Land reform: time for farmers to get real

Can South Africa go the same way as Zimbabwe, even by default? If land reform is conducted in South Africa without a structured process of expertise transfer, we could go the same way as Zimbabwe; except for the fact that we could be confronted by an accelerated process of collapse
Issue date 24 August 2007

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Can South Africa go the same way as Zimbabwe, even by default? If land reform is conducted in South Africa without a structured process of expertise transfer, we could go the same way as Zimbabwe; except for the fact that we could be confronted by an accelerated process of collapse. Judging by the media, the “Zim way” is mainly about refugees across our borders, fuel and food shortages and an authoritarian political system.

But it is far more complex than that. There is more or less a common agreement that Zim’s downturn started in 2000 with land reform. The big news item has been that thousands of white commercial farmers were removed from their farms. Land reform – actually more a transfer of land – has been very successful. However, no transfer of expertise and capabilities took place. The land is still there; but no expertise. This is the major reason why Zim collapsed. It is no longer a functional state. Some areas in rural South Africa are already ungovernable; services have collapsed and some districts are difficult to farm on. Will the situation ever normalise, or will it simply get worse? Defining the problem is the major challenge.

A quick-fix answer is often given: government must provide more police in the countryside. Again, the reality is much more complex. What is emerging within the broader society, and not only within agriculture, is a political system where government has become unable to project its political power. There is a lack of capabilities between parliament and the pavement of society. This is not a land problem; it is a political problem and is expected to deteriorate even further. That is why it is critical for commercial agriculture to reassess the current problem. T he land reform target seems unrealistic and unattainable, yet remains government policy. What will happen if it does not materialise? A commentator recently stated that land reform is the key to democracy in this country. Land reform has a direct political connection to democracy and the future of South Africa, and is part of the stated vision of government. Government will, therefore, enforce the policy until all sources have been exhausted, which will cause a lot of destruction to the industry.

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A re there sufficient numbers of suitable emerging farmers who will be able to learn and establish themselves as productive producers in time to meet the deadline? There has been a mix-up in perceptions since the agreement on the new strategic plan for agriculture in 2002. The subsistence farmers, new farmers and commercial farmers are all farmers, but this is where the similarity ends. They all need a place to farm and official acknowledgement, but they cannot be shifted from one position to another like pieces on a chess board. There is a structural and functional difference between them that cannot be unified by a political declaration. Commercial farming is increasingly tied to the international market by external and international rules and regulations. Anyone who doubts this can read the “From Farm to Fork” regulations of the EU.

The existing commercial farming industry will have a hard time dealing with the EU as new technology is introduced with the emphasis on food quality. Introduction into this new world cannot be accomplished with a few training sessions. It demands the formation of a new industry in South Africa. W hat effect will the land reform process (including land taxes and BEE) have on production and the rural economy? Land reform, and BEE for that matter, should not be confused with the possibility of increased production and rural economic growth. They are political policies. In contrast, increased production is a matter of management and expertise. It is not the primary objective of land reform and BEE to increase productivity. The BEE strategy is quite clear, namely to increase the share and number of black people in existing enterprises. Do you think there are political leaders who have their doubts about the land reform strategy? It is the nature of the political process that individual politicians stick to the party line. They may feel uncomfortable with the party line and even speak out against it, but will follow the official line when it comes to major decision-making.

Some farmers who have remained positive in recent years have scored – particularly those who have bought more land. Would you buy farming land in South Africa today? No. There are too many contradicting forces at work. The farmers who bought more land have scored in terms of their farming capabilities (expertise and skills). On the other hand, government has formulated policies and promulgated them into law in terms of its majority vote in parliament. There is a fundamental clash building up between the need for capabilities and the demands of the majority. The first will be settled in Europe and the second in Cape Town. At the moment, government favours an accelerated process of transformation regarding land reform.

The implication is that this clash will be pushed forward. Government demands could become more accentuated and policy failures much more dramatic and unmanageable. Does the South African consumer (or government for that matter) have any idea what could happen should the land reform process fail in terms of producing food and fueling the rural economy? In this regard government and consumers are sailing blind. A failure of land reform implies the possibility of decreased production, which is instigated by a lack of expertise with higher prices, fewer products and less variety in the shops. In common language this means food shortages. Failing land reform also implies fewer commercial farmers in the countryside. Job losses may follow, with a massive demographic shift from the rural areas to the small towns and further to the urban complexes.

The cities may come under massive pressure for water, sanitation, health services and housing as the countryside slowly collapses. Do big businesses have a role to play in helping the process – at the moment it’s as if the ball is in the court of the country’s hard-pressed commercial farmers? If the present trend of land reform continues unabated, there may come a time when many commercial farmers may decide to cease farming activities. That may leave a production vacuum in the market that could not be filled by new farmers.

This could be the phase when businesses enter the agricultural scene on a larger scale. And not only businesses, but commercial farmers organised in new structures. Do you have any positive ideas on the subject of land reform? Land reform has very little to do with agriculture. Commercial agriculture should realise this and focus on the pressing issues at hand. E-mail Dr du Plessis at [email protected]. |fw