Moos case shows up government failures

The Department of Rural Development and Land Affairs seems determined to evict emerging farmer Veronica Moos. Meanwhile, the case is showing up government policies that consistently doom emerging farmers to failure.
Issue date : 03 July 2009

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The Department of Rural Development and Land Affairs seems determined to evict emerging farmer Veronica Moos. Meanwhile, the case is showing up government policies that consistently doom emerging farmers to failure.

Emerging farmer Veronica Moos has won a great victory for ordinary citizens whose rights have been trampled on by powerful politicians. Last month, the North Gauteng High Court ruled she should be returned to her farm.
The ruling demonstrated that our judiciary is independent from the executive and has no need to curry favour with anyone from the president and cabinet ministers down. But this makes it all the more worrisome and puzzling why the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform decided to launch fresh eviction proceedings against Moos on 17 June.

The High Court had found Moos’s eviction unlawful, and ordered that she be returned to her 21ha farm in eastern Gauteng. According to Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), the public interest law firm that handled her case, former land and agriculture minister Lulama Xingwana’s role in the eviction was “sinister and high-handed”. It’s not hard to see why.

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Xingwana, who now heads the arts and culture department, had just launched her controversial “use it lose it” campaign. She declared that emerging farmers leasing unproductive state-owned farms be booted off to make way for more energetic cultivators.

A few days later, Xingwana arrived unannounced at Moos’s farm to tell her live-in caretaker to pack his bags, despite being unable to produce an eviction order, as required by law. Moos was served a notice terminating her lease, accused of violating its terms by subletting her farm and failing to show sufficient commitment to farming.
A few days later Xingwana arrived again, media in tow, and made a show of turning soil sods and opening irrigation taps, publicly accusing Moos of making a mockery of land reform. Moos was told to vacate the farm, along with her labourer and goats. According to Moos, Xingwana’s armed bodyguard demanded the keys.

A too-common story
For Moos, the whole episode brought back bitter memories of her family’s forced removal from District Six by the apartheid government. Luckily, unlike under apartheid when the executive regularly interfered with the judiciary, especially when it came to protecting the rights of black South Africans, the court considered the legal and constitutional merits of Moos’s case, and declared Xingwana out of line.
In papers submitted to the court, Moos painted a convincing picture of someone doing her best to become a commercial farmer but being tripped up by red tape and bureaucratic inefficiency at every step.

Relying on promises she could take occupation in March 2007, she resigned from her parastatal job in February, forfeiting a nett salary of R25 000/month. Her allocation letter took six more months to arrive. Moos’s immediate hurdle was finding funds for improvements and farming operations. Because she’d been allocated the farm under the Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy (Plas), she was forced to lease the land from the state instead of being able to own it outright.

This was government’s response to complaints the pace of land reform was too slow because officials sat back and waited for land grant applications to trickle in, rather than redistributing land themselves.Moos’s lease was therefore her only proof of legal tenure when approaching banks, cooperatives or food manufacturers for production credit. But more than a year of badgering failed to move officials to provide her with a valid lease to sign.

This left her entirely dependant on handouts from the state to keep her farm going. Again, promises of support were not honoured. Initially told she qualified for a R935 000 grant, this was scaled down to R200 000. And in typical nanny state fashion, this grant wasn’t paid out directly. Beneficiaries must submit three quotes for each item needed. The department then selects and pays the contractor. The quotes, including for a security system, typically lapsed by the time they were approved. Services supplied were substandard. Rentals, set at 5% of the land value, are also hopelessly high. A poultry farmer I met is being charged R250 000 a year for her farm, bought for R5 million as a going concern. Her business plan was premised on high demand and prices for poultry products. With the economic downturn, she’s going under because she can’t afford her state rentals.

Out of desperation, Moos started dipping into her pension fund to buy seedlings, irrigation equipment, goats, broiler chicks, fencing and farm inputs and equipment. Two burglaries, thanks to the department’s failure to secure the property, left her to pay for replacement copper cables, tools and appliances.
Because she no longer felt secure sleeping at the farm with her handicapped daughter, she asked a white neighbour’s relative to share her homestead. This, together with her inability to flourish against all odds, brought the wrath of Xingwana on her head.

Fixing the system
Moos’s saga should not obscure the fact there is nothing intrinsically wrong with either Plas or the “use it or lose it” principle. Under Plas, officials are supposed to sit around the table with municipal officers, estate agents and representatives of farmers unions and landless workers, tenants or squatters. The idea is to identify land available on the open market and establish local land needs. Government then buys farms and leases them to suitable beneficiaries, who can apply for grants to become outright owners. It sensibly reserves the right to cancel leases of unproductive emerging farmers, or those who sublet the properties, rather than getting down to the hard work of farming themselves.

But several flaws immediately became apparent. For a start, because it helped show on paper that land redistribution was speeding up, Plas incentivised officials to go on farm-buying sprees before actually identifying beneficiaries. Secondly, by giving emerging farmers short leases of three years, the department made it difficult for them to gain access to production credit, effectively leaving them dependent on handouts and support from notoriously inefficient provincial land and agriculture departments.

A positive outcome of the department’s decision to try to restart eviction proceedings against Moos is that the LHR is now preparing a case against the entire Plas policy. Hopefully this will lead to much needed reforms. Emerging farmers must be given leases that last at least 10 years, charged nominal rental during the start-up phase of their businesses, and get to appoint their own contractors. Officials must be incentivised to provide efficient support and fired if they don’t.

Unfortunately these reforms will come too late for Moos. After sinking her life savings into her farm, she risks losing everything because the department would rather save face than confront its own mistakes. Stephen Hofstätter is contributing editor. E-mail [email protected].     |fw