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Land grab catastrophe

Apr 10 2014 07:19
*Leopold Scholtz
RECENT news reports giving particulars of government land reform proposals have sent ructions through the country. Not without reason; the proposals – they are not yet definite plans – could devastate South Africa’s capacity to produce food.

The government is proposing to give half of any given farm to the workers, who will run it as a cooperative. The government will pay for the land, but the owner will not receive a cent. Instead, the workers will get the money to improve the land and buy implements.

Off the top of my head I can think of three historical examples of similar social engineering – Joseph Stalin’s and Mao Zedong’s forcible collectivisation of farms in the Soviet Union and China in the 1930s and 1950s, and Robert Mugabe’s land grab at the beginning of the century.

I immediately hasten to add that these examples were much more severe than the present South African proposals, but the principle is the same.

It is a matter of historical record that all three examples turned out as catastrophes. In the USSR and China, millions of people died of hunger as food production plummeted. Zimbabwe, which used to be the bread basket of southern Africa, imploded into just another basket case, where those on the land had to eke out a miserable existence.

The best land went not to peasants, but to Mugabe’s super-rich political cronies.

According to reports, Zimbabwe is slowly climbing out of a deep hole, but Mugabe’s cruelty, hunger for power and corruption make the recovery a very difficult process.

Nobody is suggesting that our government’s proposals are as severe as the above. There may even be some sincerity in them. But the law of unintended consequences will probably punish the whole country.

In a recent article, renowned economist Clem Sunter put a few facts on record. Inter alia, he showed that only 17 million out of 122 million hectares of farmland are arable, suitable for producing crops without irrigation. The rest is suitable mostly only for grazing.

But, as this land is mostly in dry areas, the farm units have to be a certain size in order to be viable. In other words, cutting up the land into smaller pockets is going to adversely affect the farmers’ and peasants’ capacity for survival, let alone food production for the market.

New farmer failures

Another fact is that by far the majority of the “new” farmers who have so far received land as a result of the government’s land reforms did not last long. There are a few notable exceptions, but the majority have run down the land, sold it after a few years and returned to the city.

Of course this does not prove that blacks cannot farm, as right-wingers may claim. It does prove that you cannot throw people on the land and tell them to farm without proper training. If you gave me, a city boy, a farm, I promise you that I wouldn’t last a week.

The fact is that most of the black farmers were treated very badly. The government looked at the number of hectares turned over to blacks, and thought that was a sufficient criterion. Wrong, very wrong.

Farming nowadays is a sophisticated business. A farmer not only has to know how to sow mealies, milk a cow or fix a tractor. He needs to be a businessman, and a good one.

The conclusion is clear. To go down the path the government is suggesting is to invite disaster. Present farmers will be unable to survive on the land they retain and may well leave it. Our food production will go down drastically. Food prices will explode, and the poor people in the city townships will bear the brunt.

Are people in government really all that stupid? I have a little cynical devil on my left shoulder telling me otherwise. I think the proposers of this plan know it is unworkable. So why do it in the first place?

The answer is simple. We are moving towards a general election, and the ANC is receiving severe competition from a certain young gentleman by the name of Julius Malema. Malema’s main election point is that the whites stole the land, and that it has to be taken from them and given back to the blacks - regardless of the consequences.

In order to prevent ANC voters from switching to Malema’s Economic Freedom Front, the ANC thinks it has to look like it is caring about the land issue.

One may, however, legitimately ask: what political party does not make unworkable proposals in election time? And, even more importantly, what government ever keeps all its election promises?

I could be wrong. We may be ending up with a Mugabe-like land grab after all. If so all of us, and especially the poorest in the cities and towns, will pay the price.

Let us hope the government is as devious as I think they are.

  - Fin24

* Leopold Scholtz is an independent political analyst who lives in Europe. Views expressed are his own.









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