18 Apr 2018

Small-Scale Farmers Should Get Land

Written by  Mark Paterson

No. 387: Small-Scale Farmers Should Get Land / Mark Paterson /Cape Times
18 April 2018

The prioritisation of land reform presented a historic opportunity for civil society and the state to right past wrongs and build a more inclusive economy, experts told a recent public meeting in Cape Town. But the issue could also sow division and undermine the agrarian economy, as some land reform efforts in Zimbabwe and South Africa had shown.

Attempts in South Africa to leverage reform through market forces and private property rights had so far failed to create a more inclusive agricultural sector or to relieve the pressure for land in the cities amid rapid urbanisation, said Professor Ben Cousins, of the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation chairperson in poverty, land and agrarian studies at the University of the Western Cape.

The success of reform depended on well-planned and properly funded agricultural programmes, rather than potentially destabilising and ineffective political grandstanding, speakers told the meeting, which was hosted by the Centre for Conflict Resolution.

While acknowledging the huge historical inequalities in land ownership, which had been skewed along racial lines in both Zimbabwe and South Africa, land reform programmes should seek to right past wrongs through negotiation supported by comprehensive plans, in order to support inclusive economic development and prevent incendiary racial divisions.

In Zimbabwe, land occupations were launched in 2000 after a failed attempt by former president Robert Mugabe to change the constitution to sanction expropriation of land without compensation.

At a time of economic crisis, rising unemployment and food riots, and faced by intransigent foreign donors, the Zimbabwean government’s move to change the constitution signalled its political desperation after the British government, under its new Labour leader, Tony Blair; decided to end its financial support for land reform that had previously been given to right historical wrongs.

In the context of a liberation war that had been waged with land as a key grievance, given the slow pace of land reform since independence in 1980 and facing political pressure from civil society and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, the Mugabe government had little choice but to go ahead with the simplistic notion that “if you put people on the land then everything will work out” under its Fast Track Land Reform Programme, according to Dr Prosper Matondi, the executive director of the Ruzivo Trust in Harare.

The three-page summary of the policy, known as the Acceerated Fast Land Reform Programme document, basically said “we will take the land” and worry about issues of food security and water supply afterwards.

Similarly, Cousins advised against the South African Parliament changing the constitution, which already allowed for expropriation and compensation at less than the market value of the land, in some cases possibly even zero compensation. He noted that reducing the amount of compensation was unlikely in itself to become a useful mechanism for speeding up land reform, given the need for thorough planning and post-settlement support.

Zimbabwean land reform targeted smallholders and black commercial farmers. In South Africa, market-oriented smallholders, who numbered between 250 000 and 500 00, should be the target of land reform, said Cousins.  

With adequate support, such as subsidies and training, “these farmers could challenge these controlling the food economy”. Also, with youth unemployment of 60 per cent to 65 per cent, small-scale farming could provide jobs and livelihoods.

In this regard, comprehensive planning was necessary to set in motion fundamental change, recognising the importance of labour intensive enterprises and the spatial inequalities of apartheid, he said.

For this to happen, it would need to address market realities. Historical patterns of economic control, which could dampen inclusivity, must be overturned.  For example, in Zimbabwe, some former white farmers who lost land had forged partnerships enabling them to control agricultural value chains in the poultry and livestock markets, said Matondi.

It could take time to overcome structural limitations on agricultural production that favoured larger commercial farmers at the expense of smallholders.

In Zimbabwe, smallholders often focused on maize production. In the past, this contribution to national food security, freeing larger-scale producers to diversify into game farming and horticulture for export, while reaping the profits from cash crops such as tobacco.

It took several years from 2009 for more than 100 000 small tobacco farmers to start producing the equivalent of what 2800 white farmers had produced, thus spreading the income-earning opportunities from this crop.

Appropriate support to small-holders would need a commitment beyond the 0.4 per cent of the national budget currently allocated to land reform in South Africa. The small sums committed indicate that it had not been taken seriously enough, Cousins said. Similarly, the model for tenure had failed to address the realities of property ownership for most South Africans, 60 per cent of whom  own land or housing outside formal systems.

In an informal system of “social tenure”, non-exclusive land rights were often based on need and recognised membership of a group, rather than payment of a purchase price. But these property systems were not adequately recognised in law. Accordingly, Cousins advocated the creation of a new land records act to recognise and record such tenures. He also criticised collusion between traditional leaders and the state to exploit local communities living on tribal land or around mines, and advised that the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act and such bodies as the Ingonyama Trust in KwaZulu-Natal should be made subject to legislation to prevent dispossession by unscrupulous outsiders.

More broadly, Cousins and Matondi emphasised the importance of new laws, and judicial and dispute resolution processes to ensure equitable, inclusive access to land. In Zimbabwe, white farmers used their privileged access to the courts to block reforms, while the government used both political and legal means to enforce and legitimise its actions.

“The poor would be hit most by radical disruptions in food systems”, warned Cousins. “Our economy is highly dependent on a small number of commercial farmers. We are not in a revolutionary situation but one of reform, albeit radical reform”.

The government needed to forge a coherent, accountable national framework for land and tenure reform that gave legislative expression to the requirements of equitable access in the constitution, and establish plans and mechanisms that addressed the developmental needs of the agrarian, industrial and urban economies. 

An August 2018 deadline had been set for recommendations to Parliament on whether the constitution should be changed to ease land reform, said Solly Mapaila, the first deputy general secretary of the SACP, who chaired the meeting in Cape Town.

In the meantime, President Cyril Ramaphosa was holding extensive consultations on land reform and had suggested that a new Codesa-like summit should be held on the issue. “The land question is full of injustice, brutality and denigration”, Mapaila told the meeting. “But it is also full of humanity and forgiveness and understanding”.

Warning against attempts to use the issue to create division, he stressed the need for justice “to provide a solution to the people of our country…and build a new movement and a new goal”. 

Mark Paterson

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