Land issue chance for honest discussions

The 54th Conference of the ANC ended with one of the major talking points being the resolution on land expropriation without compensation.

The markets, which all South Africans have grown to either love or to hate, did not react negatively at the time. This was attributed mainly to the positive sentiment around the election of a perceived pro-business president in Cyril Ramaphosa and more importantly, the position he took with his collective leadership to fight corruption and restore the credibility of some of our state-owned institutions.

Markets had hoped that, since the ANC has a reputation for taking resolutions in the its conferences but then failing to implement them, this would also be the case on the land issue.

However, this time things seem to have changed. Many argue that the electoral pressure the ANC is feeling ahead of the 2019 general elections is the one causing them to take the populist stance.

Others believe this is because the EFF is seen as the only pro-poor party – which paints the ANC into a corner as it does not want to be outdone by the EFF.

The ANC itself argues that it has been patient enough since 1994 and that has not yielded the desired outcome, so they now need to be more radical on economic issues, particularly on land.

Looking at the land audit by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform of 2017, the audit suggests that farm land demographic ownership patterns are still skewed towards a certain group of people in South Africa, with 72% of land still belonging to white owners, 15% to coloureds, 5% to Indians and 4% to Africans –- including as co-owners.

There is no doubt that agriculture plays a critical role in the country’s economy, which dictates that it needs to be nurtured.

This is clearly indicated by the GDP figures for the last quarter of 2017 – agriculture being the largest contributor with 37.5% coming from the sector.

There is unanimous agreement across all political parties and other relevant stakeholders that land reform needs to be prioritised as a matter of urgency, as it is a very emotive issue. The government has fallen short of many of its targets to transfer land. It failed to meet its 1999 target to transfer 30% of the land to black hands, and this was after the initial target was moved from 1994. The date was then pushed back to 2014 but still the 30% remained out of reach. Today only 10% of the land has been transferred.

The land issue has certainly polarised our country and this is evident in the contrasting statements by different agriculture interest groups.

For instance the position taken by Afasa and Nerpo, which largely represent black farmers, are markedly different to those of AfriForum as well as GrainSA, which largely have a white membership.

This has led to both the state being blamed for the slow progress of land reform and white landowners being accused of unwillingness to see the transformation of the sector.

Both these points are valid. Implementation of a number of resolutions taken by the ANC on land has been nonexistent – delayed either by corruption or by incompetence at some level of government.

Many who applied for state farms have been made to wait for years.

On the other hand some white farmers have not helped the situation, with some arrogantly not believing black people can be successful farmers while others see land reform as an opportunity to make a quick buck by inflating the price of their land.

For us to move forward, there has to be an honest acknowledgement of the successes and failures of land reform by all the stakeholders. The reality of the matter is that there are some government-led land reform successes across South Africa.

Then we need to develop a unique land reform approach that will be determined by the current material conditions – taking into consideration increased inequality in society, growing unemployment (26.7%) and the fact that 50% of South Africans live below the poverty line.

The success of this radical land reform programme will be heavily dependent on the modality of how it is implemented.

The emphasis by the ANC that expropriation without compensation should happen “in a manner that does not hurt the economy” shows that this could be just rhetoric that might not drastically change the land ownership patterns. This is because the policy cannot be implemented without disruption to the sector.

The reality is that our agricultural sector is heavily indebted to the banking sector, with the national farm debt currently standing at an estimated R144-billion for land and other farm investments.

Many farmers have used their title deeds as surety to the banks, so there is no way expropriation without compensation can fail to have a significant impact on the economy.

The stance taken by the EFF – that “farming must continue undisturbed” – is an attempt to calm an agitated society. This is a clear indication that implementation of this plan has not been thought through, and that should be of great concern to even those who support this policy.

Parliament, using an ANC and EFF majority, passed a resolution to set up a committee that will investigate how expropriation without compensation can be done and if the constitution currently allows for it. This is an opportunity for all stakeholders – academic bodies across the country, all political parties and all other interest groups – to be able to put their heads down and discuss the issue, thus coming up with a workable solution.

There are key factors that should be considered when dealing with any model of land expropriation.

They are:

  • Declining interest among the rural population, especially the youth, in farming. This can be observed by the rate of urban migration as young people search for better economic prospects;
  • That the willing buyer/willing seller model of land acquisition and lack of an agricultural expropriation law are impeding the rate of the process;
  • The capacity shortcomings at departments that deal with issues of land and agriculture – i.e. the departments of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR) and of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF); the Restitution Commission (RC); the provincial agricultural departments;
  • The issue of post-settlement support for beneficiaries should be addressed with reasonable budgets, taking into account the economies of scale and the pace of transferring land to the previously disadvantaged. In a nutshell, if farmers are not supported beyond the transfer process, then many are bound to fail;
  • Clear messaging from the government; in other words it should guard against sending out conflicting messages about the issue as this can lead to policy uncertainty;
  • Poor selection of beneficiaries should be avoided in the next phase.

To be specific, the government should avoid handing over farms to beneficiaries with no desire to farm; and

  • The other important issue is that South Africa’s economy operates within a global sphere, and therefore it is bound to be impacted greatly by market volatility; hence engagement and clarification of the process going forward in addressing this delicate issue is of utmost importance.

For this to happen, it will require maturity and a deep understanding of our current situation by all the interest groups.

We would also need to remember that the democracy we enjoy today was built on the ability of different interest groups to sit down and have meaningful dialogue about the course that our country should take.

However, some do believe that dialogue is the very reason we are only attempting to address the land issue 24 years into our democracy. But recent history – with regard to the e-tolls campaign and the Mining Charter – shows that if we fail to have a dialogue then we risk impeding the nation’s progress.

The current debate offers us a great chance to have an honest discussion about the ownership patterns of land in the country. This should happen without anyone feeling this is their chance to suddenly grab land owned by white farmers. Neither is it a time for white farmers to be hostile to redress.

May we not let such an opportune moment pass us by. Whatever we do, we must put the country first.

Buyambo Mantashe is a Director of Agribusiness at Red Farms Agripark. He writes this in his personal capacity

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