‘Farmers know that land reform is a priority’

Ernest Pringle, head of Agri SA’s Development Council and outgoing president of Agri Eastern Cape, says that farmers accept land reform to be a prime concern, but judging by the national budget, government does not. He spoke to Nan Smith.

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What is your background and how does it help you to serve as the new head of the development council at Agri SA?
I farm sheep and cattle in the Eastern Cape and my family has been on the same farm for nearly 200 years. I believe this puts me in touch with farmers and issues of land ownership, and I know what has to be dealt with on the ground. My academic background equipped me to practise law and has, I hope, given me some insight into the mechanics of how the law of the country works.

Do you believe the country is economically stable and does this have a bearing on land reform?
The government appears to be running into a financial crisis. RW Johnson in his book How long will South Africa survive? notes that this country is one notch away from being downgraded to junk bond status. If this happens, says Johnson, there could be a massive capital outflow because of funding regulations that prevent investment in countries with junk bond ratings.
This has serious implications for the ruling party and it needs to rally supporters now, more than ever.

The ANC’s actions will have a direct bearing on stability, which will have a knock-on effect for successful land reform. The farming sector cannot be expected to pay for government to carry out land reform, it is simply too expensive. At this stage, we are left asking just who is going to pay for land reform. Ultimately, land reform must be financed by government through the tax-paying public. Farmers will help, but we need some ground rules, some kind of plan. The agricultural sector needs decision-making power to ensure positive progress.

Do you see positive results coming out of negotiations between organised agriculture and government on issues that have a profound impact on agriculture?

We seem to get only an inkling of what upper echelon ANC politicians want. Sometimes their reasoning seems sound and negotiation possible, but often, it seems to depend on a political whim. This is the reason farmers don’t know where they stand and why they wait for government to make a statement that will give some direction. The farmers of South Africa will help to carry out land reform but we need it to be practical; we need recommendations and policies that can actually be implemented.

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How do you see land reform moving forward?
Land reform could have been much further down the road by this stage if government had acted on the National Development Plan (NDP). As it is, vast amounts of money have been paid out on projects that have failed miserably and resulted only in an appalling waste of money. Using the principles outlined in the NDP would be a far better way to tackle land reform, but the politicians in power seem to be paying lip-service to the NDP.

For example, the policy of the NDP is outlined when setting up the District Land Committees (DLCs), but its guidelines are not followed. Instead of DLCs being made up mainly of farmers, only three of the 13 representative organisations with DLC votes end up coming from the agricultural sector. It has to be acknowledged that participation can give organisations legitimacy.

The DLCs can go ahead and earmark 2% of land in various districts for land reform, as long as the commercial farming sector is recognised as a key player. Farmers know which farms are available in their areas, they know where the greatest potential lies, and they know which prices are value for money.

With 60% of agricultural land in South Africa being in arid areas, our farmland has to be carefully managed by skilled operators, to ensure financially viability. It is quite clear from the national budget that government is not prioritising land reform. But commercial farmers know that land reform is a priority, because if it doesn’t work, commercial farmers will be threatened anyway. It’s not the commercial farmers who are living in the past.

What new developments have there been in the direction government is taking with transformation in agriculture?
At the moment, government is enthusiastic about the rollout of the agri-parks for smallholder farmers, a plan smelling suspiciously like something of Cuban origin, with these farmers concentrated around agri-hubs. Of course, smallholdings won’t work in low-rainfall areas, so high-rainfall areas must be selected because water will be critical.

There are some questions that should be asked here. Is government going to give smallholder farmers title deeds to their land? Will agricultural land currently running as a going concern be cut up to accommodate smallholder farmers?

Traditional farmers were nomadic, moving on as grass supply dictated. Unfortunately, this model is no longer workable
and static farming populations, growing bigger by the day, will soon strip the resource. Traditional methods vest ownership in the chiefs and central government, which means that the agenda will not be driven by agricultural sense, but by individuals with their own needs, or a party that wants votes, or both.

To avoid this, smallholder farmers need ownership of their land. The system of land transfer that was used earlier by government transferred land into the hands of the claimants who could either sell it, farm it, or manage it in a way that worked to their financial advantage. This is the nature of a free market system in which government does not dictate to land owners. Failing this, we have a communist system which is a proven failure the world over.

What are the priorities for land reform?
I think a more rational approach is our best hope of making sure that reform carries on as painlessly as possible. Taking a firm stand on property rights is absolutely vital, even while we undergo land reform. I believe that the Constitution will stand because to scrap it will upend the system. The rules for urban and rural societies are very different.

If communal agriculture is not properly handled in reform programmes, the urban areas will be flooded with an increasingly despairing, poverty-stricken and hungry population, and rather than an agricultural, rural problem, we will have an urban problem, and a very serious one. As head of the development committee, I have every intention of doing my job properly while representing commercial farmers, and I believe Agri SA is on the right track.

You are said to be a South African authority on butterflies and have published several books on the topic, as well as described a number of species. How did you cultivate this passion?
My father, a great naturalist, opened a door to the insect world for me before I went to school. At the time there were very few books on insects but he had a book on butterflies which I could use for identification. It’s an endlessly fascinating interest that helps to give me some balance in my life.

Phone Ernest Pringle on 046 685 0710 or 072 297 7846, or email him at [email protected]