Land heat is on

South Africa’s land reforms have taken long to finalise, with more than 50,000 landed white farmers playing a game of figures with the government and frustrating attempts to buy their land and distribute it among landless potential black farmers in the country.

The country’s new agriculture minister, Ms Lulu Xingwana, told white farmers they risked losing their land if they failed to agree on acceptable selling prices within the next six months, sparking fears that the country would turn on the heat and embark on a more radical land reform policy.

Some of the farmers, who had been in a stalemate with government over land prices for the past two years this week reacted to the government’s threat of expropriations and started coming up to negotiate for finalizations of land prices.

“These farmers have become more supportive because we are cracking the whip,” chief land claims commissioner Tozi Gwanya said this week, adding that threats of compulsory seizures had speeded up the once difficult price negotiation process.

South Africa had treaded a rather cautious path on land reforms, giving landed white farmers ample time to make way for their black counterparts and families disinherited by the apartheid government before independence.

However, the country’s soft-gloved approach, while preserving the vibrancy of its agricultural sector, had played into the camp of the landed whites and failed to yield results in terms of black empowerment, and the government looks set to chart a more proactive approach to land redistribution.

“We are now going to negotiate for six months and no more …” said Ms Xingwana. “We will no longer waste time negotiating with people who are not committed to transformation.”

She said the government would no longer waste time on fruitless negotiations, accusing the white farmers of trying to undermine the country’s land reform programme by demanding exorbitant prices for their land.

South Africa’s land reforms are aimed at redistributing over 30 per cent of white-owned land to new black farmers by 2014 to redress the injustices of apartheid. The country aims to settle 6,969 rural land claims before a December 2008 deadline.

Since the government issued its six month ultimatum last week, more than 200 out of a least 350 farmers with listed properties are reported to have agreed to the government’s prices at the last minute.

“They are coming round to the table and there has been a very good response in Mpumalanga, where 70 farms in the Tevubu area were identified for expropriation.”

“Of them 40 farmers agreed to our price at the last minute.”

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe last week warned unproductive black farmers who benefited under the country’s land reforms that they risked losing their land if they failed to utilize it productively.

Speaking in Harare during commemorations to mark the Zimbabwe’s Heroes Day,

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President Mugabe said the new farmers, some of whom have been accused of vandalizing farm equipment and selling government subsidized inputs on the black market, risked losing their land to government.

He said the country’s agricultural production, which has been growing steadily after a sharp decline induced by land reforms, was expected to grow by 23 percent this year and would drive the country’s economic recovery.

“We now need to distinguish capable and committed farmers from holders of land who are mere chancers and who should be made to seek opportunities elsewhere,” he said.

At least 500,000 families were resettled under Zimbabwe’s land reform programme, which started spontaneously in 1999, addressing a situation where only 4000 white farmers owned almost 75 per cent of arable land, squeezing over 75 per cent of the population to infertile land.

Land reforms in Zimbabwe empowered a substantial number of black farmers, who have embarked on agriculture in highly productive farming regions, but also had the downside of people settling on multiple farms and evicting productive white farmers, resulting in a decline in agricultural production and negatively impacting the country’s agriculture based economy.

However, with the ongoing programme of supporting productive farmers with inputs and taking land and input facilities from unproductive ones, the government has spurred a steady rise in productivity in the agricultural sector, and it is expected to keep growing with adequate capital.

Production in Zimbabwe was most affected by the sudden flight of capital from the agricultural sector, with banks that traditionally supported white farmers with capital pulling out of farming towns and cutting down on capital available for farmers.

South Africa took notes from Zimbabwe’s land reforms, and chose to pursue the “willing buyer, willing seller” policy to effect land reforms, but Ms Xingwana complained that white farmers seem to have sneered at this option and shown reluctance to give up their land for prices the government considered to be reasonable.

The country’s agriculture ministry is reported to have blacklisted farms that will be the first to be expropriated if the government could not reach agreement over prices with the white owners, and this move is expected to kick-start a brisker and even more vigorous land reform process.

White farmers in the country, through AgriSA, South Africa’s largest farmers’ union, initially rejected the six-month ultimatum and dismissed it as an unacceptable move that would unnecessarily foment racial tensions in the country and vowed that they would challenge government-led farm seizures in the courts.

“It is unacceptable because the consequences for an open economy is devastating. We have a good economy now, but what will it do to investment, to property security?” Lourie Bosman, AgriSA president, said, vowing to challenge land seizures in the country’s courts.

Chris Jordaan, manager of property rights at the Transvaal Agricultural Union, is reported to have warned of disastrous fallout, saying 12,000 of the country’s estimated 43,000 commercial farmers would forsake agriculture after the land reform programme was fully in place.

Black ownership of land in South Africa has increased from 13 percent at the end of apartheid in 1994 to about 16 percent, but this is far below targets set by the ANC government.

Elsewhere in Namibia, it has emerged that the government would require R4,5 billion to speed up the land reform process over the next 15 years as it strives to satisfy the “severe land hunger” in the country.

Addressing scores of delegates, ambassadors and stakeholders in the agricultural sector, Lands and Resettlement Minister Jerry Ekandjo, said Namibia’s land reform process was slow and needed to be hastened.

August 2006
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