260 10.10.12 Dr Mamphele Ramphele at the Marion on Nicol Hotel. Picture:Sharon Seretlo

Cape Town - It is “worrisome” that South Africa is losing many of its commercial farmers to countries to the north of it, academic and businesswoman Mamphela Ramphele said on Sunday.

Speaking at the opening of the Land Divided 2013 conference at the University of Cape Town, she said the country was poorer for this.

Fifteen years ago, there were 100 000 commercial farmers in South Africa. Today, there were 36 000.

“it is worrisome that South Africa is losing its commercial farmers to other countries to the north. We are told that 50 percent of commercial farmers in Zambia are South Africans. There are 800 of them in Mozambique.”

Commercial farmers were needed to nurture and support the emergence of small farmers, Ramphele said.

The four-day conference is being held 100 years after the passing of the segregationist 1913 Natives Land Act, which regulated and restricted the acquisition and ownership of land in South Africa by black people.

The conference organisers - the universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Western Cape - say it offers “a major opportunity for researchers, civil society and the state to reflect on the significance of the land question in South African society”.

Ramphele said that 19 years into democracy, the land question continued to hold “historical, emotional and symbolic significance” in South Africa”. It also embodied a “history of lost opportunity”, which could have been used to enhance the country’s economic growth.

“If we were really to take a creative approach to land reform, we would be growing (economically) in double digits.”

Ramphele said inequality in South Africa was structurally created, and therefore “needs structural remedies”.

She also criticised what she called the African National Congress’s entrenchment of tribal authority.

“We need to address structural economic inequalities engendered by the (1913 Native) Land Act, and ensure that rural people are rights-bearing citizens, rather than... subjects under the customary authority of chiefs.”

Under the apartheid government, power over land had become concentrated in the hands of chiefs. Land had been given to chiefs who were “agreeable”.

“The ANC government continues to entrench the autocratic rule and role of chiefs (over land), thereby marginalising ordinary people.”

“I can’t believe it’s being done by our own post-apartheid government,” Ramphele said.

In February this year, Ramphele announced the formation of a “political party platform”, called Agang.

With an eye on next year’s general election, she is set to launch Agang as a political party later this year.

She told her audience on Sunday that the willing-buyer, willing-seller model of transferring land to black ownership had not worked.

“It does not take sufficient account of the structural pressures that exist.” - Sapa