Land reform comments denote an officialdom that is either unaware of the perilous contradiction in its positions, or that doesn’t really care.

It is a disturbing reality of contemporary South Africa that despite the near-existential scale of the economic challenges that confront the country, it has no coherent strategy to address it. There are occasions which raise questions about whether the country’s decision-makers fully comprehend the nature of the country’s problems. This past weekend, Mpumalanga Show provided an illustration of this.

The Mpumalanga Show is intended to showcase the province. Combining elements of an old-school fair (complete with a tart baking competition) a cultural fest and a business expo, it is sponsored by a coalition of interests, including the provincial government, the City of Mbombela, restaurant chains, and above all agribusiness and food concerns. With a prominent focus on the province’s agricultural sector, it would be an ideal platform from which dignitaries could express feel-good sentiments towards the farming community, even to speak to their concerns. Even if only in generalities.

Not so. Deputy President David Mabuza – two years ago the premier of the province – was on hand. It’s difficult to imagine that farmers attending to exhibit their Bonsmara cattle or Arabian horses, or to examine new harvesting equipment, would have left reassured.

‘As we embark on the land reform programme, which has gained traction with the resolution of Parliament to amend Section 25 of the Constitution to allow for expropriation of land without compensation, we do so to ensure economic growth and continued support to farmers,’ the deputy president stated boldly, ‘Our agriculture continues to be a pivotal part of our economy.’

This verges on the bizarre. It declares a commitment to agriculture – indeed, it declares support for the industry – but simultaneously affirms its determination to forge ahead with a policy choice that will destroy it.

The mere debate around EWC has done damage. Research by the Agricultural Business Chamber has shown growing despondency on the part of decision makers in the industry – driven to a significant degree, by ‘the lack of clarity on land reform policy’.

A move to actualising this policy is likely to destroy the capital base of agriculture. The Banking Association of South Africa warned that EWC would conceivably cause banks to exit the sector. Given that farm debt stood at over R160 billion last year, this is not a gap that could easily be filled. Certainly, the state does not have the resources to step in. Under these conditions, even farmers whose properties have not been taken would be unable to remain in production.

In a very real sense, what is at stake here is the viability of the farming economy.

Unfortunately, this has a pedigree in the country’s politics. Farming has all too often been an ideological ground zero for South Africa’s political elite. It is the signifier of injustice, the bearer of original sin, the avatar of reaction – and only distantly a business activity that occupies a ‘pivotal’ role in the economy. The 2011 Green Paper on Land Reform was notable for just how little attention it paid to economic considerations.

Support to the farming economy, despite what the deputy president implies, is patchy at best. The recent Treasury paper on the economy notes: ‘Our agriculture sector receives less government support than those of our global peers, and it seems that we have not taken up all the potential policy space that exists to support the sector.’

This is seen in the indifferent support provided to many land reform beneficiaries, a matter acknowledged in government’s own analyses. Extension services are likewise criticised as inadequate for the needs of above all emerging farmers. Last year, an interview on the News24 online platform with an enthusiastic young black farmer attracted considerable attention. He had this to say about his experience with government extension services: ‘The Department of Agriculture is meant to run an extension service programme. But in my experience, it’s very poor to non-existent. The only time extension officers have been to my farm was when they came to give me advice on my irrigation system. And it turned out to be very bad advice.’

Indeed, even on securing an overall good-enough environment for agriculture, state efforts come up short. The deputy president referred, for example, to poaching, a growing threat to game farms and the associated tourist industry. Farmers complain that enforcement of the law is poor, in both policing and prosecution. Stock theft presents similar frustrations. Farmer and rural security expert Willie Clack argues that even committed police personnel are outmatched and under-resourced: ‘There are 92 stock theft units in the country and they try their best. All of them are hindered by a lack of resources. Perpetrators are sometimes more technologically advanced. Police need things like drones, quadbikes, off-road vehicles, even trucks to transport recovered stock.’

To which might be added the hindrances of poorly maintained infrastructure and inefficiently administered regulations, such as water use permits.

All in all, this speaks not of a farming community valued by the government, nor about a sensible process of land reform. In their most generous interpretation, Deputy President Mabuza’s comments denote an officialdom unaware of the inherent and perilous contradiction in its positions. In a less generous interpretation, it may denote an officialdom that doesn’t really care.

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations.

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Terence Corrigan
Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.


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