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29 October 2014
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Serving South Africa's population since 1994
29 October 2014

Land reform: grievances grow as the Government struggles to stay on target

South Africa's land reform programme is one of the most controversial and emotive issues in the whole transformation process. Both sides – the white commercial farmers and the poor, land-hungry blacks – are agreed on just one thing... it's not working.

The Government wants to achieve land reform in a planned and cohesive way. It wants to bring justice to the dispossessed without disrupting the economy, of which commercial farming is a very important part.

Slow progress

But poor blacks are impatient. Between 1994 and 2004 only 3% of rural land had been transferred from white ownership to black, despite a Government target of 30% by 2015. 13 million people in the old homelands still own no land and nearly 40,000 land restitution programmes are waiting to be settled.

The Department of Land Affairs is already 587 million rand (£58 million) short of the money needed for land restitution programmes it’s already approved but cannot finance. Yet only one half percent of the budget has been devoted to land reform.

The Landless People's Movement (LPM) was so angry at the slow progress of land reform that it tried to organise a boycott of the 2004 elections. Their leader Mongaliso Kubheka warned of Zimbabwe-type occupations and warned the Government not to "expect us to suffer poverty and dispossession in silence".

The problem is being made worse by the many thousands of poor rural blacks moving to cities and urban areas. They squat on land, coming into conflict with local authorities, who have often zoned the land for other purposes, and local residents, who may have land claims. The shanties they build put huge pressure on local services, water and sanitation.

An economic disaster, say white farmers

White farmers, on the other hand, argue that the process is an economic disaster. Poorly educated farm labourers are taking over farms without the farming and commercial skills to run them properly. Many are now being run as subsistence farms and, in the worst cases, are simply abandoned.

Land occupations in neighbouring Zimbabwe have destroyed commercial farming and the country now faces famine. The situation is seen as a warning of the dangers inherent in giving land to people who are not equipped to farm it successfully.

In response to increasing violence against farmers and their families, the Government has introduced a Rural Protection Plan. However farmers say it's not working; instead they’re spending millions of rand on security firms to protect themselves.

These factors all add up to a bleak future for South Africa’s white farming community and many Afrikaner farmers have given up farming or taken their skills abroad.

Its time to act

In a recent report, the International Crisis Group warned the South African Government of the dangers it faces. With three quarters of the land still owned by 60,000 farmers it says that the danger of a political explosion is a real one. The country may see increasing farm violence, perhaps spreading to urban areas.

The report recommends fostering partnerships between white farmers and blacks in preparation for the handover of land. There should also be more investment in skills, and training for new black farmers after they take over their farms. It says that the Government may need to get tougher with white farmers who are using the "willing buyer, willing seller" principle to hold up land transfer.

The South African Government replies that it's working hard on these issues and that many of these proposals, such as investment in training, are already being implemented. There are signs, particularly among some white farmers, that progress is being made, but the speed of transfer will have to increase dramatically if the Government is to meet its targets by 2015. There is time to get it right but the Government needs to act soon.

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