By Colleen Dardagan

Millions of rands spent by the government on land reform projects in Zululand have been wasted so far, with many farms handed to farmers since 2004 lying abandoned and derelict.

More than 21 properties in the Empangeni and Eshowe districts, and reportedly many more across KZN bought by the land affairs department, lie fallow, producing only weeds, dead trees and choked sugar cane.

Amid increased concern about food shortages, these farms have derelict or ransacked farmhouses and packing sheds. On some, pump houses have been reduced to rubble and farming equipment destroyed or stolen.

Hennie de Villiers, a board member of the KZN agricultural union and chairman of the district agricultural committee in uThungulu - where more than 10 farms have been abandoned - said not only had land reform failed in the district, but it had also cost jobs and millions of rands in income from sugar cane, vegetables and export citrus.

"At least 500 farm workers have lost their jobs. On one farm alone, over R9 million a year in income from export grapefruit has been squandered. All these farms were producing at least 60 tons of sugar cane a hectare a year. Now there is nothing," said de Villiers.

On Valley Farm, Confluence, Concor and Grass Farm, valuable citrus trees are dead, irrigation pipes have been ripped from the ground and productive sugar cane fields have been either burnt or become overgrown with weeds.

De Villiers said all the farms had been handed over as working entities.

The new farmers inherited water rights, electricity, tractors and other farm implements. Pointing to a rusted trailer used to transport sugar cane, he said it had not moved for five years.

"It's never been used. It's just been left to rot out in the open."

This while the sugar industry in the province fights for its survival amid persisting drought conditions on the North Coast, rocketing input costs, low global sugar prices and more than 50 percent of the industry's land now under claim.

Illovo Sugar managing director Don Macleod said cane supply had dropped from nearly three million tons a year to below 2,3 million tons for this year.

"I won't be surprised if it drops to below two million next year. The knock-on effect is that mills are finding it hard to remain financially viable - in fact I would agree that at least one mill is going to close on the North Coast, if not next year at least the year after."

Macleod said the land claim process had also taken its toll on the mental attitude of farmers.

"When you think 85 000ha of cane land in KZN is under claim and only 2 200ha have been resolved, it has to affect people's mental attitudes. No farmer is going to invest in his property if he knows it's under claim."

A land affairs department official said the reasons for the failed farm projects in KZN were complicated.

"We really tried to get these projects going but there were social and political tensions between communities. In one case, the head of the community group was shot and killed. He was really a good farmer but the people didn't trust him. They believed he was taking money deposited directly into his bank account from the department for the project. That farm is now in the process of being repossessed by the Land Bank."

Kwanalu's Sandy le Marque said land reform failures had brought agricultural projects across KZN to a halt.

"There are hundreds of farms all over KZN which are in the same state as those in Empangeni and Eshowe."

Melmoth Farmers' Association chairman Nick Harris said government bungling was the single biggest reason for the failure of the land reform process.

"There are four farms in our district which are no longer productive. Neighbouring farmers are more than ready to plant and plough the fields for the new farmers, but there is so much red tape.

"No one can get involved unless they are registered contractors with the agriculture department.

"They have to be BEE accredited and it can take anything up to six months to get approval," Harrison said.

"By then the planting season has passed. The new farmers are begging for help."