PRECIOUS RESOURCE: It would be a disservice to the cause of redress to make productive farmers the target of attack, says the writer.

Helen Zille

Most readers will be aware that 2013 marks the centenary of the 1913 Land Act. It is a date that all South Africans should commemorate, in order to better understand this law’s tragic consequences, and find ways to make redress meaningful.

The 1913 Land Act was apartheid’s “original sin” because it reserved 87 percent of South Africa’s land exclusively for white ownership, as the basis of the “bantustan” policy. It not only dispossessed many black South Africans of the land they owned, but also sought to prohibit black people from ever acquiring land in so-called “white” South Africa. The ultimate aim of the National Party government was to strip black South Africans of their citizenship.

This act, and its successor, the 1936 Land Act, are a major cause of dispossession and endemic poverty in South Africa today.

It is appropriate that public debate in 2013 should focus on this tragic legacy and our failure, since the advent of democracy, to address it.

One of the many reasons for this failure is that the national government’s restitution strategy has primarily targeted the declining number of commercial farmers who, in the face of tough international competition (and without the state subsidies their competitors enjoy), still manage to maintain South Africa’s food security, generate exports, underpin our agri-processing industries and generate much-needed foreign exchange.

Since 1994 the number of commercial farmers has dwindled from 120 000 to 37 000. And even more alarmingly, the number of jobs generated by the agricultural sector has declined by almost 400 000 over the same period. If this trend continues, South Africa will soon become a food importing country and the thousands of unskilled workers whose only access to the economy is through jobs in the agricultural sector, will be destitute.

Contrary to common perception, commercial farming is rarely lucrative. In fact, farmers reap the lowest return in the agricultural value chain. Research conducted by “Capturing the Gains” project found that many farmers are struggling.

For example, industry data shows that 30 percent of grape farmers in the Hex River Valley in the Western Cape sold their farms between 2007 and 2011. Hex River farmers who sold their table grapes to the UK in 2011 received only 18 percent of the final retail price while supermarkets took 42 percent and distributors 22 percent. Furthermore, according to industry reports the net income per 750ml of wine has dropped from R1 in 2004 to 38c in 2011.

Any discussion of sustainable land reform needs to acknowledge that our remaining viable, productive farms are a precious resource. We must seek to extend their number among farmers of all races, not diminish them.

It would, therefore, be a disservice to the cause of redress to make productive farmers the target of attack during the centenary commemorations of the 1913 Land Act.

The real goal should be to try to understand why the government’s attempts at land reform have failed so far, and what we must do to redress the legacy of the past while retaining and increasing the productivity of our agricultural land.

This is a complex debate. It is not reducible to a simplistic black-versus-white/good-versus-evil analysis. But, if President Jacob Zuma’s January 8 statement is anything to go by, the ANC will milk this commemoration (yet again), for the purpose of racial mobilisation, in order to deflect attention from the real reasons for 20 years of failed land reform. And this diversion will merely perpetuate these failures.

Before South Africans fall for this con trick, we would do well to ask the following questions:

l Why is 90 percent of the 5.9 million hectares of land bought by the state for emerging farmers no longer productive? (According to Minister of Land Reform and Rural Development Gugile Nkwinti.)

l Why does the government blame the “willing buyer, willing seller” principle for its failure to meet its land reform targets, when the money squandered on failed projects could have purchased 37 percent of all farm land in South Africa at market value? (according to Theo de Jager, deputy president of Agri SA).

l Why, almost 20 years since the dawn of democracy, is the audit of state-owned land (which is needed for the potential release of millions of hectares into productive use), still incomplete? Why has the deadline for this audit repeatedly been extended?

l Why is 30 percent of South Africa’s most fertile agricultural land so unproductive that it yields hardly any food and almost no jobs?

If we can use this centenary commemoration to grapple with these questions, and answer them honestly, we will take a significant step towards sustainable restitution. This is the least we owe to dispossessed South Africans who could make a living off our fertile soil, if land reform were tackled properly.

At the outset, it is important to note that only one third of our country receives more than 500mm of rainfall per year. That means that more than two-thirds of our country is semi-desert or desert.

Most of the high-yield agricultural land lies on our eastern seaboard. And a full 30 percent of the most fertile land is controlled and allocated by all-powerful traditional leaders in feudal communal land tenure systems. The rural peasants who live on the land are dependent on the chief’s patronage and have no independent rights to the land.

As the historian G Findlay correctly noted: “Tribal tenure is a guarantee that the land will never properly be worked.” That is why hundreds of thousands of people migrate from very fertile land (under tribal tenure) to less fertile provinces to seek work on productive farms.

Ironically, the ANC recognised the urgent necessity of reforming tribal tenure systems as far back as the 1940s when its president, Dr AB Xuma, said: “The fundamental basis of all wealth and power is the ownership and acquisition of freehold title to land.”

An even greater irony was Zuma approving use of this quote in his January 8 speech – despite the fact that the ANC has, since 1994, moved in the opposite direction, entrenching the power of tribal chiefs, in return for their commitment to secure their subjects’ political support for the ruling party. Tightening his grip on power is a far greater priority for the president than tackling land reform.

Against this background, the ANC’s lamentations about the slow pace of land reform ring hollow. If Zuma really takes the National Development Plan seriously, as he professes to do, he would take note of its analysis that “insufficient tenure security” for black farmers in communal areas is “the first major risk” to “integrated and inclusive” rural economies. The NDP concludes that “better land use in communal areas has the potential to improve the livelihoods of at least 370 000 people”.

If the ANC simply applied the NDP’s proposals for transforming communal land tenure, it would more than quadruple the yields of the most fertile land in the country, meet its numerical land reform targets, create thousands of jobs, and extend food security. This surely, must be a priority, rather than the continued destruction of once productive farms, in an escalating race to the bottom.

But this shift cannot happen without limiting the patronage and power abuse of the tribal chiefs. And the ANC refuses to take this risk, even though the National Development Plan (which the ANC adopted at Mangaung) identifies it as a priority.

It would also be too much to expect our president to publicly acknowledge that the only successful model of land reform to date has been the Western Cape’s equity share schemes. More than 90 farms in the province have opted for these schemes and are now under the co-ownership of farmers and farmworkers. Approximately 80 percent of these deals have succeeded in maintaining the productivity of the land, while turning farmworkers into successful farm owners. Again, the National Development Plan seeks to develop this model further.

The NDP’s proposals should be the centrepiece of public debate during this centenary commemoration, so that we can avoid the tempting detours of political expedience that has resulted in past failures. The saga of failed land reform projects makes heartbreaking reading, such as the account of 20 top crop and dairy farms in the Eastern Cape, bought for R11.6 million, which have ceased production. Several have become informal settlements, according to the Sunday Times.

But given the emotive value of the land issue in achieving the ANC’s goal of mobilising its electoral support base by exacerbating racial divisions, this may be too much to hope for.

The odds are far greater that Zuma will continue to duck the issues, blame the past to avoid dealing with the realities of the present, and destroy one of the most important pillars of our economy.

It would be an even greater tragedy if the centenary commemoration of the 1913 Land Act merely entrenched its bitter legacy.

l Zille is leader of the Democratic Alliance. This is her weekly SA Today newsletter.