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February 14, 2012

South African farmers’ union leader engages rather than confronts government over land reform

Theo de Jager, the deputy president of South African farmers’ union, AgriSA, says he is resisting increasing pressure "to go into confrontational mode" to force the government to remove the threat posed to the industry by its land reform policies.

He asks, "What would we do? Block off the rural roads for a day; occupy Pretoria?"

The report says that would be a counterproductive move for the country’s mostly white 37,000 commercial farmers to make themselves heard over a sensitive issue.

The greatest threat is not land reform, de Jager says, but what he feels is the disastrous way it is being implemented.

"The biggest threat to commercial agriculture is uncertainty. We have 13000 farms with unsettled land claims over them since 2000. Banks are not financing farmers who have land claims over their land."

Even if banks were prepared to lend, farmers will not invest in farms they may lose at any time. So productivity on these farms is being scaled down. Some have gone bankrupt.

De Jager believes AgriSA's strategy of "constructive engagement" has helped shift the mindset of government from the overt aggression of a few years ago, "when they saw commercial farmers as the enemy", to a position where it is prepared to "consider the plans we bring to the table and negotiate with us.”

"At least now we have an open door," he says.

But it was not constructive engagement alone that brought this change, he believes. It was more than 1000 South African farmers moving to neighboring countries.

"Since we started to negotiate these deals with other African governments we've detected a change in the attitude of our own government. Some of them realize that maybe South Africa needs its farmers more than the farmers need South Africa."

While there is "more appreciation" from politicians of the economic role commercial farmers can play (they employ 700000 people and "can create more jobs, cheaper, than any other sector"), the attitude of the officials below them is another matter entirely.

"With the officials we are still living on different planets," says De Jager. They're "quite aggressive" and more political than their political masters. "They seem to be a law unto themselves. Politics is all they see. They're not interested in practical or commercial issues." Their unhelpful attitude and dismal service record has both black and white farmers up in arms.

Negotiations at government level might be protracted but at least there is an occasional glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. But the daily reality that farmers face on the ground is very different because they are "at the mercy of these officials. That is why so many farmers are saying we must rather take a harder approach."

As a representative of South African farmers, De Jager, 49, is a bit of a surprise package. He has a PhD in political philosophy from Pretoria University.

How come he is in farming?

"What else are you going to do with a doctorate in political philosophy," he laughs. He did his thesis on the black consciousness philosophy of murdered South African political activist Steve Biko.

Later he worked in PW Botha's presidential office, before joining the national intelligence service for two years until 1991. Then he consulted for mining company Gencor and for the Nuclear Energy Corporation. He has been lecturing to the defense force on national security since 1991. He has traveled extensively in Africa.

What he finds appealing about African people is their emphasis on community, whereas in the Western mind the individual is the centre of everything. He fully supports the sentiment that Africa is a continent bursting with opportunities.

De Jager makes the telling point that 46% of the world's unutilized arable land is in Africa. If Africans - and he thinks farmers from South Africa have an important role to play here - do not wake up and use it the Chinese and Brazilians "will move in aggressively."

De Jager is himself a successful farmer in Limpopo. He started as a farm manager, and then bought his own farm, which he grew into a successful exporter of tropical fruit, small vegetables and flowers before it became the subject of a land claim. The state bought it and handed it to a local property association in 2005.

Fire destroyed much of it, including most of his orchards and a church used by his workers. The flowers, 174000 anthuriums, were left to die. He offered to form a joint venture with the new owners, but after three years was still negotiating. By the time the government gave approval he had bought another farm and was no longer interested. He reckons it would cost more to get the farm back into production than the government paid for it.

Now he has a 434 hectare timber and tropical fruit farm near Tzaneen, which became profitable enough to pay for a Cessna 182 four-seater plane that he pilots to his many meetings with affiliated farmers' unions and government.

He also visits as many farms around the country as he can, which is why De Jager knows better than anyone what their problems are and how dismally the government's land reform programme is failing the country.

"I've visited more than 200 of those farms. Very, very few of them are productive."

In spite of the daunting challenges, he believes commercial farmers "have a great future here. There are great business opportunities. Food and fiber production is a great industry to be in. We just have to hang in until the political climate cools down a bit," he says.

Having said that, however, De Jager says he is "scared" about what may happen this year. Before its national conference in Mangaung in December, the ANC will be under pressure to "perform", and the land issue is "always the last card" African governments play when they have nothing else to offer their supporters. His fear is that the ANC might "raise expectations without performing." That could unleash considerable social unrest, with farmers taking the brunt of it.

De Jager is not sure how much longer he is going to be around. He has been deputy president of AgriSA for four years. His time is nearly up and he doubts he will have enough support to make president.

"Heading the transformation portfolio at AgriSA is not the best way to be popular," De Jager laughs.


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