According to the prevailing official narrative, little if anything is more important than ‘the land question’.

Not only, the narrative suggests, will this redress grave historical wrongs – South Africa’s Original Sin – but it will open the doors for a veritable economic miracle. Land reform, we are reminded, has been central to launching some of the great developmental advances of the past century. As President Cyril Ramaphosa said back in 2018, the government’s policy push would transform South Africa into a Garden of Eden.

But, as Biblical metaphors go, another may be apposite. These are the emaciated cows of the Pharoah’s dream in the Book of Genesis, eating up the fat ones that had come before. This, interpreted by the Hebrew slave, Joseph, was the foreshadowing of seven years of famine that was to strike Egypt.

Emaciated cows are more than a metaphor, or a disturbing dream. They feature prominently in reports coming in from the Eastern Cape, along with the carcasses of hundreds of others. This is the state of the Mantusini dairy project. Launched in 2014, it covered over 300 hectares, and it has received some R43 million in state funding. It was intended to benefit hundreds of smallholder families in the area.

When the project was launched, the then minister declared to the community: ‘This dairy parlour is yours, you will look after it and it will nourish you.’

From a conceptual perspective, this was pretty much the sort of land reform that policy envisages. State ownership, and state support to provide collective and communal upliftment in a rural idyll. Indeed, it was part of the One Household, One Hectare programme, an initiative that can best be described as trying to maintain a peasant class with state support. The media statement on which the launch of the dairy project was announced put it like this: ‘The [One Household, One Hectare] programme targets state-owned and what could at best be described as traditional communal land. Beneficiaries plant and produce vegetables on state allocated hectares of land and the harvest is reaped to restore food security.’

It didn’t turn out like this. Milk production fell off as money for feed dried up, followed by the dying of herd. Of some 500 dairy cattle, around 350 have perished. Equipment sits unused, if not derelict – including the milking machines, for what milk is produced is being extracted by hand. Electricity has been disconnected. To the extent that the remaining animals are being treated against disease and parasites, it is through donations of dip from neighbouring commercial farmers. 

More than this, observers – extending right into the office of the Eastern Cape’s MEC for Rural Development and Agrarian Reform – have described this as a case of animal cruelty.

‘Thorn and thistle’

No Garden of Eden, but rather that ‘thorn and thistle’ to which the Almighty consigned Adam and Eve.

It is not entirely apparent what has brought this about. Recriminations about corruption abound, and an investigation into the use of the considerable sums of money – to scant effect – has been promised. Yet the decline of the project had been noted and reported on last year (at which time assurances were made that a partner has been brought in to deal with the issues).

This case is emblematic, tragically and spectacularly so, of what much of South Africa’s land reform programme has come to be. It is also not unique, as the mass die-off of chickens on a state-supported poultry farm in Gauteng attests. Land reform – particularly in the rural sense – has failed to live up to its developmental promise.

A former minister of Rural Development and Land Reform once said that 90% of land reform projects had failed. He was correctly criticised for this as a ‘thumbsuck’ figure. Professor Ben Cousins of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, has pointed to research indicating ‘around 50% of the projects have improved the livelihoods of beneficiaries to a degree’. This is hardly encouraging.

Yet against this background land reform, nominally and rhetorically, is an important pathway forward. For the government, the ruling party and their partners in this, this has a distinct meaning. Land reform will be a matter driven – as will, apparently, the ‘recovery’ from the Covid-19 pandemic – by the state. In particular, as has been made clear in the signature policy initiative of President Cyril Ramaphosa, it will be pushed along through expropriation without compensation, in turn enabled through a change to Section 25 of the Constitution, the passage of the Expropriation Bill, and various other measures, such as the Valuer General’s formula for determining compensation.

A freer hand for the state in all its benevolence, in other words, will open up hitherto unimaginable opportunities for the country.

And in light of experience, this is a ridiculous notion. Indeed, Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development Thoko Didiza recently spoke in Parliament about the challenges facing the department. Addressing, among other things, the abuse of farmers working state land and the chaos in land management, she said: ‘It’s clear what we have in large measure are individuals who may not have the requisite skills to undertake this task.’

Depth of this dysfunction

A report in the Daily Maverick, meanwhile, discussed the depth of this dysfunction, referencing the work of the Auditor General: ‘The latest assessment of the department’s financials shows that its internal financial record-keeping displays minimal regard for accuracy, its supply chain controls are woeful and the conduct of its officials is worrisome. Overall, things have gone from bad to worse in the past five years.’

Perhaps not coincidentally, when director general of the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, Mike Mlengana, resigned from his position in July 2020, he berated ‘an ‘absolute lack of delivery knowledge and work ethic’ in the department. And Mlengana, on the other hand, had previously been sharply criticised by the Public Service Commission for his leadership.

It’s difficult to imagine what the task of the department is if it cannot properly carry out its duties or manage its holdings.

Where technical competence and rationality fail, the way is opened for corruption and the baleful influence of destructive ideology. So, while land reform could play a productive role in South Africa’s future, it will not do so if the current course is maintained. Land reform has come to be defined in terms of a transfer of land, with the state as the ultimate recipient. Considerations such as the financing and management of what are often complex processes feature little – and until they do, the failures so evident today will persist. The dangers loom ever larger as the government seeks to expand its role in land and agriculture that it manifestly cannot perform at its current scale.

Coming famine

Those who draw inspiration from scripture might refer again to the story of Joseph. Recognising his abilities, Pharoah set Joseph up as his vizier, with instructions to manage the collection and storage of grain for the coming famine. That he was an outsider meant less than that he had the nous and skills to get the job done.

The Bible tells us that Egypt survived the tribulations and even had some food to spare. In terms that the 21st century might understand, this was a triumph of pragmatic, technocratic, forward-thinking and focused governance, combined with trusting farmers to do the actual farming. (Although the Biblical account of Joseph’s management of the grain stores during the famine tells a somewhat darker, and less often related, story – a caution, one might say, about the dangers of the exercise of power.)

It is a message to change course if destruction and desolation are to be avoided.

Or, as the Book of Proverbs, has it: ‘A wise man thinks ahead; a fool doesn’t, and even brags about it!’

[Image: Joseph Overseer of the Pharaoh’s Granaries, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1874), https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8769415]

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