionable whether the tenure provided by land reform can be considered either secure or desirable. While it provides people with a roof over their heads, but stomachs are hungry, families have been split in the search for jobs, neighbours fight over resources, land has degraded, health services are expensive to reach, and the authority under which the community operates is unpredictable.

What should we do differently?
National government must review current economic policies and regulate agricultural imports and exports. Small-scale farmers can’t survive in the commercial spiral in which established farmers barely cope.
Land reform can’t be implemented in a fragmented manner, across departments. There should be no clear division between the planning, implementation, capacity development and settlement processes, or between pre- and post-settlement. Land reform must be approached as the driver of rural economic development and a means of redressing past imbalances. This requires economic policy review and institutional and technical support. People must be incentivised to grow crops and practice sustainable farming.The grant system needs to be more creative. Large farms, with huge capital and technical requirements, are certain to fail. A lead agency must take responsibility for the entire implementation process.
The Restitution Commission and the Provincial Land Reform Office must be one unit.
Livelihoods must become a part of the objectives and evaluation criteria. As a benchmark for delivery, state officials should be measured on a combination of hectares transacted and livelihoods affected. Effective land reform requires that land must be made useful or productive, although this doesn’t necessarily mean “commercially competitive”.

Commercial, communal and livelihood farming on community-owned farms must be separated within the business plans and implemented and supported differently, post-transfer. Individual support at homestead level is important.Where commercial opportunities exist, they should be removed from the community’s operations and housed in a separate, arms-length enterprise which is free to trade and partner. The broader community must agree on the institutional/authority structure before the land transaction is signed off. Without effective changes, the land reform process will continue to disappoint those most affected by it, and instead provide jobs for those propping up a flawed system. – Robyn Joubert

James Martin, who works under the International Land Coalition, has written in his personal capacity.     |fw