Back to feudalism

There’s never been a good time to be an African, in a rural setting, and poor in this country. It’s about to get a lot worse, thanks to a government proposal to cast black farmers back to feudalism. This should come as a shock to those hopeful at President Jacob Zuma’s recent promise to racially transform land ownership.

There are 1,3 million farmers in SA, of whom only 4% don’t subsist but are commercial. These few, says the government, produce 95% of our food. The SA Institute of Race Relations works out that it is the larger, private company farms that produce best, pay the most, and employ more than individual commercial farmers. Legislative encroachment on farming property rights and the efficiencies of modernisation have seen jobs on commercial farms fall 41% since 2004, and farming now contributes 2,5% to GDP, a steady decline from the 10,3% of 1967. We remain, just, a net exporter of food. It’s an increasingly precarious situation in a country where government owns a quarter of all land, and where black ownership of land has been severely restricted for a century.

If black wannabe farmers thought their liberation was at hand, then they’re in for a rude surprise. For ANC ideologues, who forget no grievance and learn no lesson, are intent on black farmers being pushed into state-controlled “agri-villages”. Harking back to the ujamaa policies of Tanzania’s beatific Julius Nyerere, which, ruinous to economy and human rights, forced the establishment of 2 500 collectivised villages and halved economic output, the green paper on land reform will incentivise commercial farmers to move farm labourers and other residents to state-controlled villages.

None will be allowed to own the new land they find themselves on; instead they’ll live there by government licence. They will have to farm this land to the satisfaction of a sort of local commissar, or lose their tenancy. Labourers will travel at their own expense to the commercial farms that formally employ them during the day, becoming, says SAIRR CEO John Kane-Berman, dicey “peasant farmers by night” for the state. “Ironically, black farmers living in agri-villages will have a form of title similar to that of black retailers in townships under apartheid”.

Meanwhile, about 30% of blacks live in former “homelands”, most also without freehold title and its attendant benefits. Here, most rent land for life from traditional leaders, in a patronage system of rights lesser than those of other South Africans. Any hope they had of political and economic liberation being conjoined has been dashed. Government has ruled out allowing them property rights, with Agriculture Minister Tina Joematt-Peterson saying last year that such is not the only way to measure land reform. Parliament’s land reform committee chairman Stone Sizani even says that property ownership in communal areas can promote poverty, citing sales of Kenyan land by poor people to commercial farmers.

The paternalistic approach to the rural poor is opposite to government’s urban policies where freehold title is regularly transferred to people living in state-owned houses, a policy that provides new owners with assets to use as collateral, or to dispose of, or whatever, along with the permanency of property. No such empowerment is planned for the rural poor. For them, it’s deeper into serfdom.

(First published in The Citizen, 23 January 2013)

– By Paul Pereira

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