Looting the Land Bank

2007-11-17 00:00

As recent correspondents to this newspaper have again highlighted, the land issue remains contentious and needs to be addressed with both urgency and good sense. It is a matter in which of all institutions in the country, the Land Bank should have a pivotal role to play. Founded in 1912 (and thus pre-dating the notorious Land Act of 1913 which, by reserving more that 90% of the country's land for exclusively white ownership, lies at the root of the current problem), the Land Bank has long been the financial backer for organised agriculture. In 1995, Nelson Mandela set up the Strauss Commission on Rural Finance to advise on the transformation of the bank and the outcome was a restructured organisation with, as its own website announces, a new mission “to deracialise the agricultural sector and bring on board farmers from previously marginalised groups to the mainstream of South Africa's agricultural sector”. This involves not only ensuring that emerging black farmers have access to land, but that they are equipped with the skills and financial resources to farm it productively.

There could arguably be nothing more central to the future social, political and economic stability of this country and the welfare of its people than that the agricultural sector should be transformed in this way and emerge with its productive capacity not just stable but enhanced, and the Land Bank claims this as its primary responsibility. In recent times, though, serious concerns have been raised about the lethargic way in which it has addressed its task. The perception that things were going awry has grown and recent events have provided dramatic clues as to where the problem lies. In late August, the National Treasury gave the Land Bank a R1,5 billion loan guarantee and a R700 million cash injection as part of a turnaround strategy, with Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister Lulama Xingwana blaming the apartheid legacy for the slow pace of transformation. A forensic audit conducted by Deloitte & Touche rang other alarm bells, however, and some 10 days ago cabinet resolved to refer the audit report to the SA Police Services and National Directorate of Public Prosecutions for further investigation and possible prosecution. Speculation that as much as R2 billion intended for farmers had been siphoned off by senior bank officials to fund their personal ventures has been corrected by a ministry statement that the figure was closer to R1 billion. Latest reports are that five senior board members, including chairperson Lungile Mazwai, have been dismissed.

No doubt further investigation is already in hand and more sackings, and possibly prosecutions, can be expected. So far, in a sense, so good: the watchdog has proved to be alert, the corruption has been identified and action has been taken. It may well be asked how it is that so many corrupt and corruptible people have managed to be appointed to positions of high responsibility, but the system seems to have worked. The question remains, however, whether its working is effective enough and salutary enough. Will this be another instance (and the public has seen too many of these recently) where manifestly corrupt high officials get away with the proverbial slap on the wrist, merely getting fired and perhaps fined? These people have abused their position, betrayed the trust placed in them, and, by their personal greed, have jeopardised an important national cause. They ought not only to pay every cent back, but to be put away in prison for a very long time.

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