It was the Nazi head of propaganda Joseph Goebbels who said in 1941: "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it."
Goebbels was accusing British Prime Minister Winston Churchill of deceiving his people in a speech titled, Churchill's Lie Factory.
So it was slightly bizarre when the brother of a former ANC president quoted him in relation to the ruling party this week at a panel discussion about land reform. The brother was, of course, political analyst and farmer Moeletsi Mbeki.
The lie he was referring to in this case was land expropriation without compensation. The goal of the lie, he said: to bring back voters to the ANC by blaming white farmers for black people's suffering.
What makes the lie so brilliant is that it's so big that it confuses everyone. Will my land be expropriated without compensation? What about my house in the city? Does the ruling party really believe in the end of property rights, after years of fighting for civil liberties? Won't that also negatively affect the poor? Is it necessary to change the Constitution to successfully implement land reform?
Seen from the other side of the equation, does this mean I will finally get back the land of my ancestors? And will government finally give me a house?
The confusion plunges the discussion into panic, which obfuscates the complexity of the land reform issue and prevents ordinary people from really understanding what, where and why land reform can and should work. It is extremely unhelpful (and therein, perhaps, lies its success).
If you kick out one leg of the table, the entire table falls
It's unhelpful to the agriculture sector, because it creates uncertainty. As AgriSA CEO Dan Kriek said this week, he doesn’t want assurances from the Australian government. He wants assurance from his own government. Agriculture is a business and the sector has had little support from the state in terms of the recent drought, competing with international markets and bringing small scale farmers into the value chain.
As price takers, farmers are at the mercy of large retailers who determine the price they're willing to pay for their products. This affects small and medium scale farmers the most.
The big family and commercial farms that can tailor their businesses for exports are themselves economic ecosystems: they employ not only the workers on their farms, but also the mechanic that comes to fix the broken tractor, and the plumber who has to mend the broken pipes. They sustain whole communities directly and indirectly through the co-ops in our local towns. We know from the massive land reform failure in Zimbabwe that farm workers suffered the most.
While manufacturing in South Africa has declined from 25% of the GDP to 13%, agri-processing is still growing and now accounts for 25% of manufacturing in the country. Imagine the number of jobs that will be lost if the agri-processing industry starts suffering. Inversely, imagine the potential for job creation in this sector.
It makes absolutely no sense for government to expropriate commercial farming land and they know it. If you kick out one leg of the table, the entire table falls. But saying so doesn't aid the lie.
It is also unhelpful to tell people with aspirations to farm that they will soon be given land. We know from the millions of hectares already transferred that, without proper training, being given title deeds for the land and post-settlement support, these farmers largely fail. There needs to be a discussion about the perception of land as an economic resource. A farm is not simply land – it's a system. The notion that you can buy land without buying what will make that land work for you is setting people up for failure.
Big, generalised lies
It's also unhelpful to lump rural and urban land together. There is currently a backlog of thousands of land claims which National Treasury found will take 200 years to settle at the current rate. How many of these claims are for urban land? Why aren't we looking at the massive pieces of land owned by the departments of defence, transport and public works in our cities and towns?
The same goes for communal land. Most communal land is held in trust by the state for those who occupy it, but we've seen many examples of traditional chiefs exploiting their custodianship. Get these farms productive and get them into the value chain.
A beautiful example of how communal land ownership can work are the communal wool farmers in the Eastern Cape, who currently produce R350m worth of wool per year, or 13% of the national clip. Some 19 000 small farmers here support their families from this production – once poor people who are now able to send their children to university.
Mbeki might be correct in saying land expropriation without compensation is a lie. With the caveats President Cyril Ramaphosa added to the ANC's policy decision, he admitted as much. But the underlying problem is real. And it will require measured, rational cooperation between government, political parties and the agriculture sector to solve. Not big, generalised lies designed for political expedience.
- Alet Janse van Rensburg is opinions editor at News24.
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