Land restitution was one of the big promises made by the ANC when they came to power in 1994. And once again the papers are full of talk of ANC moves to nationalize agricultural land. Only last week, Deputy Youth League President Ronald Lamola was quoted as saying ‘If they don’t want to see angry black youths flooding their farms they must come to the party. Whites must volunteer some of the land…’ The recent ANC policy conference in Midrand was less vigilante, and resolved that land should not be confiscated without compensation. The concept of ‘willing-buyer, willing-seller’ was rejected but the conference accepted that constitutional change was not needed.
Excelsior was bought in 1869 by the current owner’s great grandfather and great great grandfather. From the outset it was hard going – no state sponsorship or hand-outs meant that the loan on the farm and the infrastructure had to be paid off by blood, sweat and tears. So, after decades of hard work, Ronald Lamola’s view of farmers ‘giving up’ their legally bought and paid for land to be replaced by ‘angry black youths’ sits badly.
On Excelsior there is a school which offers primary education to the children from the surrounding farms. These farms financed a computer room (with 23 computers), continue to maintain the school buildings, provide transport for the children etc. We at Excelsior pay the salary of a full time remedial teacher and a teacher to supervise studies in the afternoon. We also offer scholarships to bright students who achieve high grades in matric to go on to further education. We do this because we believe that education is freedom and we want to ensure that the community we live amongst has access to decent education for their children. We also provide proper accommodation for everyone who works for us. How many people in cities do the same for those in their employ? Do they know if their employees have a house, let alone what condition it is in? Would you give up a share of your house to the gardener? Probably not. So why should farms ‘give away’ their land?
Every year about 5% of South Africa’s agricultural land comes onto the market – the government is free to buy land on the open market. In reality the whole land acquisition machinery is cumbersome and a purchase can take years but in fact the state does already own vast tracts of land. Yet, instead of using this land to broaden ownership and enhance agricultural production, the focus remains on punishing productive farmers.
Helen Zille, Democratic Alliance Leader, points out that this policy is incomprehensible and quotes the government’s own statistics: ‘over 80% of land reform ventures country-wide have failed’. In her statement she goes on to highlight that the state’s own central role in the failure of land reform remains unexamined. Eighteen years into democracy, an ‘audit’ of land ownership in South Africa is still incomplete. She suggests that, if the intention to drive land reform and increase agricultural output was serious, the logical place for the ANC to start would be to on South Africa’s most fertile land along the country’s eastern sea-board – largely unproductive land, held in various forms of ‘traditional’ communal ownership.
This lack of agricultural activity can be directly attributed to the ownership structure – tribal communal ownership means it is not in any one person’s interest to put time, effort or money into developing the land since the fruit of their labour will be shared by all. As a result, potentially productive agricultural land either lies fallow or is under used. If group ownership of land worked, then farming in the former USSR, Cuba and North Korea would have flourished…but it didn’t.
Should the government want the policy of black owned land to work it might be wise to learn from Zimbabwe’s mistakes; create training schemes for young aspiring farmers to ensure that the land is cared for by people who understand how to look after it and, if job creation is a priority, how to farm commercially. Private ownership is the only incentive to induce people to think long term and to shepherd the land for the present and for the future.
It seems though that, for the moment at least, the government and the farmers are talking past each other…and nobody is at the party.