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Economy column: The desire to have a farm in (South) Africa and the realities of land reform 2005-07-01
James N. Blignaut


The desire to have a farm in (South) Africa and the realities of land reform

By James N Blignaut (james@jabenzi.co.za), part-time professor of economics, University of Pretoria, and director of Jabenzi, Beatus and GreenGrowth Strategies, three companies aiming at making rural development in southern Africa a reality


It is sunset at the foot of the Ngong Hills and Meryl Streep utter the words I had a farm in Africa . . . Those famous words in the film Out of Africa is enough to send shivers down the spine of the most hardened man. Simply put: These words touch a nerve, a very sensitive nerve that is, inside most Africans of all backgrounds and languages, whether Xhosa, Swahili, Zulu, Sotho, Afrikaans, or any other indigenous language group. Land to an African is not simply an economic commodity or, even worse, just a factor of production. By viewing land in such a way would be extremely reductionistic, and/or imply that Africans are merely beings that strive for economic welfare optimisation. Obviously such a view will constitute an impoverishment of the spirit. No, land provides a sense of being to an African, a sense of belonging and a sense of emotional and physiological security. Since land is not worth, in monetary terms, simply just what is growing or grazing on it, it accentuates the almost impossible task that government is currently facing regarding land reform in South Africa.


The notorious Natives Land Act of 1913, the 1936 Natives Trust and Land Act, and the Group Areas Act of 1950 disenfranchised black South Africans from owning and operating farming units in the white areas of South Africa, which, as we all know, constituted by far the larger area of the country and the more productive farmlands. It is the legacy of these acts that the land reform process wishes to undo. To do so the Department of Land Affairs embarked on an ambitious three-pronged approach, namely:

  • restitution (returning land, or providing compensation, to those who were dispossessed under Apartheid);

  • redistribution (increasing black ownership of rural land); and

  • tenure reform (improving the security of tenure of dwellers on rural and peri-urban land).


Given that this process is extremely sensitive and complex, one tends to find that the land reform debate has become polarised between those that think Government is handling the matter in an irresponsible way, implying racism in reverse, and those who think that the process of delivery is too slow. In the popular media this increasing tension is also used to improve sales simply because tension, conflict, and failure sell news. Such an approach does not necessarily contribute towards a workable and lasting negotiated and acceptable solution though.


A fresh breeze in the land reform debate, however, is the Centre for Development and Enterprise’s 14th Research Report that focuses exclusively on the land reform issue in South Africa. This report, available at http://www.cde.org.za/pdf/Land_Reform.pdf, is fresh simply because it goes a long way in de-politicising the issue of land reform and addresses the issue in a clinical, academic and fact-based way. The authors and contributors to the report are to be commended on a job well done!!


Firstly, some salient points based on the research conclusions of this report are:

  • The government is to be congratulated on the systematic and sensitive way in which they were handling an issue that is so complex, and that can easily become emotionally over charged;

  • It is clearly illustrated, however, that the agriculture sector is not a high growth sector and it offers little potential for massive increases in rural employment opportunities;

  • Many white commercial family business farmers are leaving the land and the land is being consolidated under large company farms to improve on the economies of scale since small-scale agriculture is no longer a profitable entity, especially since the global market structure has changed, seemingly irrevocably, in favour of the more efficient and larger farming units;

  • The problems of unemployment, urbanisation and ensuing poverty will not be dealt with through a rural land reform process only. This emphasises the necessity of urban land reform;

  • The deracialisation of commercial agricultural land is essential, but will not benefit primarily poor black South Africans; the benefits will mainly accrue to a small number of relatively better-off black land owners and potential farmers”;

  • Land quality and location is more important than quantity. We need to understand that what you do with land is most important”;

  • In contrast to the prevailing view, the main focus of land reform should not be rural, except in identified areas of high demand for farm land. Urban and peri-urban land redistribution is the main future challenge”;

  • We should avoid former homeland settlement approaches that lead to overcrowding and other poor development outcomes”;

  • The private sector, especially large-scale commercial industries such as sugar and forestry and various farming co-operatives have embarked on own initiatives to transfer land with commercial rights to black farmers. Indications are that these transfers are more successful since they are based on a commercial premise and enjoy the broad-base support of the industry as a whole; and

  • Land reform requires top management’s attention and should include significant budget and capacity support. Currently the budgetary support to this initiative is much too inadequate to deal with the complex and sensitive issues that need to be dealt with.


Based on these research conclusions, the research team stresses the need of a common and well-communicated vision regarding improved land reform processes that is inclusive of urban land reform and linked to economic development objectives to address the increasing problem of the urban poor. The need for this focus is highlighted by the rising urban tension as illustrated by the recent outbreaks of violence in Diepsloot, Modderklip and various Free State and Eastern Cape cities and towns. The report therefore proposes three key priority areas that have to be addressed sooner rather than later, namely: Managing the restitution process speedily, and in a manner that will help to promote sustainable development. Secondly, the successful urban land release and settlement in South Africa’s metropolitan centres, cities, and large and small towns, and lastly, the deracialising land ownership in commercial agriculture, and ‘normalising’ the countryside.


The report concludes by stating that poverty is enemy number one and that it is both a rural and urban phenomenon that has to be addressed, and, lastly, that the private sector can play a significant and meaningful role in this development and land reform process, something that can be fast-tracked should various incentives and budget allocations assist in this regard.


Considering the report, it is rewarding to realise that it is possible to look at the issue of land reform and to note that, however serious and complex in nature, one does not have to leave the first principles of development behind in addressing the issue. Actually, one has to revisit the first principles of economic development more carefully when dealing with something as complex and sensitive and land reform. Land reform, like so many other development issues, is, after all, about people and addressing the needs where the people are, which is increasingly in the urban areas. The challenge therefore is to make the cities work. The pressure on the land reform process can be hugely improved should this happen. Land reform is, and should not be, for all to have a farm in Africa - economic realities does not allow that - but it should contribute to an economic development process, which, as the statistics indicate, represents a move away from the rural to the urban areas.


Having said this, there are at least three things that the report fails to mention. First, what is actually required is a land use plan. Such a plan is needed for both urban and rural areas alike. This plan should take cognisance of the development potential of the area and also the aspirations of the country’s citizens. Such a vision-based integrated and strategic land use plan could facilitate the land reform process tremendously. Once the plan is known, the private sector and respective communities could contribute largely to the process of land reform.


The second thing that the report fails to mention is the impact of undesired land reform on the natural environment. The logic consequence of too many people on too small farming units is degradation, erosion, productivity loss and reduction in water availability and quality. Likewise, if the expansion of large-scale commercial farming implies the conversion of virgin land to, say, sugar or plantation forestry, important ecosystem services will be lost, among others biodiversity, water and soil productivity. Neither of these two scenarios will yield an equitable and sustainable outcome.


Thirdly, the report does not consider the fact that people actually belong to a community and only refer to people as either black or white. This is not particularly helpful when we need to foster healthy, urban and rural, communities that co-exist, collaborate, participate, even integrate and accommodate each other. The challenge is not only to foster economic development and working cities, but also to weave together communities whose social fibre is no longer reminiscent of the legacy of Apartheid, but which is based on a common destiny, a destiny that is not only economically defined, but also socially, culturally and physiologically. In this way we all will have a farm in Africa, a place that we can call home, a place that harbours security and a sense of true Ubuntu.


 


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