Picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency (ANA)
Picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency (ANA)

Government’s new land plan needs to do better

By Opinion Time of article published Oct 8, 2020

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By Terence Corrigan

The government’s recently announced intention to make 700 000 hectares of land available for redistribution is good news. So is President Ramaphosa’s allusions to the programme being a means to encourage commercial farming. These are positive signs that there is at least some awareness that land reform can expand the farming economy. Indeed, if it is to be a success, it must do so.

But even as this move is to be welcomed, it falls short of what productive land reform demands.

The kernel of the programme is that while aspirant farmers will be assigned farms through this scheme, they will not gain ownership. The land will remain in the hands of the state, to which these farmers will be required to pay rent. This will continue for 30 years, after which they will have an option to buy.

Thus, for the better part of a working life, they will not become owners, but will be working the land as tenants. This is essentially what policy with regard to land redistribution – that part of land reform that is intended to ensure that land is available to those who need it, such as people wishing to farm – has been for the past decade.

This is the policy framework that forced David Rakgase, a Limpopo farmer, to take the government to court to compel it to honour an agreement to sell him the land he had successfully worked for three decades. In his seventies, Mr Rakgase was by all accounts a skilled and successful farmer. He wanted the dignity that came with owning his piece of the country, and the practical benefits of ownership. One of the latter was the ability to be able to take responsibility for protecting his land. He had seen his farm invaded and occupied, but lacked the legal standing to have the unwelcome occupiers removed. The state prevaricated, placing him in an impossible position.

The state, he said, would not protect him: ‘Their officials are the reason my land was invaded in the first place.’

The state, revealingly, said in its court papers that its policy was that ‘black farming households and communities’ should not received ownership, but long-term leases. (Mr Rakgase had incidentally, been existing on precariously limited leases.)

This is not all. Without ownership of their land, farmers lack a major source of collateral. Farming is a tough business, demanding constant working and investment capital. It is by no means clear how the farmers that are to emerge through this initiative will find their financing. Given the state’s fiscal position, it lacks the capacity to provide it. The Land Bank is in distress. Without title to their holdings, commercial funding options are likely to be restricted – and banks are likely to be doubly cautious about lending as the government pushes ahead with its policy of expropriation without compensation.

New thinking is needed. Government control of land has not been a recipe for success thus far, and will not be in the future. The land redistribution programme needs to recognise the importance of private property rights. The country’s new farmers deserve nothing less than, and will struggle to succeed without, them.

Rather than the tenancy on which the current scheme is based, the rents that the beneficiaries will be expected to pay should be regarded as payments against low-interest loans, for proper, titled ownership.

President Ramaphosa said that the black farmers that are to come through this programme ‘must dispel the stereotype that only white farmers are commercially successful in South Africa, and that black farmers are perpetually “emerging”.’

It remains to be seen whether his government will give them the ability to do so.

* Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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