‘Land a millstone around beneficiaries’ necks’

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According to CDE executive director Ann Bernstein, the country now faces two depressing scenarios: “nobody wins” or “everyone loses”.

“The future of South African commercial agriculture is now on the table,” said Bernstein. “economic viability of many regions of the country is under threat, which could lead to serious negative consequences for the broader economy and society.

 And all this is happening in the midst of a global rise in food and commodity prices.”
Bernstein said this inefficiency and lack of capacity by the Department of Land Affairs (DLA) to resolve land claims speedily was leading to “large swathes of agricultural land being frozen”, which prevented aspirant farmers from accessing loans and disallowed them from investing in improvements or the following year’s crop. “Time is running out,” said researcher Jeff McCarthy. “Farming is a long-term investment and the longer claims take to finalise, the greater the damage to the crop and the beneficiaries.”

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Bernstein added that even the director-general of Land Affairs had said that with 50% of land reform projects failing, “assets were dying in the hands of the poor”. Poor post-settlement support by government, and failure to clarify whether beneficiaries wanted the land to farm or to live on, were two of the reasons for the large percentage of failures, according to Bernstein. “Instead of being a tool to uplift the poor, the land becomes a millstone around the beneficiaries’ necks,” she said.

She added that the definition of land as a general resource also needed to be addressed, saying that the country could not afford to have prime agricultural land in the hands of people who had no intention of farming it. She also suggested that a rural economic policy be created that would allow rural learners to attend agricultural colleges or study maths, science and languages to enable them to become professionals.

The scapegoats
According to Bernstein, white farmers and the market have been blamed for holding up the restitution process. “But leading companies and many individuals pioneered voluntary land reform long before it became official government policy and today, the private sector’s positive role in land issues is bigger than it ever was.”

“This important sector is being prevented from playing the active and constructive role that’s essential for successful transformation of agriculture, mainly because of the lack of capacity in the DLA and the stalled restitution process,” she said. “Current approaches are not helping to establish a new foundation for development in our long-neglected poorest rural areas.”

The CDE’s report, which requires partnerships between government, business and agribusiness, is being submitted to the Presidency and it remains to be seen if there will be a positive shift in policy. “Policy is neglecting the realities of commercial agriculture,” said Bernstein, adding that some of the resolutions reached by the ANC in Polokwane last year on the issue of land reform were “radical”, including the proposed review of the willing-buyer, willing-seller principle in order to speed up the equitable distribution of land.

“Above all, we need to change the way we think and talk about land reform,” Bernstein stressed. “We need to move away from Zimbabwe-style terminology.”

The way forward
In order to get back on track with land reform, the CDE proposes the establishment of a “talented, action-oriented partnership”, which will include senior leaders in government, the ANC and the private sector. This task team will have its own budget and will be required to report its progress on land issues to parliament every six months, as well as address the following:An urgent national effort involving business is needed to speedily resolve the bottleneck on restitution.

An immediate authoritative study has to be conducted on the location, current usage and potential for redistribution of government land.Large pieces of land for urban and rural needs must be redistributed once it’s been established where people want the land and for what purpose (therefore matching supply with demand).
South Africa’s best farms, some 500 to 600, need to be protected to ensure that the country retains its ability to produce food and earn on exports.

Rural poverty must be tackled directly by establishing a blue-ribbon commission that’s funded by the private sector, as well as international donors. A dedicated education fund of R1 billion per year of state money must be created for rural learners.

Relationships in land reform
Since 2004, commercial banks have funded twice as many financing models for land transactions as the state.The CDE estimates that the true extent of land transferred from white to black is now close to 6,8% of commercial agricultural land. This means that an area equivalent to 40% of state-transferred land has been bought by blacks on the open market.

Large-scale BEE transactions by land-based organisations have created black ownership of parts of the agri-processing value chain, such as timber.
The CDE identified 50 projects in which existing farmers support new farmers who have benefited from the settlement of land claims, or from land redistribution. The confirmed that there were at least 15 similar major corporate investment initiatives in existence. – David Steynberg.
To read the full CDE report, visit www.cde.org.za.