Waleed Van Rheede and Nombeko Nonti in her vegetable garden at Ithemba farms in Eeste River August 19 2010 Photo by Michael Walker

Douglas Gibson

Nothing illustrates better the SA habit of playing zero-sum games and endlessly debating issues than the land question.

Now that the ANC policy conference has made it clear that land-grabs without compensation (the Mugabe option) are out, perhaps we can start talking sense about land reform.

A new consensus over land may even be possible, and we can stop gnawing away at the bone and go over to action that will give a huge boost to land reform.

Is there really such a great divide between the viewpoints of sensible people about the land issue?

Surely, no one would dispute that it would be highly desirable for landless people to have access to land. No one would want land reform to be a failure and see SA losing the ability to feed itself and export food surplus to our requirements.

Why not examine what we have to do to give more access to landless people; to make land reform a success, and to continue being food self-sufficient as well as increase our exports to a hungry continent in a hungry world.

Over the past 18 years we have succeeded in enlarging land ownership and making it possible for many – but not enough – black South Africans to become farmers.

Sadly, many of the new owners are subsistence farmers, rather than successful earners of decent incomes from farming or earners of valuable foreign exchange as exporters.

Some of them are at fault but I believe that many have struggled to come to terms with their new reality because they have not been helped to acquire skills, capital and the technical know-how to enable them to make the leap from farm labourer to farmer.

An assessment of the successes and failures would be instructive.

How easy is it for new farmers to learn how to farm? How many have been able to attend courses at agricultural colleges? How many bursaries and scholarships are available for such study? Are there opportunities for their children to study agriculture? How much extension work and technical assistance is given by the Department of Agriculture to emerging farmers? Are established farmers and farmers’ associations doing their stuff in mentoring and helping, on a neighbourly basis, their new farming colleagues? What of successful black farmers; are they going out of their way to help emerging farmers? What about co-operatives and stokvels? Are they coming to the party? Is the Land Bank doing all it can? What of the new black middle class and millionaires; surely more of them could become owners of land so that land reform gathers momentum and ceases being solely dependent on government handouts?

Strenuous efforts need to be made to ensure that as far as possible the somewhat depressing picture of land reform is changed. We cannot afford land reform failure in the sense of once-productive farmland becoming unproductive. Apart from the damage done to the self-sufficiency of our food supply, that failure provides a handy excuse for those who do not want land reform at all.

What of the programme itself?

We are all aware that land reform costs billions and that there is not enough money in the budget to enable it all to be achieved immediately.

Successful land reform that leads to good results will help ensure that a higher priority is accorded to claims of land reform in competing with other demands on the minister of finance.

We are informed that the “willing buyer-willing seller” principle has not worked and must be dumped. This excuse holds no water.

If a buyer wants to buy and a seller wants to sell and they agree on a price, there is nothing wrong with that.

The ANC often hides behind the excuse that it is this principle that has prevented it from making a success of land transformation.

It would be valid only if there were many buyers and no sellers. This is plainly not the case. There are masses of farms advertised for sale every week and the problem from the sellers’ point of view is that there are few buyers.

The “willing buyer-willing seller” principle should be, and will remain, the first approach, irrespective of the political rhetoric. If that does not work because land is needed for public purposes and the owner is unwilling to sell, then expropriation is perfectly acceptable, provided that fair and reasonable compensation is paid.

That is what happened for centuries and what section 25 of the constitution provides for.

Those who feign shock and horror at the thought of expropriation for public purposes accompanied by fair compensation, and suggest that it is the equivalent of the Zimbabwe policies, are being dishonest.

Every democratic country in the world provides for expropriation for public purposes – with compensation.

Section 25 of the constitution states that no one may be deprived of property except in terms of law of general application, and no law may permit arbitrary deprivation of property.

It provides for expropriation for public purposes subject to compensation, taking into account a whole string of conditions aimed at creating an equitable balance between the public interest and the interest of those affected.

It recognises the need to redress past injustices and discrimination and empowers the state to take action to this end. It also provides for restitution or equitable redress for anyone dispossessed of property in a racially discriminatory manner at any time after June 19, 1913.

The property clause was carefully crafted during the constitutional negotiations. I well remember the agonising haggling over the meaning of every word of the successive drafts as we wrestled with wording that would satisfy all the imperatives.

The final product was a social-democratic solution reasonably satisfactory to all parties. When we all agreed, it became a solemn compact between South Africans.

Despite that constitutional agreement, it is perfectly acceptable in a democratic society to debate measures and decide whether there is a better way that our country could consider.

It is the compensation question that causes the difficulty. The truth is that if fair compensation is to be paid for each property the government might want to buy or expropriate for redistribution purposes, the funds available are limited and it will take years for land reform to be completed. That is a fact of life that has to be accepted by all.

The alternative is that suggested by Irvin Jim of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA and his young friends who wish to amend the constitution and provide for wholesale nationalisation of property without compensation.

There is no possibility of the Jim option being followed, short of an overthrow (not an amendment) of the constitution. He talks about the ANC following his advice and obtaining a 70 percent majority, enabling it to amend the constitution.

Irvin and his friends must read the constitution more carefully.

The amendment that he proposes is impossible because of the provisions of sections 1 and 36. Any amendment that aims to destroy the equality of South Africans and remove the rights of some of them in contravention of the Bill of Rights would be ruled unconstitutional, irrespective of what majority in Parliament tries to pass the amendment.

Given this reality, I suggest that all sensible people, in and outside of the ANC, should seek to craft a national consensus on land reform to make it work.

That might be easier than many might think.

l Douglas Gibson is the former opposition chief whip and ambassador to Thailand. He works as a writer and public speaker in Joburg.