Land Reform in South Africa

After twenty years the Government of South Africa has decided to acquire land from established commercial farmers outside the 'willing seller, willing buyer' principles that have applied since 1994. Once this new legislation is signed it will be possible for the State to buy land compulsorily from farmers for redistribution.

South Africa has a good Constitution and the rule of law is alive and well, so the question of compensation will still be determined by a Court of Law. Advocates of the new law have said repeatedly that 'this is not the Zimbabwean way of doing things'. But is it?

In an open market for farm land like South Africa, farms change hands all the time and the total number of white commercial farmers is down from 50 000 inn 1994 to 30 000 today. Over 2 000 white farmers have been murdered in the same period of time – in fact farming is the most dangerous occupation in South Africa today. At the same time consolidation of farming units has accelerated under economic pressure from the withdrawal of many of the subsidies and support that the pre 1994 State provided to commercial farmers.

To what extent South Africans of color are buying land commercially in farming areas is not known to me but if I take the Zimbabwean experience into account, it should be quite substantial – by 2000 20 per cent of all large scale commercial farms were owned and operated by black Zimbabweans, many of whom were fully integrated into rural farming communities and doing very well.

I am by no means an expert on South African agriculture but as a visitor to that country with an agricultural background, I see a number of things emerging that give rise to concern. First, there is the near total absence of any changes of any kind in the former 'Bantu Homelands'. My wife comes from the Eastern Cape and the Transkei and the Ciskei are well known to us. They remain, barren, windswept examples of abject rural poverty, producing little and remaining just a form of old people’s home after retirement.

The second impression is of the devastation wrought in areas where land has been acquired on the willing seller/buyer basis, handed over to the community and then stripped and vandalized. In the Limpopo District I have seen tea estates, dams irrigation systems, homesteads and staff quarters destroyed. Tea bushes dead from lack of irrigation, dams full and no crops in the ground, orchards of citrus and other tropical fruits, dead or dying.

Like Zimbabwe, I would postulate with some degree of confidence, that any audit of land acquired and settled in this way, would show that the land has become largely unproductive and in many cases, abandoned or simply occupied as a weekend retreat or squatter camp. It has not had a significant impact on South African food supplies or prices yet, but if the programme is expanded and highly productive farms are targeted at the States expense, it will eventually impact on the basic needs of the whole economy with dire consequences, like Zimbabwe.

Our farmers have either retired or moved abroad to be with their families or settled in other countries and resumed farming. Zambia and Mozambique, the Congo and Nigeria have all had some former Zimbabwean farmers relocate to their countries with varying degrees of success and failure. Zambia in particular has benefitted as the climate and soil types are similar to Zimbabwe. This year, Zambia has produced a record maize and tobacco crop and Zimbabweans will eat maize once again grown by white African farmers – but not at home, but purchased at great cost from a neighboring State.

But I would argue that there is a more sinister motivation behind the ANC thrust on land and it has nothing to do with the EFF Mantra of 'land for the people' and the idea of redressing historical wrongs. Rather it is based on a political motive that is never talked about but which is central to the ANC (like Zanu PF) struggle to retain it’s grip on power and privilege in South Africa.

To some extent it is an extension of the RDP Housing programme. Any visitor to any significant South African town will find large swathes of low cost housing, brightly colored and built in rows on the outskirts of town. Nearly 5 million homes have been built in this way and it is claimed that this is one of the ANC Governments great achievements. That is fine until you take a closer look at these housing settlements. The first thing that strikes me is no gardens, no trees, no extensions or informal construction underway anywhere.

The reason is that no one can buy an RDP house – they are not for sale – just rental. I suspect that if you studied the voting trends of the people living in these formal sector shacks (because that is what they are) you would find that they are obliged to vote ANC or find themselves back on the streets and banished to a tin shanty or mud hut somewhere. The denial of any kind of tenure is to ensure that the political ties and patronage can be used to ensure that the poor know on which side their bread is buttered.

The ANC land acquisition programme – conducted at great expense by the State, is designed with the same motive in mind. So no one is being given any sort of tenure over the land that the State is buying in South Africa. Instead they are treated as extensions of the Homelands and will inevitably become the same – poor marginalized rural slums with little or no productivity.

The problem with such a programme is that it has a double impact on farm values – first there is the direct transfer of value and capital from the private sector to the State, at tax payer’s expense. Secondly, there is the permanent loss of value in the land and its use as a productive resource. It’s inherent capital value is lost to the wider economy.

But for the ANC who control access to such land, the programme creates the capacity to coerce the rural population to support the ANC at the polls or face eviction at any time. It also becomes a tool of patronage and can be used to reward faithful cadres for their service to the party and punishment for any misdemeanors. The Zanu PF Party never talks about this reality, but anyone who knows what is going on in the former farming Districts will attest to the near total physical and political control of the Party in these areas.

I have often wondered if the farm murders are not connected to this fiendish exercise and suspect that it may well be. Certainly here, the deliberate and selective murders of farmers was designed to drive them off the land and to allow the occupation of their farms, homesteads and control of assets built up over many years of hard work, simply to give the Party in power the leverage to control the rural population and through them, the State itself.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 30th May 2016