What should be done about land in South Africa?

| Jack Lewis
Photo by Amelia Earnest.

I think about land matters quite a bit, especially now that I’m living on a small holding in the Karoo. In 1999, I was invited to make a video showing the “challenges” (yes that was still an acceptable word back then) of land reform in the Free State.

Making that video Lefatshe le (This Land) was a highly revealing experience; almost all the large farms were already clearly failing. Back then, government encouraged people to club together often in their hundreds, to use their state housing grants collectively to purchase large farms. Most of these farms failed. These groups of poor people were left with no post-settlement support and were not in a position to succeed with complex cooperative structures. The members looked for wage work, making their labour unavailable to the collective. Many had unrealistic expectations, which when unmet caused them to lose interest in the venture.

Government is now proposing to recapitalise these farms. Sadly, this is likely to throw good money after bad, unless the problem of ownership is resolved. To bring them back into production the farms need to be “re-reformed” into much smaller groups of owners or even single owners and properly supported. Having allowed agricultural support services to run down after 1994, an almost dysfunctional Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing and its twin the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform now have to rebuild such services. Whether they are able to do is an open question.

Touring the Free State in 2011, Minister Joemat-Pettersson announced that the establishment of successful black commercial farmers was key to land reform in South Africa.

I would argue that such an ambition is going to be a slow process which will not meet the needs for social justice and redress. Far greater attention should be given to urban and periurban agriculture for livelihoods, food security and profit. The fostering of a black capitalist farmer class should be an important but secondary objective.

Land reform should also support the 200 000 to 300 000 smallholder farmers in South Africa - mainly based in the old homeland areas. The main reason so little is achieved in this regard is because of the gross inefficiency and lack of capacity in the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing (DAFF) and the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform.

Abalimi Bazekhaya, one of the larger of the NGOs fostering urban farming has been supporting urban, organic micro-farming among the poor and unemployed in Cape Town since 1982. By growing fresh, organic vegetables throughout the year, 3 000 micro-farmers — 2 500 in home gardens and 500 in community gardens — are able to feed their families and create full time employment. Abalimi has a great model supporting small urban farmers, individuals and collectives from a subsistence phase, through a phase in which selling for cash forms a larger part of production, to full commercial production. It’s a model the DAFF should be actively supporting and learning from.

The STATS SA’s 2011 National Household Survey provides some useful data in thinking through why the Abalimi model is the kind of land reform South Africa should pursue. At the end of the first quarter 2013, South Africa had 4.6 million unemployed (on the narrow definition of unemployment) and 2.3 million “discouraged work-seekers”. That is 6.6 million people.

The Survey found some 3.37 million households, 23% of the total number of households in South Africa, were involved in some kind of agricultural production. Of these, 9.1% cultivated farmland while 89.5% created backyard gardens. Of this group of 3 million households, around 15 million people, who are involved in small-scale farming, over 80% are doing so to secure an additional source of food. Supporting them as Abalimi does will promote food security, which should be the most important objective of land reform.

Private ownership and agricultural entrepreneurs are by no means excluded from this. ZZ2 is one of South Africa’s largest tomato producers. It describes itself as “a farming conglomerate operating in Mooketsi, Politsi, Polokwane and Musina in the Limpopo Province, Ceres and Riebeek-Wes in the Western Cape and Langkloof in the Eastern Cape”. ZZ2 produces 160 000 tonnes of tomatoes annually. There is no reason why Abalimi style organic farmers couldn’t take on ZZ2 and supply tomatoes to the large supermarkets.

The great advantage of urban agriculture is closeness to markets, since high transport costs is one of the main obstacles to marketing fresh produce. No need to worry about ZZ2. If they found themselves outcompeted in the tomato business they have the capacity to switch to something else. Abalimi’s ambition to graduate urban farmers into commercial production, using tunnels, drip and other high tech organic techniques should be seriously supported.

Urban gardening on underutilised land – municipal land, school grounds, church grounds, railway land - should be included in a properly planned and supported national urban food production scheme. Presently, this field is being ploughed by NGOs - but it is ripe for development if given support. Until we have a committed Minister of Agriculture, able to use available skills this will not happen.

An Abalimi Bazekhaya Project ‘New Eden’ is a community garden, where only men are farming. Usually it is only women making gardens. It was started at the end of 2007, after the deserted land was restructured. The Department of Social Services helped to fence and equip the garden. The men work hard on their farm and even water on the weekends, alongside their family, community and church life. They learn to produce compost and a part of the garden has shade cloth where seedlings and more sensitive crops are grown.

The Household Survey found that only 12.3% of the households involved in agriculture reported getting agricultural-related support from the government during the year preceding the survey. The only provinces where significant percentage received some support were the Eastern Cape (26.9%), KwaZulu-Natal (17.6%) and Western Cape (12.7%). Nationally, only 3% of the households reported receiving training and 6.4% received dipping services. This is just too low a level to have an impact. The DAFF does not appear to have the capacity to support agricultural transformation.

The Departments of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing (DAFF) and the Rural Development and Land Reform’s web sites are full of wordy strategic plans and annual reports which sound like they have it all covered. But much of it is highly misleading. For example the DAFFs annual report for 2011-12, lists as one of its activities, ” Ncera Farms (Pty) Ltd”, a company wholly owned by the DoA, situated at Kidd’s Beach near East London on state-owned land, totalling approximately 3 102 ha. The primary function of Ncera Farms we are told is “to assist small and emerging farmers by providing a variety of services, such as advice, extension services, training and information on ploughing methods”. The sad thing is that Ncera Farms was looted by its management and has been liquidated.

In May, at its 2013-14 parliamentary budget vote, the DAFF claimed that it “will spend over R6 billion on conditional grants to provinces to support 435 000 subsistence farmers and 54 500 smallholder producers, and to improve extension services and flood-damaged infrastructure over the medium term.”

But the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee noted its concerns regarding the Auditor-General report that the Department had spent 99% of its allocated budget during the 2011/12 financial year whilst only 51% of their planned targets were achieved. Members were particularly concerned with value for money, and the 50% that was achieved “is not even reflected on the ground”. There can be no meaningful progress while DAFF and its provincial departments continue to waste huge amounts of public money.

Jack Lewis did his PhD on the Xhosa heartlands experience of land dispossession. He is the former director of Community Media Trust, one of GroundUp’s two publishers, and he currently farms in the Karoo.

TOPICS:  Economy National Provincial

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