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April 08, 2009

Ostrich farm is symbol of South Africa's failed land reforms

Stripped of furniture and without running water, this ostrich farm outside Pretoria is a sad example of South Africa's wobbly efforts to bring blacks onto farmlands still owned mainly by whites.

Small-scale farmers who had rented the farm have now abandoned it, leaving the ostriches to languish in their pens, limping and infertile.

The government bought the farm in Hammanskraal in 2007. It was rented out but by last August it was deserted.

Faced with the farm's failure, the agriculture ministry for the first time applied a "use it or lose it" policy, claiming back the land last month for use by new farmers.

"Land must be fully utilised," said the minister, Lulu Xingwana. "No farm must be allowed to lie fallow. "Those who are not committed to farming must be removed from the allocated farm and be replaced by those who have a passion for farming, including agricultural cooperatives."

The strong response is meant to ease fears that South Africa could follow Zimbabwe's road, where chaotic and often violent land reforms begun in 2000 led to sharp drops in production and left Zimbabweans dependent on foreign food aid.

"One thing is clear, that the minister is using the principle as a punitive measure rather than an incentive, and as a defence mechanism against the criticisms of failure of land reform projects," said Glen Thomas, former director general at the ministry. "It also creates the impression that the woes faced by the untransformed, capitalist agriculture in this country must be put at the doorstep of land reform beneficiaries who are not using their farmland productively."

The commercial farmers' union, known as Agri SA, said often new farmers struggle to survive because of the difficulties in lining up finance for their operations.

"It is very often not their mistake that the farm collapses, it is because of the administrative red tape in the department," the group's vice-president Theo de Jager said.

In 1994 as the apartheid regime fell, 87 percent of South Africa's arable land was white-owned. The government plans to redistribute 30 percent of it to black or mixed-race farmers by 2015. But as the country prepares to vote April 22 in its fourth all-race elections, only five percent of the land has actually changed hands.

The Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) noted in a report that farming "remains dominated by relatively few, large-scale, capital-intensive and generally white-owned enterprises alongside millions of small and poorly resourced black farmers."

Senior researcher Michael Aliber said that about half of the resettlement projects had collapsed, but questioned if the beneficiaries should be blamed.

"The question is, who bears the responsibility for that? If it is inadequate planning or poor assistance, why should we blame the beneficiaries?" he said.

The African National Congress, which has ruled since 1994, promises in its election platform to step up the land reforms and to provide new farmers with financing and technical skills.

"Rural and land issues have been shamefully neglected by government since 1994," said PLAAS director Ben Cousins, who welcomed the party's focus on the issue, but said the government shows little sign of increasing the meagre budget allocated for reforms.

"The lack of detail here is very disappointing," he said.


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