For real empowerment, let farmers own their farms - Agri Portal

23 October 2020 - Two weeks ago, City Press carried a depressing story on black farmers in Mpumalanga who stood to be removed from the state-owned land they were working.

Terence Corrigan

Two weeks ago, City Press carried a depressing story on black farmers in Mpumalanga who stood to be removed from the state-owned land they were working.

They had refused to pay the bribes that the officials overseeing them had demanded, and so they were targeted for eviction.

One farmer who featured prominently in the report, John Mabasa, could claim a family lineage on his land for some 300 years, including a land grant in 1886 from a citizen of the then Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek. Despite having built a successful farming operation, he also faces removal. By his account, an official from the department demanded an ‘administration fee’ of R250 000, which Mabasa refused to pay. His farm is now being advertised.

In a cruel twist of fate, the government announced with great fanfare that these properties were among the farms to be released for redistribution.

Discussing this initiative in his weekly newsletter at the time, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared:

Land is a productive asset that generates profit and can be used for collateral to secure other assets. We have to ensure that land acquired for farming purposes is productively used. To safeguard the allocated state land for farming purposes, the lease is not transferable. Beneficiaries will sign a lease agreement with the state and pay a rental fee consistent with the land value. We must also ensure that farmers are supported along the road to sustainability and profitability.

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As a crisp summation of what is wrong, conceptually, with the government’s approach to land reform, it might be hard to beat this. Land is a basis for wealth, he says, and can be used to leverage more of it. But this is a course that will ultimately not be available to the beneficiaries of its plan. No, they will not own the land, but will operate as rent-paying state tenants. This is long-standing state policy.

It is intriguing just how little attention this seems to have attracted over the past few years, even as land politics has come to exercise a fevered hold on South African political debate. The call to ‘return’ and ‘restore’ and to ‘redistribute’ land has been taken up widely, but without much apparent appreciation that the plan here is to take from existing owners and vest it in the state.

Abundantly clear

This was made abundantly clear when the proposal to amend the constitution was debated in Parliament on 27 February 2018. Leading the ANC’s contribution, Gugile Nkwinti – who had until a day previously been the minister of rural development and land reform – waxed enthusiastic about Expropriation without Compensation (EWC): ‘The ANC unequivocally supports the principle of land expropriation without compensation. There is no doubt about it, land shall be expropriated without compensation.’

This was to be expected, as he’d expressed similar sentiments previously.

But he also devoted a large part of his address to attacking ownership and title deeds. Issue these, he said, and the land would be ‘lost’. People would take out loans and fail to pay them back, and white landowners would come back. 

‘That’s why we stopped the title deeds until our people were in a position, and government was in a position, to defend them.’ Rather, ‘a progressive revolutionary government ought to then have land and allocate it to people.’

‘And through that’, he said, ‘we kept the land and we made it available for our people to work it.’

John Mabasa would probably disagree. He has been trying to secure a title deed for decades. And now that he finds his farm under threat, it is not venal white landowners who are the face of the assault, but ‘the progressive revolutionary government.’

President Ramaphosa promises that farmers should be ‘supported along the road to sustainability and profitability’. But this has never been borne out by reality. (John Mabasa told his interviewer: ‘These hands worked. I got nothing from government – it’s mine.’) Inadequate post-settlement support has been an ongoing weakness in land reform. It is not clear why this new programme will be any different, given the financial bind that the government finds itself in, and the state of the land reform bureaucracy.

Funding avenues will not be available

For farmers like Mr Mabasa, denied ownership or the ability to purchase (for decades at least), many other funding avenues will not be available.

Land reform is a necessary policy, and if properly undertaken, one that will benefit the whole of society. But not like this.

Around the time that Parliament voted to investigate amending the Constitution, Professor Cyril Mbatha, then of the School of Business Leadership at the University of South Africa, pointed out that land reform was a complex issue, with different elements that needed to be recognised and dealt with separately. Redistribution, he argued, was largely a Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programme.

There is some truth to this, and the threats to black farmers in Mpumalanga showcase some of the pathologies that go along with BEE. Chief among these is the intrusion of political insiders – the politician, the fixer and the bureaucrat – into a space that is best owned by entrepreneurs. Moeletsi Mbeki has argued that in feeding a small group of such insiders, BEE strikes at genuine entrepreneurs, the sort of risk taking, profit-oriented businesspeople South Africa needs.

Which is, in large measure, what is at hand in Mpumalanga. It is the triumph of politics – albeit in an especially corrupt and debased form – over entrepreneurship. It is also a warning about where South Africa could be heading as the EWC agenda ploughs ahead, most recently with the publication of the Expropriation Bill.

Dispel the stereotype

President Ramaphosa has said that land reform ‘must dispel the stereotype that only white farmers are commercially successful in South Africa and that black farmers are perpetually “emerging”’. Black farmers – to use the president’s formulation – are no less capable than anyone else of farming. This should be no surprise to anyone. They have, sadly, had to face enormous obstacles to their success. And if the government is serious about changing this, opening up a clear pathway to ownership of their land would be a good place to start.

Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.

This article was first published on the IRR's online publication, Daily Friend