Land plan is laudable – but unlikely to work

THE intentions behind the government’s plan to redistribute 50% of commercial farm land to farm workers are laudable.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely the plan will work.

The aims are to deracialise the rural economy, democratise land allocation and use and support “production discipline” for food security and food sovereignty.

The plan is to transfer land to workers in proportion to the amount of time they have worked on the land.

The government will pay for the land but the money will go into an “investment and development fund” co-owned by the old and new land owners.

There are many glaring internal weaknesses with the proposal.

  •  First, the way the land is to be distributed is poorly conceptualised.

Workers with between ten and 25 years of “disciplined service” will be entitled to 10% share equity based on market value of the land; those with 25-49 years service to get 25% share equity; and those with 50 years or more get 50% share equity. There are so many holes in this it is hard to know where to start. First, how will land get split between the workers? If a farm has five workers with over 50 years’ service how can they each receive 50%? The only alternative is that they share the 50% allocated to this category.

Thus the more workers there are on a farm, the smaller their share. This is arbitrary and unjust.

Then, if the purpose is to encourage “production discipline”, why allocate the largest share to workers about to retire and the smallest to younger people? For older workers, tenure security is likely to be a greater priority, as well as water, healthcare, housing and electricity.

  • This brings us to how the investment fund will be used. The fund is meant for “developing managerial and production capacity”, investing in the farm and paying out people who don’t want to participate. One stark lesson from land reform in South Africa to date is that imposing commercial business models on poorly-resourced inhabitants is a recipe for failure.

  • In principle, subdividing large commercial farms inherited from apartheid could lead to greater equity, but the essential next step is to make sure people have water (for household use as well as production) and decent shelter.
    •  Then there is whether the farm still constitutes a single business entity once ownership is divided, and whether “share equity” refers to equity in the land as a physical asset or in the farming business. The former suggests rent and the latter dividends. But the evidence indicates that farm workers remain in their abject conditions in such schemes, especially where the business owner controls the finances (which is likely where innumeracy is rife). What power will workers have to shape “investments” in the farm, especially ones oriented towards meeting basic services that are not commensurate with profit making?
      • Use of the investment fund to pay out those who do not want to participate is unworkable for the same reasons that the division of land is unworkable: where there are many workers there will not be enough money in the pot to buy all those rights. It will also deplete the resources for “development” of any kind.
        •  How will the land to be transferred be identified? Will the current landowner decide, or the workers or the government? Obviously the landowner will identify the least valuable land and workers the most. What structures and processes will be put in place to manage the inevitable conflicts that arise, and how will the historical power of landowners over workers be tempered?
          • Why did the state focus only on farm workers and ignore farm dwellers? It could lead to evictions of vulnerable people and families of farm workers will have insecure tenure. And what about the literally millions of people who historically worked on those farms and made a contribution, but who either were evicted or were moved off the farms and can no longer find farm work?
          • It is well known that the farm workforce has declined by 50% or more in the past two decades.

            • Last but far from least, a fundamental political question for Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti – and by extension the ANC – is why there has been no consultation with farm workers and farm dwellers on this issue.

            It is hard not to see this proposal as a kneejerk response to pressure from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and others for more radical policies on economic redistribution.

            It is also interesting that the department has been in ongoing dialogue with the commercial farming lobby.

            Most recently, Nkwinti has indicated that commercial farmers will be given a year to come up with a feasible alternative that redistributes economic assets.

            It will not be a surprise within the next year when commercial farmers and agribusinesses come up with another version of share equity schemes and methods of integrating a few black farmers into formal value chains on a commercial basis. These plans do not challenge the base of their economic ownership. Nkwinti will also have to get the plan approved by his ANC comrade-businessmen, some of whom are commercial farmers themselves and who (theoretically speaking) would also stand to lose ownership of economic assets. Maybe they will be exempted.

            While the proposal correctly recognises the importance of a rapid redistribution of economic assets, the approach it outlines will not succeed.

            A better approach would retain the basic principle that we are at a point where economic assets must be more equitably redistributed.

            Then practically, the first step is to call a moratorium on all farm evictions and to secure the tenure rights of all farm dwellers. These rights could include no forced removals, and the right to build structures and to engage in productive activity on land farm dwellers currently occupy and use for their own purposes. This establishes a stable baseline.

            From there, instead of developing unworkable proposals in secret corners and small discussion groups with landowners, the state should support local, farm dweller-driven processes of negotiation to determine how economic assets will be distributed in the next 10 years.

            Land reform, rural development, water, housing and other budgets can then be allocated to completed processes of local negotiation. Evidence of a successful negotiation is a minimum 50% transfer of economic assets. The best-organised farm dwellers will be first to benefit.

            Stephen Greenberg is a freelance researcher with an interest in food systems, land, agriculture and rural development. This article has been edited and appears in full on the South African Civil Society Information Service website

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