17 million hectares that could change our economy forever

zilleIn President Zuma’s recent State of the Nation Address (SONA) it was encouraging to hear him targeting agriculture as a key job driver. He set a goal of 1 million new jobs in the sector by 2030. That’s a big number, but it’s good to set ambitious targets.

We believe that it’s achievable, even though our record over the past 20 years is not encouraging. During this period, the number of commercial farmers in SA dropped from 120,000 to just 36,000, and job losses in the sector exceeded 400,000. According to the latest statistics, at least 73% of once-productive, restituted farmland is now unproductive, delivering neither food nor jobs.

So how are we going to turn this around?

That is the question the National Development Plan (NDP) sought to answer. It dedicates one of its longest and most important chapters to “an integrated and inclusive rural economy”. It describes in detail how we should address the critical issues of rural development, land ownership and food security. It focuses on three aspects of land reform: communal land, state land and commercial farms.

The proposals are far-reaching and challenging, and will empower the people who work the land. But they are also based on the understanding that without policy certainty, ownership security, strong partnerships between the role players, and increased investment, the downward spiral of falling food production and job losses will continue.

So it was encouraging to hear President Zuma refer repeatedly, in his SONA, to the NDP as the policy blueprint to address South Africa’s challenges, including land reform, agricultural development and job creation. South Africa is in the extraordinarily fortunate position of having a development plan that has been accepted by all major parties, by Cabinet and by Parliament.

What’s more, on May 7 this year, over 90% of voters supported parties that want the NDP to be implemented.

So, could someone please inform Mr Gugile Nkwinti, Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, about the NDP proposals relevant to his portfolio? These aim to turn millions more hectares into job-creating, food-producing farms – not undermine the remaining productive farms upon which South Africa’s food security and agricultural exports depend.

Less than a week after President Zuma’s SONA, Nkwinti unveiled an “innovation” that contradicted both the letter and spirt of the NDP. It once again exclusively focused on how to enforce redistribution (without compensation) of productive agricultural land, while ignoring the vast tracts of land under state control and the millions of immensely fertile (but unproductive) hectares under communal ownership.

Nkwinti’s proposal would require commercial farmers to relinquish ownership of 50% of their land without compensation. The state will pay the purchase cost into “an investment and development fund, to be jointly owned by the parties constituting the new regime”, including government and workers, in proportion to the length of time they have worked on the farm.

The NDP also proposes including workers in ownership models, in partnership with farmers, but does not envisage expropriation without compensation, which is, in any event, unconstitutional.

Nkwinti’s model assumes you can change outcomes by new methods that replicate old mistakes. He has dismissed allegations that previous attempts failed, arguing that “only” 73% of such land remains unproductive, and that the scheme had produced 3 black millionaire farmers “with cash in the bank”.

When a Minister boasts that these outcomes prove the success of a policy that has cost the state R70-billion to implement since 1995 (enough to buy 37% of all SA’s commercial agricultural land at market prices), one wonders what parallel universe the Minister inhabits.

It is the parallel universe in which the Minister continues to regard productive farms as “the problem” in South Africa. It is a place where the NDP has clearly never been read, let alone understood.

Here’s a staggering statistic that Minister Nkwinti would do well to turn his attention to: approximately 21 million people live on more than 17 million hectares of communal land in the former homelands. They don’t own this land, they cannot access capital through it and they barely eek out a living on it.

Approximately 30% of the most fertile land in South Africa lies in the former homelands of Transkei and Ciskei, and current production on this land is absolutely minimal. It is a tragedy that poverty stricken people who live on this rich soil are driven to seek seasonal work on the far less fertile commercial farms in other parts of the country.

In 2009, Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersen presented figures to the National Assembly that painted a stark picture of the ANC’s woeful commitment to development in communal areas. She revealed that, of a total of 1.1 million hectares of high to moderate potential agricultural land in the former Transkei and Ciskei, a paltry 40 000 hectares are planted with grain crops.

Through a simple process of “liming” to treat soil acidity, it is estimated that production of maize and other high-value crops can be increased by 18-fold on this land. And it’s not only high-potential soils that are affected. By liming acid pasturelands and introducing crops such as dryland lucerne, the area’s livestock production can be quadrupled. This can transform South Africa’s economy forever.

A similar project to address trace element deficiencies was undertaken in the George-Tsitsikamma area in the early 1950s, transforming it from a poor rural backwater to an area of enormous agricultural prosperity.

The region is also home to the last major undeveloped river in South Africa – the 400km long Umzimvubu River. With a runoff volume larger than the Upper Orange River, it is the largest river system in South Africa and could put an extra 40 000 hectares of land under irrigation.

By realising the true production potential of the former homelands, we could double our maize yield, solve national and local food security problems for the foreseeable future and empower and employ millions of South Africans.

The Eastern region’s humid, subtropical climate is ideal and the soil technology has been proven to work. So what is preventing us from liberating the poorest rural dwellers who live in areas of the greatest potential? Why does Nkwinti target the dwindling number of commercial farmers who are battling to remain viable on very tight margins and high interest rates on borrowing?

It is always easier to find a scape-goat than address the real issues. The ANC likes populist drums it can beat to out-flank Malema’s EFF. The land issue also provides an opportunity of driving the well-worn “race” wedge into the DA’s support base.

But the real reason the ANC won’t grasp the nettle of underdevelopment in the fertile former homelands, is that the current communal system under the control of traditional chiefs delivers millions of votes to the ruling party.

By “recruiting” traditional leaders through salaries and perks, and keeping their power over land distribution intact, the ANC has an effective hold on the people living in the former homelands. It is perhaps the ultimate irony of the “new” South Africa that, in order to stay in power, the ANC must ensure that apartheid feudalism in the former homelands continues.

These areas should be the food basket of Southern Africa. Instead they are home to poverty-stricken people, for whom the rights guaranteed in our constitution are a distant dream.

This is the challenge Minister Nkwinti and his government should be tackling. But they lack the political will, because of the political cost. It is as simple as that.

The Western Cape does not have former homelands under communal land systems. But it has the only model of successful land reform – the equity share schemes, with an 80% success rate across the 90 projects.

We now want to go beyond that. We want to show that land reform, as described in the NDP, can work.

We have made an offer to Minister Nkwinti to pilot those NDP proposals that relate to commercial farms.

This will begin with the formation of a district committee comprising the relevant district municipality, government departments, the private sector and agricultural landowners. The committee will identify suitable land on the market in the district, purchase 50% for workers from the restitution fund, encourage interested farmers to invest in the other 50%, and ensure that the right financing and agricultural development models are in place.

With this framework, our NDP pilot project will have every chance of success. But it will require hard work. There is no land reform quick fix, as Minister Nkwinti will find out.

Helen Zille

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