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Land reform: We should think small to grow big

Defend Truth


Land reform: We should think small to grow big


Dr Roland Ngam is programme manager for climate justice and socioecological transformation at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Southern Africa. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Government can set up thousands of farmers in very little time by capping transferred farmland to plots of 10ha-20ha and giving a cash grant for the building farmhouses and buying inputs and implements. With 700,000ha, you can set up 35,000 new farmers if each one gets 20ha, or 70,000 if each gets 10ha.

There finally seems to be some movement on South African land reform by the administration of President Cyril Ramaphosa. The topic is again dominating the airwaves and inflaming debate — from Simon’s Town to Musina.

Thoko Didiza, Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, announced on Wednesday 30 September that she was making available more than 700,000 hectares of farmland to historically disadvantaged people for commercial farming. A week later, the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Land Reform announced that a new Land Expropriation Without Compensation Bill had been submitted to Parliament for adoption.

Didiza’s plan will release 896 farms to 896 beneficiaries who show they are willing and able to invest in their properties and make them commercially viable. This will, in Ramaphosa’s words, “dispel the stereotype that only white farmers are commercially successful in South Africa, and that black farmers are perpetually ‘emerging’”.

The new farmers will join the 275 who were awarded 135,117 hectares earlier in 2020.

However, one has to wonder whether these announcements are driven by the long-delayed transformation agenda or political expediency, with another round of elections just around the corner? If they are driven by a real desire to fast-track transformation, then Ramaphosa should do things differently for bigger impact – and for the sake of the environment.

As Ramaphosa reminded South Africans in his weekly letter to the nation on Monday 5 October, the state managed to transfer only 8.4 million hectares of land to blacks — 10% of all commercial farmland — between 1994 and 2018. The Reconstruction and Development Programme had initially planned to transfer 30% of the country’s productive farmland to blacks by 1999. This target was later shifted to 2002, then 2010, then 2014…

Interestingly, Ramaphosa’s letter also mentioned two key reasons why South Africa needs to do land reform differently — and faster.

The letter acknowledged that “our arable land is under threat from land degradation, water scarcity and urban encroachment”. It is no secret that the entire southern African region is going through a multi-year drought, exacerbated by El Niño events.

Both Western and Eastern Cape have in recent years made “Day Zero” announcements and drought has caused crop failures and loss of arable land in key production basins. In Western and Northern Cape, livestock farmers have been abandoning their farms in record numbers. The Sunday Times covered a number of farm suicides in 2019. And can we forget that South Africa is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases on the African continent, at a time when it has committed itself to working with other countries to keep greenhouse gas emissions down and temperature increases to below 1.5°C over the next decades?

Secondly, Ramaphosa’s letter says “broadening access to agricultural land for commercial production and subsistence farming is a national priority”. The very slow pace of land reform over the past two decades has deferred hopes and dreams for millions and, in the process, become a political hot potato. It shouldn’t be this way. Land reform is about dignity, justice, human rights, economic advancement, spiritual harmony, etc. The longer redress for past injustices is delayed, the more tensions it will cause in society, and these tensions can explode into conflagrations that are very destructive for society in general.

Turbocharging land reform – a ‘big bang’ approach

As Ramaphosa indicated in his letter, the Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture pointed out that “whilst we export food, back home 41% of people in rural areas and 59.4% in urban areas have severely inadequate access to food”.

Despite recognition of the need to support smallholder production, the South African government has traditionally invested the bulk of its resources into supporting large-scale commercial farmers. The time has come for a different approach.

Ramaphosa should use a “big-bang” approach to transfer land to hundreds of thousands of previously disadvantaged people quickly.

Government can set up thousands of farmers in very little time by capping transferred farmland at 10ha to 20ha per plot, with a one-off cash payment that beneficiaries can use for a variety of things, from building farmhouses to buying inputs or farm implements. So, with the 700,000ha available, Ramaphosa can set up 35,000 new farmers if each gets 20ha — or 70,000 each gets 10ha.

Former Rural Development Minister Gugile Nkwinti admitted that most land reform farms have failed and, in many instances, millions of rand are invested to rescue these farms within the Recapitalisation and Development Programme (RADP). Some RADP projects have received more than R40-million – for a single project.

To further help beneficiaries, the state should engineer agri-parks to manage dams, electricity supply, agricultural machinery-hiring hubs and co-operatives for beneficiation and commercialisation of products. This takes away the need for vast outlays of cash on tractors and other requirements in the early days of a farm’s existence. It also promotes collaboration and peer learning among farmers. With time, agri-park co-operatives should also set up stores and value chains to negotiate preferential procurement deals with national and local governments, communities, etc.

The previous administration piloted a “big bang” with “One Farmer One Hectare, One Farmer One Dairy Cow” initiatives, but this did not go far enough to have any significant impact.

The new farmers’ first instinct should be to prioritise permaculture techniques focused on production for household consumption, not the markets. They should first learn to produce a variety of different crops and livestock.

Permaculture is a good farming technique in which farmers grow many different crops on the same plot of land. The technique ensures that the soil constantly gains nutrients and, because the farmer does not have to keep turning the ground, there is less watering involved and less release of harmful CO2 gases into the atmosphere. The Department of Agriculture has trained extension officers on permaculture, so there are already skills in place to help smallholders.

This approach will probably be messy at first, but it will be worth it in the long run. It will ensure money is spent judiciously and that the nation makes quicker progress on the land-reform agenda. Importantly, too, it refocuses agricultural production on sustainable practices.

Critics might argue that this approach is too “gung-ho”, but you have to look at the other side of the coin: When will the government have the required resources and capacity to set up a large class of successful black commercial farmers?

Former Rural Development Minister Gugile Nkwinti admitted that most land reform farms have failed and, in many instances, millions of rand are invested to rescue these farms within the Recapitalisation and Development Programme (RADP). Some RADP projects have received more than R40-million – for a single project.

South Africa is already a nation of smallholder farmers, and despite the epistemic violence churned out by some quarters warning that giving land to blacks imperils the country’s food autarky, this dark dystopian vision couldn’t be further from the truth.

Setting up smallholders and large-scale commercial farms is not an “either-or” debate. The two can cohabit.

Furthermore, Statistics South Africa’s 2016 Community Survey reveals that a whopping 91.6% of South Africans involved in agricultural activities derive all or some of their household food, plus some income, from agriculture. The provinces with the highest number of agricultural households are KwaZulu-Natal (536,225), Eastern Cape (495,042) and Limpopo (386,660).

The more land reform is delayed or postponed, the louder the clamour for it will grow and the easier it will be for parties like the EFF to ambush the ANC with the “expropriation without compensation” agenda. By offering more land to more people, Ramaphosa can advance social justice and redress, as well as enhance “agricultural output by bringing more black farmers into the mainstream of the economy”.

Capping farm plots at 20ha max per person and releasing it to permaculture producers ensures that hundreds of thousands of farmers are engaging in agricultural practices that are good for the planet. DM


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All Comments 3

  • Wonderful in theory but how would you make a living in 10/20ha without capital or the ability to source such capital? Your suggestion simply won’t fly or even leave the ground, in my opinion!

    • Also important to know that 10ha may be sufficient to grow vegetables and make a profit out of intensive farming in an area where there is sufficient water to do so. The drier the region, the more land you will need to farm other commodities. No one can make a living of 20 ha in the Karoo, but you can certainly do that in the Southern Cape or the sub-tropical parts of Mpumalanga.

  • There is no point in handing land over to people without farming experience. There are quite a few organisations that could support smallholder farmers developing from subsistence level to sustainability and eventually to agri-entrepreneurs. Some financial assistance to such organisations would expedite such developments.

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