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January 17, 2011

President's remark on land ownership worries South African farmers

by Hopewell Radebe

South Africa's organised agriculture has warned that the African National Congress (ANC) was tinkering with property rights at SA’s peril, and challenged the government to speed up land reform and allow the private sector to play a more prominent role.

The comments were made after President Jacob Zuma appeared to revive the state’s controversial plan to limit foreign ownership of land, an initiative that stalled after a government probe in 2006 found that only about 5% of land in SA was foreign owned.

The plan was shelved after an uproar from analysts and local real estate agents who warned that it would send the wrong signal to investors.

However, at the ANC’s 99th anniversary celebrations recently, Mr Zuma again raised the possibility of restricting foreign ownership. Analysts said yesterday his remarks were likely to be well received by voters.

Aubrey Matshiqi, a senior research associate at the Centre for Policy Studies, said foreign land ownership was a soft target and likely to resonate with locals.

Mr Zuma was careful to offer a compromise to appease foreign investors by not advocating a ban on foreign ownership.

"They are not stopping foreigners but offer what is an internationally acceptable norm in the form of leasehold for a particular period, at the same time serving the interests of the party’s constituency by being seen to be reserving land for locals," Mr Matshiqi said.

Prof Dirk Kotzé, lecturer in political sciences at the University of SA, said foreign land ownership was not a priority for ANC voters, who were migrating to urban areas faster than citizens of most African cities and towns.

Farmers lobby group AgriSA said it supported orderly and meaningful land reform, and called for it to be expedited. "With a view to investor confidence in agriculture, urgent progress should be made with land restitution … the matter should be finalised, preferably within the next two years," AgriSA president Johannes Möller said.

"Give the private sector the necessary space and financial support to demonstrate what can be done. I am personally aware of farmers who through shareholding schemes, for example, can effectively assist the government with land reform," Mr Möller said.

The Freedom Front Plus described the state’s plan to obtain land on behalf of farmworkers with "far-reaching expropriation powers" as "a dangerous and irresponsible intention". The government appeared committed to changing property rights because of political considerations but did not realise what the consequences could be, the party’s land affairs spokesman Werner Weber said.

Business Day

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