It is one thing to hear Julius Malema, the former president of the ANC Youth league stating that the state should be given powers to take over land without having to compensate the owners, but it’s quite another when the deputy president of the country not only echoes the sentiment, but publicly announces that the constitution would not have to be changed in order to do so.
Kgalema Motlanthe recently told Parliament’s Press Gallery Association that the law, as it stands today, allows government to expropriate land if it is deemed to be in the public interest. “So willing buyer, willing seller is not an obstacle.” Although Motlanthe stressed that the state had to legally demonstrate a clear case for expropriation, his statement has undoubtedly raised fears in many South African farmers’ minds.
The idea that land could be unilaterally confiscated and given to people who, generally speaking, do not grasp the concept of large scale farming is a scary thought. Perhaps even scarier is how the land redistribution process has been handled up until now. Overall the process has been slow and the minister himself admitted in June this year that the state would not be able to reach its target of acquiring 30 percent of arable land for redistribution by 2014. He blamed red tape and the protection that the Constitution affords to private property owners.
There are those who view the land distribution initiative with scepticism. The Agri SA deputy chairman Theo de Jager is on record as saying that although the state wishes to be the biggest owner of productive agricultural land, it does not have the resources, expertise or ability to farm successfully, or to competently, control and manage so much land. His thoughts are echoed by many.
He undoubtedly has a point and many of the farms that have been handed over to historically disadvantaged people have failed. The general opinion appears to be that although the concept looks good on paper, without the right training or financial support, many of the farms worked by inexperienced farmers are doomed to failure.
Another concern that is being raised by more and more people is food security and the impact that giving prime agricultural land away to untrained and unskilled people could have on this extremely vital sector. The concerns are not groundless. There are numerous stories of fully operational farms that have been handed over and which have - either through a lack of education or financial support - failed, sometimes in a dramatically short time. Although there are initiatives in place to help emerging black farmers cope with the responsibility of running a large scale operation, it appears that not enough is being done to offer practical help to those involved.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope on the horizon in the form of a green paper on land reform released by Land Reform Minister, Gugile Nkwinti. He said that the paper aimed to break from the past without significantly disrupting agricultural production and food security and avoid redistributions that did not generate livelihoods, employment and incomes.
At this stage the paper recommends four categories of land ownership; state land which would be available for leasing, communal land where certain usage rights would apply, private ownership which would be subject to certain limitations and regulated land ownership by foreigners.
It appears that the South African government is caught between a rock and a hard place. The calls for land to be returned to those it was taken from are getting louder and while there can be little doubt that government itself wants to redress the imbalances, it is fairly obvious that the powers that be do not want a repeat of the disastrous agricultural land grabs which have happened in other parts of Africa.