Demystifying ‘us’ and ‘them’

In the “us vs them” game no one wins, and the divide between the government and commercial farmers
has largely been created by “stone-throwing politicians”, says Agri Eastern Cape president Ernest Pringle.

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This perception needs to be stamped out if we’re to address the real issue at stake in South Africa: that of food security in the face of a rapidly expanding and increasingly urbanised population.

In the ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ divide in agriculture, the ‘us’ is generally perceived as white commercial farmers. But in reality this “fraction” includes a great deal more black farmers than is realised (or acknowledged). It’s just that these farmers aren’t vocal – they quietly get on with the business of farming. Unfortunately, the voice the nation hears is that of the stone-throwing politicians. We need our commercial black farmers – most of whom are self-made and some of whom have risen through the land reform process – to become more visible and more vocal, and so strengthen the combined voice of organised agriculture, which is the voice of food security in South Africa.Instead of the shifting percentage of white commercial farms that need to be redistributed, the departments of agriculture and land affairs need to concentrate on enhancing food security. They urgently need to draw on the expertise of people who understand agriculture and economics, and, particularly, on organised agriculture. Because if agriculture collapses, the economy collapses.From our side, within the ranks of organised agriculture, we need to step forward, stick up our hands and make ourselves available. 

We are fortunate that organised agriculture in South Africa is recognised as credible. We need to keep strengthening this credibility to counter the voice of politicians, most of whom are absolute “capunists’ – a hybrid of capitalist and communist. They’re normally very rich and can eloquently preach the tenets of Das Kapital, but have no understanding of farming – and are frightfully difficult to deal with.They ignore the realities of sustainable food production. For example, commercial farming isn’t attractive to most young people because the returns are low and it’s damn difficult to farm successfully. Farming is no “get rich quick” scheme – you’re more likely to get poor quick, and then you have to deal with droughts over which you have no control and which can go on for years. Government needs to hang onto the farmers it has, and invest in the young people of our country, black or white, who still want to farm. It also needs to urgently attend to the commercial farmers sitting with land claims or waiting to be paid. This unresolved situation is an injustice to farmers and claimants. Worse, it’s a recipe for violence. Several of these farmers have already packed their belongings and boerewors and begun farming in Mozambique, where they’re starting to out-compete us.

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Only a fool would deny that land reform is necessary. But time restrictions need to be placed on restitution claims, and would be needed on any rights of pre-emption, or the government will be infringing on property rights, which have to be market-driven.Property rights constitute one of the cornerstones of good rule of law. If property rights collapse, the economy collapses. Our huge problem is that vast tracts of the most fertile agricultural land, within the desirable 500mm+ rainfall zone, are part of the traditional, communal farming system. Government must tackle this thorny economic and cultural issue, because private landownership has proven, the world over, to be more successful and practical.The first step is distinguishing between the right to live on the land and the right to farm. Then the communal farming system needs to be revised into a system of smallholdings with title deeds – not dissimilar to the enclosures created all over Europe during the Industrial Revolution. This will motivate productivity and encourage competitive farming, with successful farmers able to expand over time.

At the moment there’s no such incentive in the communal areas. You inherit the right to live on the land, but you’re not legally entitled to buy, sell or hire it. Building up farmers from this base is far more logical than dumping them on a large land claim farm and saying ‘Farm!’Dealing with the rural chieftain system and restructuring the communal areas is a huge administrative task, but it can be done by appointing people with skills and experience to know what they’re doing. The alternative is to drift along and let anarchy prevail throughout South African agriculture and hope the ship doesn’t sink.     |fw