Moment of truth

Land reform rhetoric is between a rock and a hard place

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The golden thread that has run through government declarations on land since Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa became president of the ANC late last year has been ambiguity: “We will take the land,” he declared at a funeral in East London, and in the next breath he declares that food security must not be put at risk!

Anyone who knows agriculture knows that one option cannot exist with the other. The government itself acknowledges that more than 90% of productive farms handed over to land reform beneficiaries have failed. More than 4 000 farms have been lost, this in a country with only 12% arable land of which only one percent is irrigated.

With only 35 000 farmers left, this 4 000 loss makes it nearly 10% of the formerly 40 000 farms, a truly daunting quantity of food production reduction.

Those squandered farms comprised owners and families and workers, and these people have been lost to farming. Many small towns have been affected by these failures: a ripple effect on the economy of these areas means that small businesses aligned to farming have also disappeared. This tenuous situation must be known to the new president, acknowledged as being careful and measured in what he says, yet he declares that land will be taken “without compensation”.

This recklessness simply makes no sense to many South African and overseas observers, especially those in developed countries. Africa is no longer outside the box in terms of knowledge of what happens there: food security on the continent doesn’t exist anywhere except in South Africa, so why would this country’s president deliberately introduce a policy that would relegate South Africa to the list of Africa’s failed states? Political expediency can be the only answer, and this then casts doubt on Mr. Ramaphosa’s purported pragmatic nature.

Trying to govern South Africa’s disparate groups so that everyone is satisfied is an exercise in futility, so compromises have to be made. But surely there is no contest when food security is at stake, particularly when so many of those whom the government says want land actually want a house in the urban areas and a job!

Presenting the “land for the people” scenario on a political platform where millions of people would carve up productive farms into little mealie patches is hardly the stuff of a “new dawn” in South African politics: the African continent is littered with the results of this same pie in the sky scenario. And taking the land without compensation? This is decidedly a huge turn-off to investors who have seen this story unfold before!

Then why continue the farce of taking from the productive and giving to the unproductive? Elections loom in 2019 and as we have seen since Mr. Ramaphosa came to power, unity within the ANC is his prime goal. To lose the election is unthinkable, so harebrained remarks about taking land have become something of a parrot cry on the hustings. Enter Mr. 6%, the leader of the EFF Julius Malema, who has been snapping at the government’s heels with his promises of land nationalisation. Fearful of losing support among the hapless masses, the president has to one-up the EFF, hence his capricious pronouncement about taking the land. But Mr. Ramaphosa is the president and he has to govern so he has to walk the political tightrope. Thus we have the “on the one side” (taking the land) and “on the other side” (food security) declarations that make no sense whatsoever. The president is indeed between a rock and hard place, and everyone knows it.

Hard facts

Let us place a few facts before the president in case his advisors have overlooked them. Land isn’t what it used to be. By demanding “land for the people”, the president and the EFF leader are simply revealing to the world that they haven’t come very far since 1652 when “land” was the linch-pin of Africa at the time. But the world has moved on–land is now generally for large-scale farming to produce food surpluses. So why hasn’t Mr. Ramaphosa’s thinking moved on to creating jobs for millions of people who are not interested in farming?

Mr. Ramaphosa’s wild statement about taking the land has had serious consequences. Thousands of people are now occupying land illegally. When a private land owner confronted those who were putting up tents on his property in Gauteng, he was aggressively rebutted by the invaders and was thus forced to go to the police. Despite a charge being laid, nothing happened and this particular landowner and five others were forced to go to court to force the police to do something. The legal costs of course are borne by the aggrieved landowners.

Empty plots are not sacred. Vacant plots in Waterfall, Midrand are there to be occupied, according to a Mrs.Rivele of nearby Alexandra Township. An empty stand “represents an opportunity for dignity, privacy and a home she can finally call her own,” declares a Sunday Times journalist. (1.4.18). Mrs. Rivele says that if the land belongs to someone, “then they should use it.” The land has been “standing open” she said. So when members of her community decided to put up poles and a corrugated iron roof , the situation for the owners changed dramatically. A dwelling on a piece of vacant land means the police can do nothing and the owners must go to court. Community leaders were encouraging people to take the empty stands and these leaders started “registering” people to occupy someone else’s land! Will Mr. Ramaphosa be able to turn back the clock on this incredible conduct?

Other facts:

  • If mealie production is less than 11 million tons per annum, the price will double overnight.(Mr. J. De Villiers, head of Grain SA). The average farmer is in debt to between R5 million and R8 million to the bank. Mr. Ramaphosa must ponder whether South African banks will just sit on their hands and allow their land (because in many cases it is their land) be taken willy-nilly?
  • Will the government take land with no compensation from the tribal leaders in the homelands? This is communal land which is not productive in terms of large surpluses. Will land be taken from black commercial farmers who only contribute 1% to surplus food production?
  • Private ownership is the bedrock of capitalism and wealth creation. How will the president create wealth on the scale needed to support South Africa’s huge welfare population if the state owns the land, given the state’s dismal failure so far with their land redistribution policy? Municipalities for example use their taxes on property owners to build and maintain infrastructure. According to SA’s Auditor General Mr. Kimi Makwetu’s June 2017 report, municipalities’ irregular expenditure shot up 50% compared to the previous year and was R16,81 billion for the 2015/6 financial year.
  • As the country is further plundered, taxes to the Treasury will further diminish. The Auditor General says that the country’s irregular expenditure rose 55% since the previous year to a current R45,6 billion. The irregular expenditure of the Passenger Rail Association of SA – PRASA -where audits were incomplete – showed a shortfall of R14 billion last year. The departments with the highest amounts of irregular expenditure were Health (R11,7 billion), Transport (R6,37 billion) and Education (R6,09 billion). Accountability is virtually non-existent in many government departments, so how the president will convince South Africans and the world that his government will be able to manage the land taken “without compensation” is risible.

It is clear that the “take the land” clarion cry is a catchy political slogan, but the moment of truth will come. Or has it already come? The go-ahead has already been given, inadvertently or not. Who will stop it? Will the world turn its back on an intractable South Africa? Mr Ramaphosa’s tightrope will wobble further and there is no safety net.

Bennie van Zyl, CEO, TAU SA

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