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On the South African Land Reform Process

South Africa is a wonderful place. Ask the thousands of Nigerians going to Jo’burg. Those already there may have a different story however. Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful place, on TV at least. Like every other country, South Africans have their own problems. Take land distribution for example. About 15% or less of the population own 85% of the best arable land, leaving the poorer, arid soils to the remaining 85% of the population. This equation may sound unbalanced, but what if the lucky 15% feeds the whole country and still have a whole lot left over for export, contributing to the growth of the South African economy? Theoretically, that is what happens, thanks to advanced technological approaches to agriculture, but lets take a closer look.

The lands owned by the 15% of mostly white farmers were seized decades ago by force, trickery or economic manipulation. It is a history we are all familiar with. This, in a continent of communal land ownership, practiced from time immemorial. The acquired practice of individual land ownership has over time, reduced productivity, and created landless serfs and a hapless pool of farm workers desperate enough to accept whatever is thrown to them as handouts. It does create wealth-for a few landowners that is. It is thus not strange how this few have maintained their stranglehold on the mechanisms of production with all the resources at their disposal. This is aside government policy deliberately fashioned to favour white landowners and directly oppress the poor black majority and dispossess them of whatever land they had left. What is extremely strange is the way the present South African government is trying to play ‘Mr. nice guy’ with the South African land reform process. It has suggested a buyback process where the white farmers are refusing to sell and the marginalized people are too poor to buy. It is not surprising that it has been a resounding failure so far. Why the present government insists on protecting the so called ‘property rights’ of people who acquired land through decades of killing, oppression, cheating and economic manipulation is baffling. These rights were not legally acquired in the first place-legal here means morally right, not a title deed signed by a tribal chieftain who couldn’t read or understand what he was signing, or one acquired from an irreprehensible governing system such as apartheid after people had been forcefully ejected from their lands and homes. Thus the issue of financial compensation should not even arise; they never really owned the land in the first place. The South African agricultural scene is economic exploitation at its triumphant best. While the rich farmers sell their cash and food crops to the highest bidders at home and abroad, majority of people the people are marginally poor in their homeland, without jobs or in low paying jobs, economically exploited and oppressed by a country that lost its apartheid tone only in the colour of the flag, the skin of the president and the constitution of the sports teams. It’s not as if the white farmers use up all their land. Most of the land lays waste in fallow or is unutilized due to mechanical constraints. Lappe and Collins (1984) in their book, ‘Food First’ showed, with data collected from different reliable sources and countries looks at this literal waste of valuable land by large land holding interests. A study of land use in Latin America showed that farmers who owned up to 10 acres cultivated 72%of their land, but farmers with over 86 acres cultivated only 14% of their land.495 was used for pasture and 37% was left idle. Similarly, a 1968 study of Ecuador showed that farmers with more than 2500 acres used a little over 25%. Such atrocious waste is probably true of South Africa. How the government proves it is serious with land reforms while poor marginalized South Africans witness this spectacle beats me.

If South Africa is serious about land reforms, they should do it the proper, morally right way. First, all land should be seized and properly redistributed. Not Zimbabwean style, where redistribution was to party cronies who had no desire to work the land, fueling famine, but to cooperative communities composed of farmers who have shown seriousness in developing the land. These farmers should include landless, marginalized citizens who will be willing to invest time and energy in producing crops for local consumption and export in return for the profits and benefits that accrue from such shared ownerships. Forced collectivism should not be encouraged, as it has been shown to be counterproductive. In the early 50’s, Yugoslavia and Poland had to abandon a top- down approach to creating agricultural cooperatives. (Bergman, ‘Farm Policies in socialist countries-Leton, Mass.: Heath, 1975 pp 129ff). The redistribution of land has to be democratic-not democracy of those with the financial muscle to hijack the process as practiced worldwide today-but real democracy, where the ideas of the people forming the cooperatives will be allowed to germinate into a healthy enthusiasm that translates to practical, workable actions that will foster development for the nation and create genuine wealth for the thousands of landless poor south Africans who are looked on as a liability by their government and a class of  elite landowners who shoot at them for trespassing on ‘private property’. This is not a call for a bloody revolution. If properly carried out, a sensible agreement can be reached between all parties. Lappe and Collins (1984) noted that seldom, if ever, have land distribution triggered the wholesale liquidation so frequently feared by most capitalist entities. But land distribution is not enough if food production and wealth creation is to be increased. Access to tools, credit, agricultural inputs and necessary infrastructure has to be facilitated by the government for the cooperatives if this venture is to succeed. Land distribution is useless if these essential tools are left in the hands of greedy, exploitative middlemen. So, South Africans, get talking and start something for the sake of future South Africans.

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