A woman gathers maize grain she harvested in Epworth, on the outskirts of Harare, Zimbabwe Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012. The U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization is marking World Food Day on Tuesday, a day dedicated to highlighting the importance of global food security. The FAO said hunger is declining in Asia and Latin America but is rising in Africa. One in eight people around the world goes to bed hungry every night. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center says that although maize has long been considered the most important cereal crop in sub-Saharan Africa, demand for wheat is growing faster than for any other food crop.(AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

It is something many South Africans do not want to hear and would probably find hard to believe: Zimbabwe’s radical land redistribution has worked and agricultural production is on levels comparable to the time before the process started.

What is more meaningful is that the production levels were achieved by 245 000 black farmers on the land previously worked by some 6 000 white farmers.

I got this information from a new book, Zimbabwe Takes Back its Land by Joseph Hanlon, Jeanette Manjengwa and Teresa Smart.

Hanlon is a senior fellow at the London School of Economics and had written many books on southern Africa, especially Mozambique. Manjengwa is the deputy director of the London School of Economics and Smart is a visiting fellow at London University. The book’s findings came as a surprise to me. I was under the impression that most of the farms taken from white farmers were occupied by squatters or cronies of president Robert Mugabe and were largely lying fallow.

Not so, say the authors.

Mugabe cronies own less than 10 percent of the land. Many of the small farms (a few hectares) make a profit of about R90 000 a year while some of the more commercial-sized farms have turnovers of more than R1 million.

The authors also state that it is widely estimated that new farmers take a generation to reach full production, so the new farmers can be expected to raise their production significantly in the next decade.

All this information is relevant to us in South Africa. Land reform is just as emotive an issue and important to development here as it was in Zimbabwe.

But land redistribution has been painfully slow here, partly because of budgetary constraints and partly because of bureaucratic incompetence and corruption.

It would be a huge mistake to argue that, if forced, land redistribution without compensation has worked in Zimbabwe it should also be done here in South Africa.

Zimbabwe’s land processes seriously undermined stability and the economy for more than a decade. Millions of Zimbabweans fled the country and sought refuge in South Africa and other neighbouring states.

A similar undermining of our economy and stability could have a more serious impact on South Africa and could lead to great suffering and conflict, indeed to a fatal blow to our far more modern and sophisticated economy.

A radical disturbance of the equilibrium in South African commercial agriculture would have dire consequences for food security and could lead to dangerous social upheaval, even a low-level civil war.

There is another crucial difference. With few exceptions, white farmers were only established in Zimbabwe from the early 20th century onwards, most of them British and most of them arriving after the end of World War II. The man who led the white Rhodesian government after the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, Ian Smith, farmed land given to him by the colonial authorities after evicting the indigenous owners.

Most white South African farmers are Afrikaners whose forebears arrived in the coutry from France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany between 1652 and the early 1700s.

They lost all loyalty to a foreign “motherland” within a few generations and eventually came to regard themselves as indigenous people.

Many Afrikaner families even had a slave woman from the late 17th or early 18th century as materfamilias. In the Western Cape, it is not uncommon to find a family on the same farm their ancestors had occupied 300 years ago, and elsewhere in the country a century or more ago.

Most dispossessed white Zimbabweans emigrated to South Africa or the UK. That is not an option open to more than a handful of white South African farmers.

Another difference is that, unlike Zimbabwe, we have a constitution protecting private property ownership and the rule of law. Even if the government appropriates land, it still has to pay some compensation.

But this doesn’t mean we can’t learn lessons from the Zimbabwean experience.

The first is that most new black farmers can actually farm successfully and commercially if given enough time and help. There are far too many South Africans who believe the opposite.

The second is that an ambitious land redistribution programme can play a large role in alleviating poverty and providing employment and dignity to large numbers of marginalised people.

The conventional wisdom among most academics, economists and political analysts in South Africa is that urbanisation is the answer to poverty alleviation and the successful provision of education and skills training.

Too many leaders in agriculture agree with this view and declare that smallholder farmers simply undermine the potential of available agricultural land.

Zimbabwe and the experience of Ethiopia and other countries in the last two decades are proof that they’re dead wrong.

We urgently need to throw old, conventional thinking overboard and tackle our problem with more vigour.

The Mercury