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Farmers take the heat while the chiefs sit pretty

Nothing in South African politics is as emotionally loaded as land restitution. It is so emotive an issue – emblematic of centuries of discrimination, exploitation and humiliation — that there exists an array of radical populists who clearly have a vested interest in the matter never being resolved. At least, not peacefully.

After all, “drive the Boer from the land” is probably the only remaining rallying cry around which a racially cohesive revolutionary bloc could still be built. It’s been chillingly successfully road-tested by President Robert Mugabe and in Zimbabwe and has kept Zanu-PF in power for 34 years, albeit at the price of economic collapse and widespread hunger.

And populist politicians need a steady supply of scapegoats, whether these are makwerekwere, the foreigners from elsewhere in Africa who are “stealing our jobs and our women”, or mlungu foreigners from Europe who “have stolen our land”.

So opportunistic demagoguery is as good an explanation as any for the lame-brained and patently unconstitutional recent ANC proposal that farmers should cede without compensation, up to half of their farms to their workers allotted in proportion to the years worked by the employee. It’s surely not coincidence that the proposals became public in April, shortly before a general election in which the ANC was fearful of losing votes to the Economic Freedom Fighters, with its unabashedly racist sentiments articulated around the forcible seizure of white land and capital.

But there’s also a less sinister explanation. The ANC is politically ambidextrous – it is accustomed to its right hand not knowing what its left hand is doing. Mooting publicly a scheme that contradicts the land policy contained in the National Development Plan (NDP) that was endorsed at the party’s national executive and Cabinet level, could just be another example of haphazard and ineffectual leadership.

It is maybe President Jacob Zuma’s political equivalent of watching a dogfight: stand back and let’s see which one emerges as the winner, then take that one home. This interpretation is supported by the statement by Zizi Kodwa, ANC national spokesperson, who said there was “no ANC policy position” on the new plan. “We are still awaiting an understanding of what exactly this means from the ministry that made the proposal.” That’s an utterly bizarre comment. The ANC has a policy position on everything, including what we should have for lunch.

While Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti insists that the 50% plan was drawn up to embody the vision of the ANC’s 2012 Mangaung policy conference, not everyone agrees. This week unnamed ANC national executive members were quoted in City Press as disowning the plan, saying that it had originated within the ministry and actually contradicted the Mangaung vision, which they argue is embodied in the NDP approach. It’s an old and infuriating ANC habit. You pay your money and you pick your ANC: revolutionary or rational

Organised agriculture is understandably frustrated by it all. Contrary to popular sentiment, there is little intransigence on the part of commercial farmers to land restitution. They are desperate for the matter to be speedily and efficiently resolved, so that they can invest with confidence.

Statistics tell the sad story. By government’s own estimate three quarters of restituted land is unproductive, despite state expenditure of R70-billion since 1995 – enough to buy 37% of all South Africa’s commercial agricultural land at market prices.

In the past 20 years more than 400 000 farm labourer jobs were lost. The 50% plan will inevitably accelerate mechanisation further, as farmers try to reduce their volatile labour component.

Since 1994 the number of commercial farmers has dropped from 120 000 to 36 000. Even this overstates the reality, since the top three dozen agribusinesses deliver about two-thirds of the nation’s farm output. There are not a whole lot of wealthy small farmers out there. Robin Barnsley, a top agriculturalist and former president of Kwanalu, the agricultural union, says that are probably not a whole lot more than 3 000 commercially viable farmers in KwaZulu-Natal, the country’s most bountiful province.

Government classifies a commercial farmer as anyone with a turnover in excess of R1-million a year. But given the tight margins in farming, that’s not a commercially viable operation. With that kind of turnover, you would make considerably more take-home money working in government office. So to reach agreement on a fast-tracked and productive land restitution process, estimates Barnsley, government really only needs to talk with about 3 500 farmers nationwide.

But white farmers are of course enticingly vulnerable targets. Especially since the other group critical to restitution is politically untouchable.

As Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille points out, 30% of the most fertile land lies in the former homelands of Transkei and Ciskei, where agricultural production is virtually non-existent. Of 1.1-million hectares of high to moderate potential agricultural land, a paltry 40,000 hectares are currently planted.

“The real reason the ANC won’t grasp the nettle of underdevelopment in the fertile former homelands, is that the current communal system under the control of traditional chiefs delivers millions of votes to the ruling party … It is perhaps the ultimate irony of the ‘new’ South Africa that, in order to stay in power, the ANC must ensure that apartheid feudalism in the former homelands continues,” writes Zille.

So, sorry guys, don’t expect to see any 50% plan for the chiefs.

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  • William Saunderson-Meyer

    This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.