Experts: Zuma’s land reform plans need ploughing

This is the sobering view of farmers, analysts and agricultural unions following the president's announcement on Monday, which proposes changes to the strategy, funding, and inclusivity of land reform in South Africa.

"Unfortunately, a lot of what is being said by the president is heavy on rhetoric and short on detail," Ruth Hall, senior researcher at the University of the Western Cape's institute for poverty, land and agrarian studies told the Mail & Guardian on Tuesday.

Key to the president's proposal is this five point plan:

  • Establishing a district land reform committee where all stakeholders, both commercial farmers and those seeking land redress, work together to identify land readily available for reform;
  • The state buying the land at 50% of its market value, or at a "fair productive value";
  • Farmers gaining black economic empowerment status if they agree to the sale of their land at the proposed productive value;
  • A stepped-up programme of financing involving the treasury, the Land Bank, and established white farmers; and
  • Increasing investment in agricultural research and development.

While Hall commended the government's attempts to speed up land reform, she argued the process needed to be handled very carefully.

"Setting up localised partnerships is a vital ingredient to the process of equitable land reform," said Hall, who has written and commented extensively on land and agrarian reform.

"But, how exactly commercial farmers will become involved in a process that is encouraging them to accept below market value is the big question."

Farmer Charl Senekal, South Africa’s largest sugar cane producer, said any attempts to facilitate the sale of land below market should not be entertained. "It is enshrined in our Constitution that we will be paid a market value rate for our land," he told the M&G.

Senekal also warned about the possibility of food insecurity emerging in the country's agricultural industry if equitable land reform is not pursued.

"If farmers lose interest in this industry when they see the opportunity for success is dwindling, that will immediately lead to food insecurity and if you thought the disquiet in the mining sector was bad – you haven't seen the worst of what will come," he said.

Senekal's concerns were echoed by Johannes Moller, president of Agri SA – South Africa's largest agricultural trade association – who described the proposals for productive value-based land reform "dangerous and unworkable".

"We think we should stick to market value-based land reform. If not, the security needed for a replacement industry for farmers leading the sector will be lost and you will be faced with further unemployment and other related problems," he told the M&G.

Moller said this approach could also lead to banks and other investment institutions becoming wary of placing funds in agriculture.

But agricultural groups pursuing land reform on behalf of African farmers believe all options need to be explored.

"So far the programmes in place are not meeting the expectations,” Raphesu Mamabolo, President of the African Farmers Association of South Africa in Gauteng told the M&G.

"Any reasonable ideas that will expedite the redistribution of land should thus be considered."

Mamabolo argued that commercial farmers were in many cases receiving hefty pay outs from the state for land that is not immediately profitable.

"If the land is productive then it will be sold at a higher price. You can't pay a fortune for land that will take forever to get going, and unfortunately under present conditions this is exactly what's happening," Mamabolo added.

Land ownership is a thorny issue in South African politics, with government claiming up to 87% of South Africa's agricultural land is still in the hands of white farmers.

Government's original plan to have 30% of disputed arable land diverted back to the black majority by 1999 has failed.

Zuma's utterances are the first indications of firm plans to speed up land reform, following the formation of a green paper on the issue by the department of rural development and land reform.

But the exact details contained in the green paper are still unclear and apart from Zuma stating the willing buyer, willing seller system "not working" in his February State of the Nation address, government has remained mum on their exact mode of action.

"This is a fundamental issue: it's not about how to get the land transferred, but rather what is done with that land and how it used once the transfer takes place," said Hall.

This was also the primary concern for Senekal.

"I am convinced that because land reform is such a controversial and emotive topic, government is not about to do anything stupid that will lead to more harm than good," he said.

"But, this is done in the wrong manner, you'll end up having individuals who aren't entitled to the land and don't have the expertise to use it beneficially, while commercial farmers will be left out of pocket."

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Nickolaus Bauer
Nickolaus Bauer is the Mail & Guardian's jack of all trades news reporter that chases down stories ranging from politics and sports to big business and social justice. Armed with an iPad, SLR camera, camcorder and dictaphone, he aims to fight ignorance and pessimism through written words, photographs and videos. He believes South Africa could be the greatest country in the world if only her citizens would give her a chance to flourish instead of dwell on the negativity. When he's not begging his sub-editors for an extra twenty minutes after deadline, he's also known to dabble in the occasional poignant column that will leave you mulling around in the depths of your psyche. The quintessential workaholic, you can also catch him doing sports on the weekday breakfast show on SAfm and presenting the SAfm Sports Special over the weekend.

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