OPINION | Land is not a low-hanging fruit

A field of sunflowers near Bloemfontein. (Getty)
A field of sunflowers near Bloemfontein. (Getty)

While there are opportunities within the farming sector, the industry is not a "low-hanging fruit" as was recently suggested by former president Kgalema Motlanthe, writes Terence Corrigan.

Former president Kgalema Motlanthe has been one of the more measured voices on the question of land reform.

So it is a little difficult to know what to make of his remark that was quoted in a News24 report, "land was a low-hanging fruit that would instantly change the fortunes of many in the country if it was addressed properly". ('Where is the shame?' - Motlanthe on land, looting of Covid-19 funds and why schools should close, 22 July 2020

Is the implication that land can easily be provided to large numbers of people, and that this will be a simple means of driving development and alleviating poverty? This would require elaboration.  

Motlanthe has previously pointed to the lack of secure tenure in the erstwhile homelands, and the lack of title for householders in the country's townships. Indeed, it was in relation to the latter that he has previously used the metaphor of "low-hanging fruit". This is eminently sensible. Not only would this provide security and build equity, but it would confer on millions of South Africans a sense of dignity and belonging that has been denied them. 

In principle, it would be possible to roll this out. Albeit not without challenges, it should be done.  

But government policy is at best ambivalent about this, and as far as farming land goes, opposed to doing so.

This was highlighted over the past year and a half when David Rakgase, a Limpopo farmer, was forced to take the government to court to demand that it honour an agreement (close to two decades old) to sell him the state-owned farm he had successfully operated since the 1990s. 


Government's court papers in that matter affirmed its policy that "black farming households and communities" benefiting from land redistribution would not be offered ownership, but rather leases, at least for an extended initial period. In effect, they are state tenants subject to the oversight of officials who probably have little experience of farming. 

In the former homelands, scandalously little has been done to expand ownership and property rights to those living there. Given the political sensitivities around offending traditional leaders, it's probably best not to be too optimistic around this. 

Would land provision be a simple means for economic subsistence? As one journalist once put it to me, surely the easiest answer to unemployment is to give people small plots to cultivate.

The idea of peasant agriculture mopping up South Africa's poor has hovered around South Africa's policymakers for decades. It is the thinking behind the so-called One Household, One Hectare initiative.

But it is a deceptive idea. There is little evidence that South Africans see this as a desirable, or even viable future. South Africa has largely lost its peasantry. We have an urbanising population that seeks jobs paying wages, and participation in a consumer economy. 

Nevertheless, there are opportunities in the agrarian economy, and a successful land reform programme can assist in opening them up. Motlanthe is to be commended for raising this. But how successful this is will depend not only on land, but on market opportunities, on infrastructure, on financing, on proper veterinary disease and phytosanitary control and so on. Agriculture is not a simple matter, contrary to the assumptions of many with no understanding of it.  

Building the systems to deliver this will take time and dedicated effort. They do not exist at present. In a recent interview, Mike Mlengana, former director general of the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, bemoaned the state of the department, citing among other things a chronic lack of capacity and an "absolute lack of delivery knowledge and work ethic". 

Rural security

Rural security, too, would need to be improved. This applies both to crimes against persons and property - both of which take an enormous psychological toll, and grind down the economic viability of farming enterprises. The costs of vandalism, crop and stock theft, poaching and so on are hardly appreciated by outsiders, and the capacity of the state to act against these - irrespective of the best intentions of police officers - is limited. 

Motlanthe is quite correct that opportunities could be unlocked if these were to be "addressed properly". He is to be commended for raising this. This means understanding the dynamics of farming, the risks and incentives associated with it, and adapting accordingly.

This would involve shifting policy to expanding property ownership and protecting property rights; reforming the administrative systems governing land and agriculture; committing the necessary funding and expertise for effective agricultural support and rural development; and enhancing rural security. Ideological fixes such as rebuilding a peasantry (which - it should be understood - is not the same as small-scale farming) and expropriation without compensation must be abandoned. 

Land and farming offer much to South Africa, and the current circumstances provide impetus to think soberly on how they may contribute in future. Doing so needs to accept the difficulties that come with this: while fruit is there for the taking, it's not hanging within easy reach. 

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. 

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