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February 28, 2010

Land reform deals struggle in South Africa's Eastern Cape province

by Brian Hayward

The South African government’s costly land reform programme is in crisis with emerging Eastern Cape farmers’ dreams of owning their own land lying in tatters amidst empty promises of follow-up assistance and training from provincial authorities.

The floundering policy, which aimed to transfer 30% of commercial agricultural land to black owners by 2014, has drawn harsh criticism from agricultural organisations and even high-ranking government ministers, who have blamed endless red tape, a lack of capacity and a dire shortage of experienced, committed officials for its collapse.

To date less than 10% of commercial agricultural land in the province has been transferred to previously disadvantaged farmers.

An inspection of four high-profile land reform deals in the region, given over to emerging black farmers to manage with an option to later buy, has revealed the dire state of the roll-out in the region.

All four farms, acquired with a combination of grants from the Department of Agriculture and Land Affairs and loans from the Land Bank, were found to be plagued either by mountains of bad debt, infighting among beneficiaries or in some cases the sale of vital farm implements to cover monthly expenses such as electricity.

Included are three farms in the Sundays River Valley – one thoroughbred stud farm and two citrus farms. Totaling 70 hectares, the three farms, which are run by black economic empowerment (BEE) figurehead Phindi Kema, are standing derelict with dying citrus orchards, while just five thoroughbreds which remain are untended and have been left to graze the lands.

Kema is also behind an ambitious R1,3-billion Plettenberg Bay horse-racing initiative which hopes to see horses from all over Africa competing in a prestigious annual event which will pit them against Arabian royalty.

Other deals include:

* The R18-million Addo citrus farm Kangela, which has recently been handed over to government parastatal Uvimba Bank in Queenstown after seven years of issuing no financial statements and defaulting on loan repayments;

* A R4-million chicken farm near Paterson which has been standing empty since it was handed over to eight beneficiaries two years ago;

* A 1000 hectare Salem farm near Grahamstown, which belonged to prominent Settler family the Mullinses and last year was sold to about 100 beneficiaries for a rumoured price of R8-million, which is unproductive because it is plagued by infighting.

According to the struggling farmers, there has been scant interest from department officials in helping them get on their feet and established after being handed the land.

“It was our dream to farm, but we have been here for two years already and nothing has happened. The government promised us before we took the farm that they would help us to get established by renovating the chicken huts and giving us money for feed, but so far we haven’t received a single cent,” said frustrated Paterson chicken farm beneficiary Andries Salmon, one of eight beneficiaries.

Salmon said countless calls to the department for urgent assistance, such as help with a broken borehole pump, fell on deaf ears. At its prime the farm was able to rear 20000 chicks.

But in a tacit acknowledgement that its policy is failing, well-placed agriculture department sources have revealed the planned launch next year of a multi-billion rand Eastern Cape Rural Development Agency. This body will have the sole function of correlating and expediting the fragmented land reform process, which is currently handled by several different departments in conjunction with the Land Bank.

Deputy Agriculture Minister Dr Pieter Mulder, who is also the leader of the Freedom Front Plus, acknowledged the government needed to change tack on its land reform, but warned abolishing the “willing buyer, willing seller” model was not the answer.

“I don’t agree with how it’s being done,” he said. “More than 50% of land reform projects fail, and it could be as much as 70%. The problem is that there is a lack of co-ordination between departments. There is also the belief (within government) that land solves the problem of poverty, which it doesn’t.

“What we need is better co-ordination and to bring in mentors who will teach farmers and help them. I am also nervous about groups (of beneficiaries) going into deals together, because there’s a lot of idealism in that. At the end of the day you just need one person who calls the shots.”

Mulder said the State was wrong to assume all land handed over to emerging farmers would become commercial successes. “We must admit that some of these people will merely be subsistence farmers,” he said.

In the Sundays River Valley Kema’s predicament has become so critical that she has been forced to seek a business partner in fellow farmer Dave Robertson to help pay off debts including unpaid electricity and irrigation bills. She also owes Worcester vet Dr Marianne Thomson R250000 for housing five thoroughbred mares .

This week Kema vowed to repay her debts as soon as the deal with Robertson was given the green light by the department – a move which would see the farms transferred from the government into her and Robertson’s names.

But she lashed out at the department for its lack of assistance. “The department undertook to make grant funding available to support the farms in the first year, but that did not happen, making farming impossible,” she said. “You cannot manage to cover input costs without finance. I couldn’t even use the land as collateral because it was not in my name. In my case I have the business and managerial skills, but not the assistance (from government). I have put in a lot into farms which are not in my name, but my situation is not unique.”

In Salem, beneficiaries are engaged in a fierce stand-off with the managing committee of the 1000ha pineapple and beef farm, after they received just R180 for last year’s pineapple harvest from a total income of R22000. That was their only income for the year from the farm.

Beneficiary Yvonne Nomoyi, who worked for former owner Dave Mullins said conditions were better before she co-owned the land. “It’s our farm now,” she said. “But it’s not better. We used to get a regular salary (under Mullins), but now the farm is not viable so we have to get work elsewhere.

The department had not responded to questions.

The Weekend Post

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