As part of the party’s increasingly media-friendly face, the latest African National Congress media briefing on Monday was designed to discuss land, rural development and agriculture. Bringing together five – count ‘em – five cabinet ministers, Gugile Nkwini (Rural Development and Land Reform), Dipuo Peters (Transport), Tina Joemat-Petterson (Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries), Lechesa Tsenoli (Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs) and Dikobe Ben Martins (Energy), the meeting was designed to contribute some heft to the mantra of “a good story to tell” over the governing party’s “Manifesto on Rural Development, Agriculture and Land Reform”. However, by the time it was concluded, it seems to have told a slightly different, somewhat more problematic tale instead in many ways.
The presentations during this two-hour meeting fairly overflowed with a tsunami of acronyms and all those opaquely named government programs in which the names never quite describe what they actually are meant to achieve. Each of the five speakers roared through lists of development plan items; things that sounded like economically diversified sectoral improvement zones, multi-dimensional, right-sized, infrastructural developmental analytical frameworks. Collectively, it became a near-hypnotic pace where one item seemed an anagram of all of the ones that had come just before the last one.
The core of the briefing, of course, boiled down to that thoroughly fraught question of land and the farmers who live on it and own it – or, presumably, those who also wish to be its owners. Without question, land is one of the two or three potentially most explosive economic questions in contemporary South Africa – right there with unemployment and income inequalities – and has ultimately been that way since the 1913 Land Act came into force. The current government continues to plod along with its land claims and land restitution process; noting that the successful settlement and restitution of all current potential claims would have a cost far in excess – orders of magnitude more – of the less than R9 billion per annum budget now set aside for such processes. This overhang exists even before the land claims pipeline is reopened for yet more claims by people who had been dispossessed of their traditional lands.
But dig down another layer. The briefing revealed yet another stumbling block – the land register remains riddled with inaccuracies and gaps. While the process to complete the national register is continuing, it is not completed yet, and so, quite literally, neither the government nor anybody else actually knows who owns all the land in the country, let alone its fair value.
Some land and buildings, ostensibly owned by some government agency (either national, provincial or local) had effectively been taken over by private parties in the growing confusion of the great transformation of the early 1990s. Moreover other claims of ownership remain confused by the complexities of land held by traditional leaders or by communities in common – as well as from overlapping claims from many different quarters that affect ownership of important parcels of land. Like the land claims process, the full, complete and accurate census of land ownership only slowly moves forward, with the promise this task will be completed in the future.
The crux of this is that the entire edifice of this government planning rests on a kind of deeply resonant, emotionally compelling “myth” – the idea that there is a huge pent-up demand for land for sturdy yeoman-like small scale farmers who yearn to take up the risks and rewards of farming. But, like pretty much everywhere else in the world, rural populations, especially rural peasants, landless rural populations and workless rural populations have been streaming to cities since the beginning of the industrial revolution to flee the rural landscape.
In virtually every third world and middle-income nation, the migration to cities and away from the sticks has been constant and inexorable, just as it did even earlier for the developed, industrialised western world. South Africa only avoided this dynamic for a while – but only because of the punitive sanctions that were crucial to apartheid’s influx control – laws and regulations that artificially restricted population movements to cities. Once that fell away in the mid-1980s, South Africa’s population movements began to resemble that of every other nation’s once again. Even among long time commercial farmers, their numbers are falling dramatically in this country, in part because of the many vicissitudes of the farming lifestyle, and in part because so much farming is poised on a knife edge of profit and loss that it can easily become a financial disaster.
And in fact, South African policymakers are wrestling with yet another intractable problem – squaring the circle of balancing these pledges of land reform with the need to ensure food security for the nation. As a general rule, small-scale farmers are less likely to produce the large surpluses needed to feed the rest of the population than big commercial farmers – but those big commercial farmers (usually white ones still) need those large expanses of land so that they can carry out agribusiness-style operations. That, in turn, can easily collide with the need to carry out those land transfers that address that reform mandate.
Then, of course, there is another reality. This is the fact that many of the people who wish to claim land may not actually intend to live on that land as full-time farmers. This was a problem that even the ministers in attendance at the briefing felt constrained to note as a real problem for the success of the country’s land reform programs. This, in turn, speaks to the problem that land hunger for farming is not exactly the same as that more emotional need for restoration and restitution to address the injustices perpetrated by the past. And, in fact, this need may be harder to redress since it also resides in the mind – and not just in the names on the title deed to a piece of the land.
While the mind was being asked to wrestle with all these competing, and potentially irreconcilable, demands, we were suddenly reminded by ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu that the cabinet members in attendance were speaking on behalf of their party’s land and agriculture manifesto, rather than as officials wearing their ministerial hats – yet another conundrum, sorting out what that meant when the ministers were talking about government programs they supervised.
By the time the briefing was finished, it was not clear we had learned precisely what the organisers had hoped to convey – that the party had that “good story to tell.” Rather, too often, the story one took on board seemed to be about a long list of projects about to be funded, inventories about to be completed, commitments about to be honoured, plans close to being finalised, and inter-departmental committees and working groups about to report back with the raw material that could allow policymakers to apply their minds to potential proposals as budgets permit.
Still, given all the complexities of adjudicating those conflicting demands and the need for building stable plans and policies atop the wreckage left by apartheid’s mad social planners, it was hard not to have sympathy for the ministers making their best efforts to communicate their engagement with these issues to a bunch of cynical journalists. Nonetheless, what seemed not communicated was a clear sense of the urgency of addressing the problems related to land and their rural populations.
Instead, the urgency seemed more to be in making the sale on that good story that needed to be told to millions of voters, voters who by now must be increasingly restive with promises that have been a generation in the waiting. One might almost be allowed to believe that in the back of a ministerial mind the germ of the thought might be aborning, “Maybe somebody else should have to deal with this mess instead of me.” But it is their job and they, or somebody else rather like them, will almost certainly have to keep dealing with it, post-7 May. DM
Photo: Black South African commercial farmer Motsepe Matlala inspects apples growing growing on his 1,400 hectare (3,460 acre) farm near the small town of Ermelo in Mpumalanga province, February 23, 2006. (Reuters)
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