The dangers of land reform

2008-07-11 00:00

TRAVELLING to Uganda in 1995 with a previous minister of agriculture, Derek Hanekom, and his astute director of agriculture, Bongiwe Njobe, it was made clear to me that if land reform was pushed too fast in South Africa we would end up as one large rural slum.

However, there was a political imperative that the government had to be seen to be dealing with “land hunger”. At the time, I almost accepted that some political imperatives needed to be implemented, which meant that the target of replacing 30% of the commercial farmers with new farmers by 2014 seemed a reasonable expectation.

This acceptance was based on a previous understanding that the world would not accept apartheid and, therefore, it would not accept that white commercial farmers continue to control 95% of the agricultural economy of South Africa.

Maybe the world would not accept a white farming majority, but does that mean to say the world is right? It seems to have got it wrong with Zimbabwe.

My “almost acceptance” of a 30% land transfer was tempered by the words of Professor Oketh Ogendo from the Department of Land Law at Nairobi University. During a visit to Nairobi in 1994, a year before the Hanekom visit to Uganda, Ogendo warned us very strongly that following the path that Kenya had followed in “transferring” land from commercial farmers to subsistence farmers would result in the rural slums referred to by Njobe just a year later.

Maybe the political imperative to introduce land reform is an unacceptable imperative. If it obviously results in starvation for the masses, then why follow that route? Surely the government has some concern for the good of its people?

If the government does continue to follow the route of land reform and there is starvation, then it is clear that it does not feel anything for its people.

Is it inevitable that there will be starvation in our country? The reality is that our climate is not a great one for agricultural production. The only reason our farmers have managed to feed the population is because they are pretty good at farming commercially in a fairly tough environment.

No doubt this has led to complacency regarding our food supplies. We think we can fiddle with our agricultural production without dire consequences. In fact, we are sitting on a knife edge. Supply of basic food is only just meeting demand.

Do not believe that imports will be able to save us. The rest of the world is facing the same problem and is holding on to its food supplies. Unlike the past, when surplus food on the international market could be imported at a reasonable price, we will now have to pay premium prices which the man in the street will not be able to afford.

The current land reform policy involves restitution and redistribution of our farmland. It is well documented that only about three percent of those to be resettled under these schemes have an entrepreneurial spirit that could be directed to farming commercially. In which case, Ogendo’s principle applies and this reform policy will result in previously productive commercial land turning into rural slums.

The term “rural slums” is not an insult to the people who have been settled, it is merely a reflection of the inadequacy and stupidity of the current land reform policy.

Why can we not just continue with the successful farmers who are on the land and let a natural attrition result when new farmers with entrepreneurial ability settle on the land. The target of settling 30% of the land will take much longer than 2014, but at least we will not starve in the process.

What about the fear among our politicians that they have to hand over land to get votes? Maybe they are worried that they promised land to the masses and now have to deliver, but if it is going to result in massive rural and urban poverty, why not stop it right now. Take the knock and get on with running the country properly.

A Christian friend once said that if we had no religion or land in this country we would all live happily. All the animosity seems to emanate from these two areas.

Land ownership is not a right. Only four percent of the world’s population own land, so why should it be any different here? The government has made an issue out of land ownership and now has to live with the consequences as well as the responsibility of getting us out of the dwang.

We do not have to turn this country into a rural slum. There is still time to save it, but the government must act now and stop replacing productive farmers with subsistence farmers.

• Alastair Paterson is an agricultural consultant. He can be phoned at 033 330 4817 or 082 880 9002, or e-mailed at

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