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March 28, 2011

South Africa struggles with its land reform goals

 by by Joshua Howat Berger

The neatly painted sign welcoming visitors to Nomalangha Farm has an ambiguous sun blazing on the horizon, either rising above or sinking into the stylised mountains below it.

The farm, a 75-hectare stretch of immaculate grape vines in South Africa’s arid Northern Cape province, is run by eight “stakeholders” who lease it under a government programme designed to overhaul the country’s racially skewed land ownership.

Its manager and chairman is Christian Beukman, a “coloured” or mixed-race South African who spent 26 years working on white-owned farms before finally getting one of his own in 2007.

In a country that has struggled to undo the colour lines engraved in its land - 87% of South Africa’s commercial farm land belonged to its 13% white population when apartheid ended in 1994 - agriculture officials have pointed to Beukman’s farm as a success story.

But he says he and his partners have lost their life savings on the project and are struggling to make ends meet, thrust into farm ownership with no experience, little support and no access to the loans they need to keep Nomalangha going. “If I’m really honest today, we’re not far away from saying, sorry, we can’t do it anymore,” Beukman says.

At the fall of white-minority rule, South Africa’s new government came to power promising to buy 30% of white-owned commercial farm land at market prices and transfer it to black owners by 1999. That deadline was later extended to 2014, then to 2020 as Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti admitted last year that his department was only one-fifth of the way to meeting its target, and that many land transfers hadn’t worked.

“Much of this land is not productive and has not created any economic benefit for many of the new owners,” he said.

President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet has been due to issue a policy paper on overhauling land reform since March last year, but has repeatedly delayed the release.

Nkwinti has said achieving the land transfer target would cost 72bn rand ($10.4bn), a staggering sum in a nation with a raft of other pressing needs.

The disastrous results of Zimbabwe’s land reform programme, marked by violence and the decimation of food production, also hang as a cautionary tale over South Africa’s experience.

Nomalangha stands apart among the 6mn hectares transferred under land reform. It is a certified exporter under the Global Partnership for Good Agricultural Practice, and has shipped its grapes to the European Union. Last year, the province’s top agriculture official bragged about the farm in his annual budget speech.

“The project is exporting to the European market and they are currently running a debt-free operation and they provide employment to the nearby communities,” he said.

But Beukman says the farm is struggling and has received little government support. He and his partners were supposed to lease the farm from the government for 90,000 rand a year for three years, then buy the land for 4.7mn rand by March 2011.

Despite their export success, they could not raise the money to purchase the farm, which was handed over to them with no equipment and little infrastructure. Banks would not give them loans because the farm was not in their name.

To keep the farm going, Beukman says, he spent the 42,000 rand he had saved in 26 years of farming and took money from his children’s savings account to pay employees.

Then, in January, devastating floods hit the Northern Cape, ruining much of Nomalangha’s crop. The government agreed to give Beukman and his partners 10 more years on their lease.

But he says he still doesn’t know if they will be able to buy the land.

“There are mornings when I wake up and I cry and cry,” Beukman says. “My wife says, ‘You must go out there and do your best. You did it all your life for other farmers, now you must do it for yourself.’ So, I try to make the best of the worst. But one day I won’t be able to do it anymore.”


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