Opinionista Derek Carstens 25 April 2018

The Land Issue – threat or opportunity

When the land issue is placed before Parliament for debate, I would invite you to try to assess it within the context of intent. This, more than anything, will provide the compass as to the future of ourselves and our country.


Having always been a “glass half full” type of South African, the recent decision re the land issue required some recalibration. As in: what are its implications?

Does it show me to be a naive, simplistic, potboiled South African frog or not? Is this the Rubicon moment which will set us on the path to poverty and degradation as emigration accelerates in tandem with withdrawal of foreign capital? Are we now on the path to becoming a rogue nation?

Truth be told, when I first heard about it (I was abroad at the time) it certainly felt like all those things. All the more so because I am the fortunate owner of a beautiful farm in the Karoo in the Eastern Cape.

And being an actual land owner I can assure you that the impact of the news was as viscerally nauseating as it was intellectually disturbing.

Since then I have, however, ridden out the emotional roller coaster ride and sought to try a more rational approach in an attempt to come to grips with its motive and possible impact, not just on myself and my family, but also on the country.

In so doing I resorted to the wisdom of a friend and colleague, Dr Francois Hugo, a leading behavioural psychologist and human relations specialist. In this instance I found his concept of “intent” to be especially relevant and helpful.

Briefly it frames behavioural choices or actions within the context of “what is the intent?”. So, for example, when you go into a business meeting, is it your intent to be constructive, destructive, self-serving, neutral etc – and bear in mind being constructively critical is very different from being negative. They each speak to a different intent.

So I decided to try to frame the land issue within this context of “so what exactly is the government’s intent here?”. Is it to right so-called “wrongs”; is it to do with retribution/ punishment of some kind; is it to uplift the country; is it to involve more black farmers in the agricultural sector, etc. What exactly is it, and I am positive that an honest answer to this will help determine whether the naysayers are correct or not as regards the prospects going forward.

So I thought I would approach it as if the intent of the decision was in the best interests not just of the people, but also the country and the all-important question of food production. Let alone our standing in the world and all the positive results that would emanate from such an outcome.

Having framed the issue in this way, the next question was, well how could this be done? And the good news is that there is a way and it is not complicated, which is not to say it will be easy. It just requires the right intent as regards more productive people and more productive land. A win-win.

What I am talking about is the 17,000,000 ha of state land. Now I am not sure if you can imagine just how large that to be, but suffice to say it is massive. It is about 3,000,000 ha more than all the arable land of the entire country of Uganda. Granted, not all of it may be arable, but a huge amount of it most certainly is.

So this land is there. It already belongs to the people, i.e. the state, and mostly lies fallow. Most of it also lies in the most densely populated parts of the country: 28% in KZN; 15% in Limpopo; 14% in North West. No need to dispossess anyone at this stage or cause any social upheavals and unrest. And most of it is underutilised. So if I had positive intent as regards the land issue, the country and those of its people who actually want to farm, this is where I would start.

The question within this context then becomes how and to whom should this land be given. Well, first, it should be allocated with full title and be given to competent black farmers who are at least qualified to farm the land allocated in a self-sufficient way. All the better if they can move beyond just a subsistence level of output.

Title to the land is of course key and will doubtless upset many a rural chief, but the greater good must surely prevail in the interests of all the country as a whole. After all, we no longer live in feudal times. Title would unlock billions in capital – and capital is what will drive development of the land. Billions of rand of sorely needed capital.

As regards the competence of farmers, agricultural colleges exist and should be expanded.

Rather than focusing on university education as much as we do there should be an increased focus on regional agricultural colleges, each geared to their specific areas in the sense that maize farming in the Free State is quite different to avocado farming in Limpopo. This too will help clarify what parcels of land to apportion based on a minimum size in terms of crop/ yield.

We have also already seen that many white farmers are more than willing to help train and mentor aspiring black farmers, based on a genuine desire to help and a common love for the land. They are proven experts who want this country and its people to succeed, but not by impoverishing themselves.

All this will of course take time and require a detailed strategy with clear objectives, but if there ever was a topic that deserved a well thought-out strategy it is surely this one.

The benefits of such an approach would be an actual increase in agricultural output, a bigger, more vibrant and representative agricultural community in terms of not only farmers, but all the industries involved in the supply chain from fertiliser producers to irrigation specialists.

Rural employment would accelerate. In the meantime nothing would stand in the way of the willing buyer, willing seller concept. Nothing would disturb the existing social cohesion, as let’s say half the state land (i.e. that deemed  arable) some 8,500,000ha, or even a quarter, was gradually turned over with title, to deserving, competent, black farmers.

Sure, it would take political will and firm resolve, but with the right intent in terms of what is best for the country this could be done. All at little or no incremental cost. By the time it is completed the whole issue of valid claims could of course be brought back into focus and re-examined as lessons will doubtless have been learned and goodwill will be so much greater.

I mean, the question to me simply is if that is the intent then why not “just do it“. Why would you start elsewhere?

Which brings us back to the question: What is government’s intent?
If on the other hand the intent is to use the land issue as a political football to appease the Left in any way, shape or form, or to exact some kind of retribution, I believe the outcome will be an unmitigated disaster.

Social cohesion and trust will collapse, farmers will not willingly comply, food production would shrink, capital would flee and so on and so forth.

We know all this so no need to belabour the point.

It is simply to say that these are the two extremes of the intent barometer and doubtless there are varying scenarios within these polarities.

So as and when the issue is placed before Parliament for debate, in August I believe, then I would invite you to try to assess it within the context of intent. This more than anything will provide the compass as to the future of ourselves and our country.

In the meantime, please no more Zebediela disasters, no more purchasing of productive land which is then abandoned or left to lie fallow as has happened with three formerly highly productive farms in the Fish River area near us.

No more R1-billion being spent on a minute piece of land in Sabie Sand. R1-billion. No more. Please. It will be the end of hope. DM

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