In March this year, the South African cabinet approved a land expropriation bill that was meant to speed up the land reform programme aimed at transferring 30% of farmland to black ownership by 2014. The new bill was enacted following concerns by many interested parties that the 1975 Land Expropriation Act had failed to make significant inroads into land redistribution. By March 2008, only 4% of the 87% of farmland forcibly taken from blacks in 1913 had successfully been redistributed since black majority rule in 1994.
The blame was put on the "willing-seller, willing-buyer" principle, in line with the old act, that allowed market forces to determine the availability of land for reform.
White farmers have been accused of being reluctant to sell their prime land at reduced market prices. They inflated prices and mounted legal roadblocks to sabotage the process. The new bill called for the state to take reasonable legislative and other measures to enable citizens to gain access to land on an equitable basis. It involved expropriating land in the public interest for fair compensation, ultimately determined by the government where no settlement is reached.
"The transformation we are pursuing is not intended to negatively affect farming, but to strengthen it, expand it, and make it more sustainable," said ANC president, Jacob Zuma, in a speech to the South African grain farmers.
The new bill needed parliamentary approval. But, in August 2008, the government withdrew it. The reason was that there had not been proper consultation. So, why the sudden U-turn?
Ironically, it was at an economic summit of the Tripartite Alliance of the ruling ANC--the other alliance members are the "masses friendly" Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and South African Communist Party (SACP)--where support for the U-turn was received. Recent events--including the ousting of former president Thabo Mbeki--have also played a major role.
In a surprising new finding, South Africa has lost its status as a net food exporter. Trade figures put farm exports from last year to March 2008 at R33.7bn while imports rose to R34bn.
Figures from the AGRI-SA farmers union show a drop in the number of white commercial farmers still on the land--from 65,000 almost 20 years ago to fewer than 40,000 today.
AGRI-SA asserted that state support to farmers, and tariffs on agricultural imports had been dismantled, leaving farmers at the mercy of state-subsidised competition from the EU and the US, while the volatility of the national currency, the rand, caused havoc to the bottom line.
Now the prospect of importing food to feed South Africa's population seems very unpalatable to a black government struggling with the pressing issues of hunger and poverty. It has not been helped by the global rise in food prices. Furthermore, the reality of Zimbabwe's land reform project, partly derailed by economic sanctions imposed on President Robert Mugabe's government by America, Britain, the EU and the white Commonwealth, has also hit home as thousands of Zimbabweans flock into South Africa, with some taking up employment on farms for very low wages.
Also real is the spectre of "white capital flight" when it came to radical land reform. The absence of adequate funds to support black beneficiaries, and its consequent effect, have also realigned thinking. Effectively, the government alone cannot resolve the land issue in the face of a global food crisis.
An ANC discussion document asserts that mining and agriculture have a fundamental role to play in industrialisation and development.
"Complex issues need to be resolved in doing so," the document says. "This includes confronting certain trade-offs such as those between land restitution and growth in agricultural production, as well as between the desire to promote a small scale agricultural class and the role of commercial agriculture in production, exports and employment. …