Reforming land reform

Land restitution in SA is currently concentrated on the issue of the ‘formerly dispossessed’. This is a recipe for disaster. The focus should be on food security and using land to its maximum economic potential, says TAU SA’s Danie du Plessis.

Reforming land reform
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Does government want commercial farmers to remain on the land and produce food for the nation? Government says yes, but what is the reality? At the moment, land reform is, by and large, not benefiting those it is aimed at – instead, it disadvantages ordinary people.  Moreover, not all of the laws governing the restitution of land rights in South Africa are fair in that they discriminate against the landowner.

For example, a farmer has the right to oppose a land claim in court, but must finance himself. This is generally a costly exercise, somewhere in the region of R250 000. By contrast, the claimant’s case is handled by the state and paid for with the taxpayer’s money. It must also be pointed out that organised agriculture and National Party politicians failed to protect landowners’ interests from 1992 to 2003. The content and possible ramifications of the land reform laws were not scrutinised in detail before being signed into law.

However, this does not mean the current laws cannot be challenged in the Constitutional Court, but this brings us back to the question of who is going to pay for litigation. Certainly not organised agriculture; it cannot be expected to. For the ANC, all laws governing land affairs are ostensibly based on the 1955 Freedom Charter. But if we look deeper, we see that the fundamentals on how land should be used are discussed in detail in a series of documents published in Fifty Fighting Years: The South African Communist Party 1921-1971.

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Here, nationalisation and taking land back from the ‘colonists’ is discussed in detail. White people arriving in South Africa since the 1600s are depicted as land grabbers who obtained land through trickery. Only black people have a right to land. It is forgotten that the Nguni tribes – the Zulu, Xhosa and others – did some colonising themselves, driving the indigenous peoples from their land.

Our country’s history is full of examples of how land was obtained through force; to put the blame for this solely on ‘the white man’ is incorrect. White commercial farmers are also Africans. Furthermore, why should current landowners suffer for misdeeds of 70 years or more ago? How can the law punish someone for something a farmer did in the 1930s?
Government argues that it is not blaming individuals, but the discriminatory laws at the time. But laws cannot change the history of a country!

Political control
Since 2009, no land has been handed over to successful claimants. Purchased from commercial farmers, it has remained in state possession. This is certainly not an economic use of land – it amounts to political control of land and people. This is government’s ultimate aim. Currently, the ANC does not control commercial farmers and their products. Commercial farmers are seen as an economic force that is too independent. Politically, commercial farmers are not a threat to government, but as an economic force, producing food, their position is strategically strong.

Through the laws that govern land use and the proposed restrictions on water use, government is undermining food production. South Africa’s economy and tax resources cannot fund and sustain land reform. It is simply too expensive. Government must realise this, and find another way to achieve land reform, one that does not involve driving white commercial farmers off their farms.

Lying fallow
Mpumalanga is an example of how not to do things. During the past six years or so, an estimated 469 000ha has been handed over to claimants. In economic terms, this figure is astronomical. In the Gert Sibande District Municipality alone, about 500 farms, averaging 800ha, lie fallow. Each has about 200ha (a conservative estimate) suitable for dryland production of cash crops. That is 100 000ha that is not used by land reform beneficiaries to plant anything substantial.

If one assumes a production of 6t/ha, this represents a ‘loss’ of 600 000t of maize. At the current price of R2 300/t, the net loss to the economy is huge. This leads to the obvious question: why are land claims being re-opened if not all the existing claims have been settled and land claimed is not being used? Many ‘land claim farms’ are rented out by government to commercial farmers to keep them in production. But this does not benefit the claimants, which was the original purpose.

A study by the department of rural development carried out among 1 000 emerging farmers in Mpumalanga shows that only 1,2% were interested in more land, while 27% (the highest figure) asked for better roads and infrastructure.

The land claims process is also riddled with inaccuracies. Many in fact are plain nonsense, if not fraudulent. Yet when a claimant approaches the department of land affairs to lodge a claim on a piece of land, officials are duty-bound to take down the relevant details. This goes into a research report that can take months, even years, to finalise. The report is then forwarded to the agriculture union that acts on behalf of its members. Farmers who are not members have to hire attorneys. By this time, though, the research report has already been published in the Government Gazette, which complicates matters, as it includes only the claimant’s uncorroborated version.

The moment the claim is investigated by the union, inaccuracies are invariably brought to light. This creates immediate tension with land affairs. In the meantime, no farmer is going to spend money on disputed land. Alternatively, a quick sale is made to get the landowner out of financial difficulties, and because in some cases, the farmer believes it is not worth contesting a claim likely to go against him anyway. In this case, investigating the validity of the claim becomes next to impossible, because the landowner often refuses to co-operate.

There are also many instances of farms being awarded to claimants who are not in any way connected to commercial farming, such as teachers and taxi owners. There are even examples of claimants living in Swaziland claiming land in South Africa, a totally unacceptable situation. In conclusion, we need another way! The country, farmers and food security cannot depend on the ramblings of politicians and a misguided land reform programme. Instead, the following is suggested:

  • The formation of a land reform Codesa, not dominated by political opportunists using land reform for devious ends, but by real agriculturists.
  • Better co-operation between organised agriculture and the government departments dealing with land reform.
  • All parties involved in land reform should stop disseminating false perceptions about land reform, especially in the media.
  • Educate all South Africans on the importance of food security.
  • Land reform in its present form is not going to bring food security. We need to think out of the box.

Danie du Plessis is the manager of the TAU SA Eastern Region, which includes Mpumalanga, and assists farmers with land claims. Contact him on 082 929 3347, or [email protected].

The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.