Mthimkhulu inspects his herd of cattle at his farm in Senekal
A black farmer inspects his cattle on land formerly owned by a white farmer

Elliot Nkompo discusses the trials and tribulations of farming in South Africa after attending to a weak cow struggling to stand after calving.

As someone with three decades’ experience as a farmworker he is no stranger to the challenges farming brings. Yet, four years after making the transition from worker to land owner as the beneficiary of a land reform programme pushed by the ruling African National Congress, he is struggling to make ends meet.

The reform – under which the state has acquired white-owned land for blacks – is intended to address huge imbalances in land ownership, the legacy of colonial and apartheid policies. But it is a complex and emotive issue that is set to be a hot topic as campaigning picks up ahead of next year’s elections.

And with the country approaching the 20-year anniversary of the end of white minority rule, black and white farmers alike say the programme has failed to produce the desired results.

While the ANC argues that the pace of reform has been too slow, white farmers complain about uncertainty and political pressure and many new black farmers, like Mr Nkompo, lack resources and struggle to make a success of their land.

Acquiring his own farm was the realisation of a once impossible dream for Mr Nkompo after a lifetime toiling for a white farmer. But his sick cow’s battle to stand is symbolic of his own travails as he complains that the support he expected from the government to help develop the land has not materialised.

“When we sought the land we knew it was not going to be easy, but we have been shocked,” he says.

The government has acknowledged problems with the reform, but wants to accelerate the process and plans to dispense with its “willing buyer, willing seller” policy under which white-owned land can only be procured if the owner agrees to sell.

Instead, it says it will look to expropriate land at “fair value” prices set by an Office of the Valuer-General. The ANC has also said it wants to reopen a land claims process, closed 15 years ago, under which communities or individuals can lay claim to land they say was dispossessed.

Both are politically sensitive issues that have taken on additional resonance as this year has marked the centenary of the colonial 1913 Natives Land Act that limited African land ownership to just 7 per cent of the country.

Rural regions tend to be among the most racially unreconstructed areas in post-apartheid South Africa, with most blacks living in abject poverty. The ANC had set the goal of redistributing 30 per cent of farm land to black farmers by the end of next year but this target will not be met.

“What we seem to get wrong is to focus on land transfer and not focus on people,” says Mohammad Karaan, dean of agriculture at Stellenbosch University. “Had they focused on people they would make the land reform programme suit people and the peculiarities of agriculture.”

The issue is further complicated because a land audit is still being completed, meaning exactly who owns what in terms of race and nationality is not clear.

President Jacob Zuma has previously said 80 per cent of agricultural land is in the hands of about 50,000 white farmers and agri-businesses. The government estimates that reaching the 30 per cent target would require transferring 24.5m hectares out of the 82m hectares of agricultural land in white hands.

About 6m hectares have been transferred to blacks, including 4,800 farms, since the ANC took power in 1994. But experts warn that simply transferring land without effective support doesn’t work.

Lali Naidoo, director of the East Cape Agricultural Research Project, a non-governmental organisation that supports black farmers, says dispensing with the willing seller policy may make land more available. But she adds: “It’s not going to sort the problem of use, support and agricultural production.”

Many of the new black farmers come from poor backgrounds and lack the resources to ensure their land is productive.

Mr Nkompo, his wife and three other couples took over 216 hectares when a white farmer retired, with each individual receiving a grant of R101,000 from the government. Pooling their resources, they paid R570,000 for the land and another R157,000 for 13 cattle and a pick-up truck. They say they never received the remaining R80,000.

The result is they have land but no capital to invest in the harsh semi-arid landscape dotted with yellow-flowered cacti. Instead they hope the government will come to their aid with irrigation systems and other assistance.

“If we were to get these things I do not see what will get in our way of success because we know about farming,” Mr Nkompo says. Since 2010, the department of rural development and land reform has adopted polices intended to put more emphasis on developing the capacity of farmers.

But the department’s own capacity is questioned, and Mr Nkompo has not yet reaped any benefits. His small, basic farmhouse has neither electricity nor running water. Yet at a neighbouring farm, huge irrigation pivots spray water over lush pasture at a commercial dairy operation.

The contrast could not be starker and white farmers – often characterised as being resistant to reform – say the smaller black farms are simply not viable given the harsh terrain.

Brent McNamara, a beef farmer with 900 hectares, insists commercial farmers are not against reform, but argues it should not be forced in a manner that creates uncertainty and hits agricultural production. He alludes to Zimbabwe’s experience, where the seizure of white-owned farms triggered a collapse in agriculture.

Few expect South Africa to follow that path but solving the land question will continue to be a colossal task laced with highly charged emotions.

“There’s a big difference between us and Zimbabwe, but the problem is the political rhetoric can influence investment,” Mr McNamara says. “The government is using land as a solution to the problem, but land in itself is not. It has to be worked effectively to be a solution.”

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