SA land reform must focus on smallholders

Land reform models that rely on group or communal farming rarely work, according to Prof Hans Binswanger, extraordinary professor of the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Pretoria. He says SA must embrace plans that support development.

SA land reform must focus on smallholders
Prof Hans Binswanger
Photo: Denene Erasmus

What are SA’s biggest problems in delivering successful land reform?
The National Development Plan (NDP) is focussing on inclusive growth, but the trend of agricultural land reform has been towards smaller and smaller numbers of beneficiaries being given larger and larger grants. This has not contributed to much growth as many have failed, limiting the number of beneficiaries. There’s a crisis as the project is not contributing to the NDPS’s goals on inclusive growth. These require agriculture to create one million jobs for workers and smallholder farmers, and for the land transferred to them to contribute to growth.

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How should the approach to land reform change to ensure a better success rate of future projects?
There’s very little success to show from projects that have been implemented so far, so let’s not rush in with new blanket proposals.Let those with new ideas demonstrate them on a significant scale on municipal or district level, evaluate them and start wider implementation of the most successful models.

What do you see as the most appropriate model for land reform in SA?
There’s no question in my mind that future land reform programmes should, as the NDP suggests, include high- value commodities produced on irrigated lands by formerly disadvantaged groups. This, however, is not sufficient. The availability of water isn’t sufficient to create enough opportunities for farmers and workers in these areas. The programme must focus on establishing smallholder family-operated farms in both irrigated and dryland areas.

A family-operated farm relies primarily on its own labour and can be focused on household food production or commercial sale, or any combination in between. This model has been successful all over the world. People often say that if you focus on smallholders, the programmes will

not yield viable farms. But we forget that those people who stand to benefit from investment in smallholder farming often live below the poverty line. If we could bring a household living below the poverty line to a level of income twice that of the poverty line, it would be a great thing for that household. Such a household could then take advantage of that higher income and make sure that the children got access to better education so that they could go even further. This is ‘generating a livelihood’.

Can a household really subsist on the produce and income generated by smallholder farming?
Smallholder livelihoods all over the world do not just consist of farming. Even in the USA, there are more smallholder farms than large commercial farms, and they get the majority of their income from the non-farming sector. In SA, households have members who work in the cities or are employed elsewhere in rural areas. They might also receive a pension or grant income.
So when considering the potential for smallholder farming development, we shouldn’t think about farming viability, but household viability and increasing food sources for very poor rural households.

How will a land reform model aimed at supporting smallholder farmer development differ from the current approach?
What we have seen with land reform in SA is a focus almost entirely on commercial farming – that is understandable because this is what commercial farmers, technicians, politicians and people close to power are familiar with and would like to see.
On acquiring a commercial farm for land reform, 50 or however many beneficiaries have to be settled in a Communal Property Association.

The first priority is to ensure the going concern stays intact, so that group or co-operative farms can be formed. Or you let a few beneficiaries farm the land or involve a strategic partner. But international experience with group or co-operative farming where operations are carried out collectively is devastating. More than 20 years ago, the model was abandoned in all the land reform programmes around the world. Even 20 years ago, the literature was quite clear on the matter: co-operative or group farming is not a viable model for land reform. So SA has adopted a model proven to be unsuccessful.

Today we have many failed projects based on this commercially-oriented group farm model, and because of the failure of these farms to be commercially viable, most beneficiaries have left the farms and the intended outcome has clearly not been achieved. To remedy this, we now have the recapitalisation programme which a beneficiary can access if he or she has a business plan in place and a strategic partner or mentor to help implement this plan. But this still leaves the basic focus on maintaining the commercial farm intact.

In eDumbe in KwaZulu-Natal we used a different approach. The farmers’ association of eDumbe (Paulpietersburg) in the eDumbe Municipality helped over 6 000 beneficiaries, mostly farm workers and restitution beneficiaries, to get organised into beneficiary groups. Farmers then offered 64 portions of land for redistribution and beneficiaries. Farmers were then given the opportunity to say what they would like to see happen to the land.

Beneficiary groups were matched with the portions of land best suited to their needs. Most groups used the land to allocate individual house plots with gardens and portions of arable land. Pastures were used communally as grazing land. Because the beneficiaries acquired a portion of the land instead of the whole farm, they could plan from the start what they wanted to do with their piece.

On the rest of the farm, commercial farming activities could continue undisturbed without the risk of collapse. This type of model allows beneficiaries to take the driver’s seat – they decide their own fate, assisted by experts. A smaller pilot was established and had been successful in the Besters District. eDumbe project could not be completed as when a new minister was appointed to the land reform portfolio, funding for the project stopped due to budgetary constraints.

Since the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR) now intends to run new pilot projects, it would be possible to open up that pilot again and complete the job. But this does not have to be the only pilot in KZN or in the country. This is not the only way, but one example. There are many people with good ideas.

Do you think it is important to give land reform beneficiaries ownership of land?
It is possible to give them long-term leases, but for the purposes of getting access to credit I think it will be better to transfer ownership, giving the beneficiaries title deeds.

Judging with the knowledge of your experience in the field of land reform, do you believe it was necessary for SA to make mistakes and will there be more errors made before a successful model is found?
We all expected 20 years ago that mistakes would be made – within a very good policy and constitutional framework.
The question is: did it have to last for 20 years? The other question is: have the lessons been learnt and will they lead to changes?

What is your answer to that? Are the mistakes that were made leading to changes?
Let’s hope so. They have to be changes for the better, because there is now so much experience that in many cases it should be possible to predict what will happen. In the approval process of pilots, which will be financed by government, I would hope they set up criteria to exclude models that we know didn’t work well in the past – such as the group farming model.
Another thing that has to change is the notion that it is outsiders who identify and plan farms with the consent of beneficiaries. This is to put the beneficiaries in charge of developing their own plans, with outsiders such as consultants and state officials facilitating the process rather than imposing solutions.

Is the DRDLR now displaying a willingness to consider new ideas and models for land reform – especially for the ideas originating from outside of government?
It looks as if there is a lot of willingness to entertain new ideas. There is also pressure from the presidency for a change and from the minister of finance to find workable, affordable solutions that can speed up the pace of land reform.

Is SA on the right track now? Do you think we’ll see a lot more progress and success over the next 10 years?
It is hard to predict what will happen in the future. If a strict evidence-based approach is used to select and finance pilot projects, if these pilots are evaluated and if the national programme then focuses on the most successful examples – those pilots that have achieved decent results within three or four years – yes, then we’ll see progress. But the call has to be for evidence-based planning and policy-making.

Email Prof Hans Binswanger at
[email protected].

Watch Ryno van der Merwe explain why Namibia’s land reform is a success.

This article was originally published in the 17 October 2014 issue of Farmer’s Weekly.