‘High time for SA land policy overhaul’

The graceful farm is like any other in South Africa’s wine country, with a cosy restaurant and tasting room circled by mountains and rows of trellised grape vines.

But Thandi Wines is one of the few black-owned operations in a high-end business that like most commercial agriculture is still predominantly white-owned 16 years after the end of apartheid
minority rule.

“It’s the first truly broad-based black empowerment wine company in the history of South Africa,” said chief executive officer Vernon Henn.

“It’s proper transformation — land ownership; poor people almost own [all] the value chain, farm, wine company, so all the profits. That is, for me, what the government always intended to achieve with black empowerment.”

In Thandi’s case — the word means “love” in isiZulu — farm worker families own 55% of the company, while the surrounding community owns at least half the land.

That is a rare success. South Africa’s skewed land ownership remains one of the most visible legacies of apartheid when blacks had no rights to the bulk of land that was classified whites-only.

The government has admitted that its efforts at change have had miserable results, with up to 90% of projects unproductive and just 6% of white farms redistributed to black farmers.

Policy overhaul
President Jacob Zuma’s government has promised to overhaul land reform policy but new proposals have been repeatedly delayed.

Leaked reports indicate the new rules could include a ceiling on private land ownership and allowing foreigners to buy land only with a South African partner.

“It’s high time for a policy overhaul,” said Ruth Hall of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies.

Despite Zuma’s pledges to make land reform a priority, the department has faced the recent loss of its director general and another top official.

“Essentially it’s a department that’s been without clear direction in terms of policy for at least a year,” said Hall.

“So now it’s urgent that something be put on the table that can form the basis for a more public debate about the way forward.”

The state has adopted a “use it or lose it” stance for new black farmers, hoping to prod them into making their land productive by threatening to take back idle fields.

But analysts say that they have received little support to make their operations profitable.

“The support that is available has tended to be channelled to very few of the beneficiaries,” said Hall.

“So small numbers of highly commercial projects have managed to capture the lion’s share of available resources, leaving most beneficiaries largely to fend for themselves.”

The issue is contentious in the region after Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s land reforms saw about 4 000 white farmers lose their land in an often violent campaign that savaged food production, leaving the country dependent on international aid.

Slow pace of reform
But the slow pace of South Africa’s reforms is also causing concern.

A target to transfer 30% of white farms by 2014 has been postponed a decade. Reaching the initial goal would cost nearly $10-billion on the current, “willing-buyer, willing-seller” model.

Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti has ruled out
nationalisation but he has also cautioned that the government cannot continue to “slavishly” rely on the free-market approach.

Commercial farming group Agri SA, which Nkwinti has briefed on the new policy, has concerns over the proposals for the land ceiling and the state’s right of first refusal in farm sales.

But it has welcomed the push to speed up reforms and the focus on boosting development in the countryside.

“We are quite anxious to see the detail,” legal and policy advisor Annelize Crosby said. “At the same time, it’s important that whatever is put out there is well considered.” – AFP

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