Why land reform MUST succeed

Richard Tate, a former top farmer and leader in Zimbabwean farming circles,says it’s time for South African consumers and business people to realise that failed land reform will seriously affect the whole economy. Roelof Bezuidenhout spoke to him.

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Will negotiations with government ever help to swing things in favour of commercial farmers?
I believe Agri SA has weekly meetings with the agriculture department and sees the various ministers regularly. But, judging from statements, the parties don’t trust or agree with one another. The ministers and heads of department always seem to have two stories – one they tell the public, their voters in other words – and one they tell agricultural leaders in private conversations. 
Somehow you’ve got to get everyone to put their cards on the table. The public also has to be re-educated about commercial farming. There are many questions to clear up.

How many farmers can South Africa sustain, anyway? What exactly is meant by 30% of the land by 2014 – is that 30% of arable land, 30% of all land, or 30% of every farm? If the willing-buyer willing-seller concept stays, where will the money come from to buy the required land?

The exact figures remain unclear. It’s just too easy for the folks in towns to say farmers had it coming to them. The country as a whole needs to accept that a land problem exists, and that more funding for schemes from private enterprises is essential to solve it. Sadly, even the informed part of the economy seems to be in denial – they know the storm is coming, yet are standing back, afraid to take on the political machine.

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How can we re-educate the public?

By telling them the truth about commercial farming. [Julius] Malema recently hailed the Zimbabwe land grabs, saying that before only 4 000 farmers owned the land. Now there are 350 000. That’s not true. The 350 000 he refers to includes the number of family members on the farms. Such misleading figures cause many countries to support land grabs.

There’s also the question of what’s going to happen after you’ve reached the 30% target. The unemployed might turn really nasty if there’s a run for more land after that. South African breadwinners and consumers need to be aware of the consequences of poorly planned and executed land reform.

What sectors of the economy suffered least during Zimbabwe’s land grabs?

The country was swarming with dealers. After all, 3 000 homes suddenly came onto the market, not to mention 200 grandfather clocks, 1 500 dinner services, 2 000 sets of cutlery, and so on. The most beautiful homes were lost.

A very small sector of the new wealthy accumulated fast fortunes. During the first five years they were able to buy or build the most amazing houses – all of which needed servicing by crafstmen, from builders to kitchen refurbishers. Outlets for expensive cars were huge, with farm field days resembling German motor shows.

On the farming side, essentials such as fertiliser kept going, but in decreasing volumes. International tobacco companies provided inputs mainly to commercial farmers and new farmers. Anything that could be exported did well – from crocodile skins to cotton and sugar.

How many white commercial farmers are left in Zimbabwe?

Some of the provincial governors allowed a few to stay in each province. Only about 200 are still there, but they’re under increasing pressure. While the former Zimbabwean farmers, many who have fled, still hold their title deeds, government now owns the land.

This is loaned out to the new settlers to farm, on the premise that if the farm is not productive, the offer is withdrawn. That’s a joke, since not much has been productive. When at some stage the ownership issue is redressed, improvements on the farms might be a discussion point. Hopefully, when the World Bank eventually walks back into Zimbabwe, this will be part of the package.

In Zimbabwe, farmers employed their own consultants to record every single item on the farm in US dollars. This database will provide facts and figures that can’t be disputed. That’s why it’s so important for South African farmers to have a detailed database of their farms.

What happened to the farmworkers?

Their plight was really bad. With no government support, they drifted into towns or returned to the homelands. A few worked for the new settlers. The Commercial Farmers Union did what it could to help them.
Are there any successful new farmers and will they be able to re-establish Zimbabwe as a top producer?

Those with access to inputs have half a chance, but eventually equipment has to be replaced. Without a support system, such as a tobacco or cotton company providing help, there will be losses. Zimbabwe’s commercial farmers’ training schools were of the highest order. Students who passed through were of good calibre, and with support systems in place they will farm fairly well. But I don’t see Zimbabwe ever regaining its status as a top farming country.

Are Zimbabweans glad the white farmers are gone, despite the current hardships?

Generally, yes. Remember, with only one newspaper, you’ll believe anything you’re told. If your father is given some land with two houses on it plus a shed for 15 tractors and a dam (all thrown in for free), and at the same time your brother is promised 51% of a thriving workshop in Harare by Mugabe, who are you going to vote for?

South Africa has a better media set-up. This can be a double-edged sword for farmers, but it can be used to their advantage. Even so, if the local MP says something derogatory about farmers it’s almost impossible to turn the perception around. Sometimes it’s better to discuss issues behind the scenes.

Why, in your opinion, were so few farmers in Zimbabwe murdered, compared to South Africa?

It seems that criminals in South Africa have a culture of torture and killing. It could be the level of education, or lack of it, or a more aggressive youth. In Zimbabwe, murders took place in the early stages of the land grabs. Thereafter, mobs of locals and a few war vets carried out scare tactics – noise all night, drums, war songs – until the farmer moved his family off the farm I had it for a few days. The very farm kids I was educating for free joined in to tell us to go and join the boers. 

Contact Richard Tate at [email protected].