Patience Running Out

By Vink, Nick | The World Today, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Patience Running Out

Vink, Nick, The World Today

LAND REFORM Nick Vink in Stellenbosch, South Africa

Apartheid restricted blacks to ownership of just thirteen percent of South Africa's land, so land reform has been high on the economic policy agenda for ten years. The focus has been on the more than 85 million hectares owned by white commercial farmers. The government intends to transfer thirty percent of this to black farmers by 2015, but the pace has been slow. Radical threats of farm invasions in the fertile Mpumalanga province east of Johannesburg and creeping invasions in some areas of KwaZulu-Natal have raised the spectre of the Zimbabwean disaster, and affected investor confidence in agriculture.

THE GOVERNMENT, FEARING A SERIOUS CHALLENGE, has reacted strongly against illegal land invasions and shown remarkable flexibility in adapting the land reform programme introduced in 1994 where it has recognised weaknesses.

Nevertheless, it seems difficult to satisfy all those involved. White commercial farmers, who lost virtually all the subsidies they enjoyed in the apartheid years, rightly or wrongly believe that they are being targeted by deregulation, minimum wages, the loss of water rights and land taxes, even though they are the country's main providers of food security. On the other side, spokespeople for the rural poor accuse the government of favouring the wealthy and putting the interests of the market above those of the consumers.

The land reform policy was set out in a White Paper in 1997. There was to be land restitution, tenure reform and redistribution. Restitution was to be given to those who had lost formal title under discriminatory laws since the promulgation of the first of the notorious land acts in 1913. Restitution could take the form of the return of land, alternative land, or compensation.

Tenure reform was geared to provide all with security of property. It included protection for the rights of labour tenants, protection against unfair eviction for those living on white farms, and secure property rights for people in African communal areas.

The main thrust was, however, the market-based land redistribution programme. Until 1999, land redistribution was achieved through the settlement/land acquisition grant, which gave households a grant - initially $2000, later increased slightly - to buy farm land from willing sellers. In practice, many households had to group together to raise sufficient funds to purchase a farm, and were often left with no money to develop it. Legislation making the sub-division of farms difficult and expensive also encourages larger groups.


In 2000, land redistribution for agricultural development was added as a sub-programme. Each adult household member was entitled to grants of between three and fourteen thousand dollars, depending on their own contribution, which could also include a Land Bank loan.

This increased the pace of reform from less than a hundred thousand hectares per year in 1994-1997 to an average of about 230,000 hectares annually up to the end of last year. Yet overall progress has been slow, with a total redistribution of less than two million hectares, or less than three percent of commercial farm land.

Research conducted in the Nkomazi region, which lies between Mozambique and the Lebombo mountains in the east, Swaziland in the south and the Kruger National Park in the north, illustrates how reform has affected agriculture.

Nkomazi is well known for sub-tropical fruit, citrus and sugarcane production. There is a commercial farming area called the Onderberg, and communal areas known as Nkomazi under the jurisdiction of traditional authorities. This division, which dates from the time of segregation and 'separate development", is associated with differences in land tenure and variations in settlement and land use patterns.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s more than nine thousand hectares in the communal area were developed to irrigated sugar-cane, and some 1200 black farmers were established as commercial growers producing sugar-cane on farms of seven hectares. …

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Patience Running Out


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