IF ONE is to believe the government’s pronouncements on the “land issue” then land hunger is acute among South Africa’s African population. One might believe that there are thousands upon thousands who wish to farm.

Well, the extension of the land claims’ cut-off date has so far proved the opposite: claimants are being urged to take land rather than cash in compensation.

Of 5 495 claims registered, the majority do not want to farm. In fact, most of the new claimants in Gauteng and the Western Cape were dispossessed because of group areas removals, not because of an alleged 300-year-old colonial dispossession.

The high proportion of cash claimants has worried the bureaucrats because there is not enough money available. It all goes to show how a blind adherence to an ideology makes for nonsense in a real and changing world. And it does seem that ideology and mythology are the motives for land claims legislation. How else can one explain it?

Black politicians may dream of a golden age past, but would they really welcome back the tribal wars, or a world without modern medicine and dentistry?

Politicians have often claimed that South Africa is big enough for everyone to have land. And on the face of it, it looks feasible – if everyone could live off 2 hectares.

That is what equality of land distribution would mean.

The almost abject failure to farm by many of those people who have benefited from the government’s efforts to transfer 30 percent of arable land to black farmers surely merits a new look at the policy.

There are black farming successes. But according to the government, of the 6 million hectares bought from white farmers and given to black ones, only 10 percent are still productive. Tragically, some land transferred to black people has been sold or leased back to the original white owners.

It is estimated that there are 200 to 700 emerging black farmers in the country, and 80 percent of them are in the Western Cape. How odd then that the land hunger we hear about so often is not coming from deep rural and largely black African areas.

On the land issue, it seems common sense is trumped by the emotional idea that white people stole all land in South Africa.

It is based on events 300 years ago when the interior was largely empty; the black population nowhere near as numerous as it is today; and when “white” farming was a matter of scratching a crop or two when the rain fell and living on sheep meat when game was not available.

Today, most South Africans live in cities. Most of us, black and white, do not wish to farm. Above all, none of us relish the harsh life that “peasant farming” inflicts.

The idea that black people are starved of farming land might be true of some of those living in communal areas, but most want a life in the city, a house with running water and modern sewerage and a job.

They cannot get that in rural areas; witness the relentless emigration to the cities.

It seems obvious that successful land reform would change communal land ownership to a form of freehold and expand these traditional areas only if the desire to farm is apparent. Take a slice of the enormous land restitution budget to pay for it.

Better still would be to spend the land reform budget on upgrading the massive informal settlements that now ring our cities. Their residents do not see themselves as landless peasants. They are unemployed workers yearning for city jobs.

One final thought. If one is determined to shoot oneself in the foot, it is almost impossible to miss.


Keith Bryer is a retired communications consultant.