Mamphela Ramphele

Mamphela Ramphele: No justification for leasing land to foreigners

2019-02-20 05:00
Minister of Agriculture Senzeni Zokwana. Photo: Jonathan Lestrade

Minister of Agriculture Senzeni Zokwana. Photo: Jonathan Lestrade

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The proposed policy of leasing land to Saudi Arabia would be rubbing salt in the wounds of betrayal of poor communities in whose name land restitution without compensation is being pursued in Parliament, writes Mamphela Ramphele.

The announcement about ten days ago by Minister of Agriculture Senzeni Zokwana that consideration was being given by the national government to leasing land "that was lying fallow" to Saudi Arabia to promote food security, is puzzling.

How does the government explain the phenomenon of "land lying fallow" when Parliament is in the process of amending Section 25 of our Constitution to make it easier to implement land restitution without compensation? This constitutional amendment is intended to address historical injustices, land hunger, and provide opportunities for sustainable livelihoods for rural people and promote food security.

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The 2017 report of the Motlanthe High Level Review Panel documents many cases of communities whose land was restituted, with neither enough technical nor financial support provided to the beneficiaries. Such support would have enabled productive use of the land for their own and the nation's benefit. Is this not the source of "land lying fallow"? Is leasing such land to foreign governments the appropriate response?

Imagine what could have happened if the promised support had been given to the thousands of communities across the country whose land was restituted to them! Is this not the urgent task the Minister of Agriculture should be addressing to restore hope and dignity to those communities that would be enabled to become productive citizens contributing to their own well-being as well as that of our country?

I have personal knowledge of the plight of such neglected communities in the northern parts of the Limpopo province whose land claims were processed in the 1990s. One of these communities is the Kranspoort community that was forcefully removed in 1956 from the then Dutch Reformed Church Mission Station. The community was resettled in a less fertile area, Endermark, near Bochum in the west of Polokwane. Their land claim was successfully concluded in 2000 and they were given title to the land.  

Kranspoort farm is a rich piece of land just over 1,5 million hectares at the foot of the Soutpansberg Mountains. Perennial spring water flows uninterrupted into a river that provides for irrigation to complement rain-fed agriculture. My parents were teachers at the local Stephanus Hofmeyr School. We grew up with abundant fruit and vegetables throughout the year. Many families had abundant livestock.

The people of Kranspoort are still waiting for promised government support.  They have received neither infrastructure development funding nor operational support, despite countless business plans submitted and promises made. Neighbouring communities in the Vhembe district tell similar painful stories as they watch their lands lying fallow year in and year out! 

Government's commitment to land restitution and food security would be better realised by leveraging the transformative impact of efficient, effective and well governed land restitution and reform would have been in this and many other beautiful areas of our country! 

The Vhembe district has the potential to become one of our sustainable food baskets providing livelihoods to many. In addition, the ecotourism potential of this district is huge. It is one of the few areas in our country with the largest leopard colonies in our land. 

Why has the government not followed up on the findings and recommendations of the Motlanthe High Level Review Panel in the face of grinding rural poverty and food insecurity? The proposed policy of leasing land to Saudi Arabia would be rubbing salt in the wounds of betrayal of these poor communities in whose name land restitution without compensation is being pursued in Parliament.  

One cannot avoid the conclusion that publicly acknowledged pervasive state capture that has wreaked havoc to public service provision across the country is largely to blame for the failure to government to follow through on support to poor communities. Is the government going to hold officials responsible for failures to execute on financial and technical support to land restitution communities?

Betrayal of these communities by public servants has substantially contributed to growing rural poverty, unemployment and despair that are driving thousands of people into humiliating lives on the edges of our cities and towns. Potentially successful peasant farmers have been reduced to dependent social grant recipients whose dignity is trampled underfoot by non-caring public servants.

Considerations of leasing land to foreigners in the face of well publicised threats and risks of climate change and global warming make no sense. Our farmers are struggling to survive the stranglehold of droughts and floods that are part of the reality of global warming and climate change. Yet no effective mitigating supportive action has been forthcoming from Minister Zokwana.  

How can the government justify even contemplating leasing such land to foreigners instead of investing in promoting sustainable livelihoods for struggling young people and women in rural areas? There is mounting evidence that climate change could make food production in the western part of our country including the Karoo difficult, if not impossible. Every piece of land in our country should be harnessed for our own benefit as a country. 

This wrong-headed thinking about leasing land to foreigners would take food out of the mouths of the most vulnerable amongst us.  

It is in our hands as citizens to hold the government accountable for doing what is right for the country and particularly for those yet to be born. 

- Mamphela Ramphele is co-founder of ReimagineSA.

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