SA blacks itching to farm

Mbhele wants to farm ‘ and his dream has just come true.

Through a government programme that aims to erase the country’s land disparities, Mbhele and his family recently acquired 2214 hectares of land outside Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal.

Mbhele, who bought the property with a grant from the land affairs department, is excited about his prospects.

“I am passionate about farming. I grew up on a farm so I thought: let me own one myself,” he says.

“I know farming has a lot of challenges and risks because you need to buy medicine to inoculate cattle against diseases and have to buy poisons for ticks. All that stuff costs a lot but I like to see my cattle grazing.”

Everyone agrees it is crucial for SA to address historical imbalances by entrusting more land to people like Mbhele. But some say farming may not be the ideal way to create wealth and that the results up to now do not look promising.

More than a decade after the end of apartheid, more than 90 percent of the country’s commercial farmland is still owned by the white minority ‘ a legacy of apartheid and colonial rule which saw blacks kicked off their ancestral land.

So far the government has transferred roughly 4 percent of previously white-owned land to blacks ‘ far off its goal of 30 percent by 2014. Frustration with the slow progress has begun to build and activists have threatened to invade land if the process does not speed up.

The occurrences in neighbouring Zimbabwe, where landless blacks took matters into their own hands following Britain’s political truancy, is a constant reminder of what can go wrong if the problem is left unchecked.

From President Thabo Mbeki to senior civil servants, there has been growing acknowledgment that the land question needs to be resolved faster ‘ but officials say an orderly process will be followed, with legal expropriations used as a last resort.

Studies suggest that in a country where the economic role of agriculture has steadily declined over the decades, and where more and more rural folk are flocking to cities, agriculture should not be seen as a panacea for poverty.

“There is a lot of romanticism about agriculture,” says Nick Vink of the University of Stellenbosch.

The sector shrank 6,9 percent in the first quarter of 2006 after expanding by 3,9 percent in the previous quarter, according to official gross domestic product (GDP) data. Its contribution to GDP was about 2,6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2005 compared with about 6 percent in the 1980s.

Still, in some ways the sector punches above its weight. SA’s ability to feed itself is a vital source of stability in a region that suffers frequent food shortages.

Agriculture department statistics show the sector employed about 940 000 people out of a population of 45 million in 2002 ‘ the last year for which figures are available ‘ down from about 1,6 million in the late 1960s. But it is still a crucial source of work in a country with a jobless rate of about 26 percent.

However, SA is now a nation of city dwellers. Nearly 60 percent of the country is “urbanised” and in eight years that might rise to 70 percent, says a study conducted last year by the independent Centre for Development and Enterprise.

“In line with this, most South Africans now see land as a ‘place to stay’ rather than a ‘place to farm’,” it says.

“There is no doubt that many black South Africans are strongly attached to land in general, and the lands of their ancestors in particular. However, it should not be equated to wanting to farm for a living.”

An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report this year echoed those sentiments, saying simply handing more land to blacks, without developing neglected rural communities, is meaningless.

Deputy Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister Dirk du Toit says shortcomings in his department’s policy are being ironed out and that there is great economic potential in agriculture.

“There are sectors in the agricultural economy that are growing tremendously. Go and look what happened to our wine exports. We are doing very well with beef at the moment and you can go on,” he said on a recent trip to KwaZulu-Natal to view Mbhele’s project.

“The land reform programme is critically important. Number one, it redresses past imbalances, but it’s also about the socio-economic development of poor people,” he says. ‘ Reuters/Own staff.

July 2006
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