Land Transfer: How to Get It Right: Black Farmers Who Have Been Resettled on Formerly White-Owned Agricultural Lands Are Forming Unlikely but Practical Alliances with the Former Owners. the White Farmers Are Swapping Commercial-Skills Training for Long-Term Leases-Thus, Hopefully, Avoiding Neighbouring Zimbabwe's Dreadful Land-Reform Fate. Tom Nevin Reports

Article excerpt

The South African government, land owners, farming organisations and resettled farmers have watched with dismay the disintegration of Zimbabwe's farming industry and many in the sector fear a similar tragedy in South Africa's quickly rolling land redistribution programme.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Now, an unlikely partnership is bringing real hope that the transformation of the national agricultural sector will deliver a national agrarian industry integrated by skilled and dedicated black farmers.

In a radical solution, resettled black farmers are inviting the previous white owners back to their farms to work them as a joint venture and impart the skills of commercial agriculture to the new owners at the same time. Some government agricultural schemes have started implementing the same strategy.

The initiative has developed against a troubled land restitution background. On the one hand, white farming landowners have frustrated the process by holding out for the highest possible price for their land. In some cases, the government is paying 'take it or leave it' commercial prices to recalcitrant white owners. On the other hand, the Minister for Agriculture and Land Affairs, Ms Lulama Xingwana, has expressed her anger at resettled farmers doing little to make their land productive and has enforced 'use it or lose it' ultimatums to new owners who disregard government exhortation to be more fruitful.

Now, the initiative inspired by black owners of resettled farms will see former white proprietors undertake 'handover-takeover' programmes that could take years of mentoring. The scheme means that the previous owners will return to their farms on a complicated lease and profit-sharing arrangement and teach the new owners everything they know. Such a programme is under way in the Hoedspruit district of Mpumalanga Province where 700 properties over 73,000 hectares are being restored to the Moletele people, a community of about 13,000 that had been forcefully removed in the 1920s.

So far, 41 properties have been processed. It soon became apparent, however, that the resettled farmers lacked the skills to successfully farm the spreads on a commercial basis. The lands were in danger of regressing and a Zimbabwe-like situation loomed. The solution was to invite the former white owners back.

Nothing is ever easy

The resettled farmers organised themselves into the Moletele Communal Property Association (CPA) and elected elder Thandios Mashile as chairman to preside over the implementation process. "Nothing is ever easy," he relates, "especially in something as big as this. But progress is mostly good, although land transfers from the commissioners are slow, and so are the payments of property grants."

Other practical problems abound. With few commercial farming skills and with little working capital, the community needed help to avoid the land being underutilised and jobs threatened.

In 2005, the community approached the previous owners to assist with skills transfer, resulting in a joint-venture comprising the Moletele CPA (as majority shareholders) and Strategic Farm Management (developed by the former farm owners) who provided working capital, commercial farming mentoring, skills transfer, management assistance and equipment.

With funding through Business Trust, a South African public-private initiative that is mobilising and managing R1bn ($100m) of financial support for selected projects, and advisory services by MABEDI (an NGO specifically set up to facilitate the joint venture and monitor the training process), the community is gradually taking its place in the development and economy of the area. Mashile is pragmatic and business-minded. "I think this is the only route we can take because we cannot by ourselves say we are going to run the business," he says. "That is still the most important thing. We don't want to mess up the already viable businesses that are here. …