Land reform is a highly emotive subject, especially since it is coupled to debates about radical economic transformation in SA. While there is broad agreement that land reform is necessary if we are to see inclusive economic development, there are divergent views about the precise policy tools and pace with which this important programme should be implemented.
One thing that is certain is that if this debate is not managed well, land reform in future could be used to stoke populist sentiments in ways that generate catastrophic results similar to what we have seen in many postindependent African states. Those in whose name land reform is driven end up being the casualties, while elites become rich landowners.
Progress on land reform is made all the more difficult by the fact that sharp tensions still mark the relationship between large agricultural groups that are predominantly white-owned and the governing party, which has failed to put in place a sensible approach to managing redistribution in an inclusive and empowering way.
Some of the contentious issues include the status of land audits, the extent to which land has been transferred from white to black hands, and the area of land that is under the ownership of the state but remains underutilised.
The fixation on the tracts of land that have been transferred overlooks other critically important aspects of land reform, namely to support productive use of land, expanding economic opportunities for black emerging farmers and ensuring food security.
Three weeks ago, I spent some time in Libode, in the former Transkei area of the Eastern Cape, where I was interacting with farmers who are part of agriculture cooperatives. As I listened to some of their stories about the challenges they face at farm level and in bringing their products to market, it became clear that the government’s rhetoric and actual policy tools are at odds. My interest was to gain a better understanding of the role rural agriculture plays in overcoming poverty, boosting incomes and dealing with development challenges.
One of the co-operatives I visited had a bumper season in 2016. The group, 16 in total with half of the members women, successfully produced yellow maize on 32ha of land of a total area of 575ha. Input support in the form of genetically modified seed and fertiliser come from the government, but this has been erratic.
Without input support, there would be little motivation to plant, especially in the context of income and asset poverty in these areas. The big challenge, apart from those that are well-known and related to a thin knowledge base and weak integration to the markets, is the fact that the government’s support lacks predictability.
Motivated by good yields in 2016, the farmers in Libode wanted to increase the portion it plants maize from 32ha to 100ha in the current farming season. The government damped the wishes of the community. Their pleas for more seed to enable them to reach their 100ha target fell on deaf ears.
The government limited its support to a mere 30ha, leaving more than 500ha underutilised. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the Eastern Cape contributes a negligible 1% to SA’s annual maize output, according to Agriculture Business Chamber figures.
As I spoke to these farming communities, it became clear there is no shortage of passion to plant. But passion alone does not create seed, knowledge or markets to sell the produce. This is why the government and other actors need to support co-operative farmers.
It is not just the government that has shown benign neglect. Large private sector groups are also conspicuous by their absence. There is no sign that large agricultural groups or banks have any appetite to invest in these fledgling farmers, who have gone to great lengths to establish co-operatives and engage in the task of working the land.
Constraints related to security of tenure are often used by the private sector as justification for hand-wringing rather than finding creative ways to codesign solutions with the government and farming communities. Co-operative farmers in rural communities are already bearing the risks of farming under stressful conditions: crop risks, climate risk and the risk of not getting a fair price from the market due to information asymmetries. A modicum of support from the government extension services, agribusiness and banks could go a long way to improve land productivity, boost incomes and reduce poverty in SA.
This brings me back to the politically charged issue of land reform. This debate has, by and large, been badly managed either for cheap political point-scoring by the governing party or by commercial farmers to resist change because they have a vested interest in the status quo.
What the plight of farmers in rural communities demonstrates is that beyond rhetoric about land reform, the government has so far failed to put forward ideas that can improve land productivity where small farmers are showing willingness to work the land.
The absence of financial support, weak input support and lack of mentorship opportunities to help co-operative farmers improve their skills and farming techniques bear testimony to poor policy design, wrong priorities and ineffectual implementation. Even the fiscal allocation at a macro level is not equal to the task.
The budget allocation to the land reform programme is at R4bn, against the estimated R54bn required to meet the land redistribution targets of the National Development Plan. Further, there are widely reported cases where land reform programmes in provinces such as Mpumalanga, the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal have been used to benefit politically connected cronies. All of this makes a mockery of the government’s commitment to empowering the poor through the land reform programme.
There is much that can be done by the government and commercial farmers to deal with land reform in a more transparent and orderly manner — to promote food security and competitiveness of the sector while seeking to achieve equity objectives.
There is a need to genuinely create opportunities to empower black farmers and facilitate their inclusion in the agriculture value chain, beyond just an obsession with how many tracts of land have been transferred from white farmers or what is under state control. Effective support programmes by the government in particular will not only ensure an inclusive agricultural economy, but could bolster long-term food security, especially if agricultural land is used productively.
At some stage, the government and commercial farmers will need to have difficult conversations about inclusiveness and transformation; they will need to sit on one side of the table and tackle structural bottlenecks to inclusiveness, growth and competitiveness. In the end, there is a need to ensure we build a thriving agricultural sector where co-operatives participate meaningfully in the market economy, where black commercial farmers are well-supported and growing alongside their white counterparts, where we minimise threats to food security, and where we ensure SA’s agriculture sector is globally competitive. Qobo is affiliated to the National Research Foundation’s research chair on African diplomacy and foreign policy at the University of Johannesburg. This article is based on field research to study rural development models in SA.