Land reform plans do not get to root of rural ills

Neva Makgetla, Business Day, 5 March 2008

When it comes to land reform, a glaring yet largely submerged gap has developed between public expectations and actual policy. Most supporters expect broad empowerment of the rural poor. In contrast, current proposals for land redistribution seek to create just 10000 black commercial farmers.

Ten thousand may sound like a lot. But it represents only 0,3% of landless households in the former bantustans.

Certainly agrarian development is critical for shared growth. Thanks to apartheid, agriculture does less in SA than in virtually any other developing country to support the rural poor.

The lack of farming opportunities for rural households goes a long way towards explaining mass poverty and joblessness. In the former bantustan regions, just under 30% of adults were considered employed in 2006, compared with 46% in the rest of the country.

The reasons for the sorry state of agricultural employment are obvious. Apartheid laws long kept people in the rural areas, while largely excluding them from agriculture except as labourers on commercial farms. Apartheid stopped Africans from farming in a number of ways. Laws that limited access to land went hand in hand with a failure to provide infrastructure, water, training or marketing support.

The structures set up under apartheid have proven durable. According to the General Household Survey, in 2005 only a quarter of households in the former bantustans had access to land for agriculture. Of the million landed households, half were in Eastern Cape, with a fifth each in Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal.

Having land in itself does not ensure worthwhile agricultural employment or even food security. For one thing, three-quarters of landed households had less than a hectare. For another, the vast majority still received almost no state support and had little access to markets, training and infrastructure.

The consequences are predictable. In 2005, of households with less than a hectare of land, only 2% relied primarily on farm income. Landed households were twice as likely as others to suffer hunger at least sometimes. Meanwhile, 95% of marketed agricultural produce comes from 45000 commercial farms.

Current proposals for accelerating land reform seem unlikely to help. They aim to establish competitive black-owned commercial farms with close to 500 hectares apiece. There is very little linkage to programmes to uplift the landless smallholders or farmworkers.

These proposals would see the government lay out billions to create a comparatively small number of livelihoods. That looks far more like subsidies to aluminium smelters than agrarian reform.

In contrast to land reform, smallholder programmes under the provincial agriculture departments were expected to reach almost 800000 households last year. But funding for smallholders remains fairly small, although growing. Last year, the provinces spent R4bn on agriculture — an average of less than R4000 per landed household. That is about equal to the budget for land reform, which has far fewer beneficiaries.

We need a more vigorous debate on the model for land reform. Can we support more broad-based black empowerment in this sector, through smallholder schemes or employee and community trusts? Whatever the outcome, as always, narrow black empowerment should be funded by the private sector and beneficiaries, not the state.

It won’t be easy to achieve more equitable and inclusive agriculture, and it won’t be a panacea. Incomes are almost always lower in agriculture than in manufacturing. Even so, farming probably will not be able to absorb all the landless in the former bantustans. Nonetheless, any effort to overcome poverty and unemployment must do far more to increase the number of rural people supported by agriculture, with a major increase in government funding.

· Makgetla is sector strategies co-ordinator in the Presidency


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