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Nuanced understanding of land reform will help us move away from catastrophic polarities

Land reform is a pall over the society. We don’t go forwards. We can’t go backwards. So mostly, we go nowhere. Whether we’re land owners, beneficiaries in waiting, officials, citizens, right-wing, left wing, it elicits a slight sense of shame we all wish we could shrug off. Why is this?

One reason is that the very idea of land reform has become locked in symbols whose categorical clarity creates an unhelpful politics that constantly eludes the weight of both history and justice. We lurch from one doomsday scenario to another, from dead Friesland milking cows to the cataclysmic “Zimbabwe route”, from the ”mass” exodus of white farmers up north to food shortage riots in the cities. The social scales tip back and forth between the age-old mystique of Zulu and Boer land ownership on the one hand and the suspicion that the ability of whites to farm is in their blood on the other. If we make a mistake, we face civil war, land invasions, hunger and all manner of economic and social peril. Tying it down in what are increasingly arbitrary figures - the 30% target and 13-87% apartheid distribution – doesn’t accord with the uncertain, tentative nature that local, pragmatic action invariably involves.

But if we move away from the monolithic and break it up into individual districts, farms, households and individuals, a different picture emerges, of variation, of tensions, ups and downs, unambitious successes and predictable failures.    

The Besters district is a relatively dry area north of Ladysmith where the main farming is beef. In 2005, 14 farms making up 21% of farm land were transferred to nearly 200 labour tenant and farm worker families. It’s a project that captured the attention of the World Bank and is showcased as successful land reform, a preferable designation to failure perhaps but one often just as loaded.   

One of the farms, Mphuzanyoni, is a 1650 hectare expanse owned collectively by 24 households in a Communal Property Association (CPA). The CPA also owns a beef herd, which has grown from 169 breeding cows to 340 over five years. A rough estimate of profit margins on a well-managed beef farm is R1000 per breeding cow per annum; thus, in this case about R14,000 per household. However, the profits are not paid out only as cash. Each household receives one or two heifers a year for their own farming and, last December, a cash payment of R5,000, as well as Christmas meat from a slaughtered cow and a burial insurance covering all family members. In addition to this, the profits cover all input costs for the cattle owned by the households (a total of 311), including the labour costs of three employees, who ensure the grazing camps are rotated, cattle counted daily, and veterinary needs monitored and ill cattle treated. In 2010, every household owned at least two cattle and with the exception of two households, everyone sold at least one animal at a profit of about R4,000. Here then is a model that by all appearances is working; and yet, constant conflicts rumble under the surface of success, threatening to destroy co-operation and end the ever tantalising benefits that government dangles before well-behaved land reform beneficiaries.  

Everyone at Mphuzanyoni will tell you that lives have greatly improved since land reform. Story after story one hears about children who never went to school in the 60s, 70s and 80s because they had to work in their six month labour tenant rotations to secure their family’s right to live on and farm the owner’s land. Labour for land, not wages, meant young men and women were paid R6 for six month’s work in the 1970s, or sometimes a bag of salt or they worked for the necks and feet of chickens they tended for their white landlord-farmers. The only problem today, they say, is the absence of work opportunities. And herein lies the nub: neither work, nor own farming, nor collective farming, nor social grants can, on its own, be trusted to provide a certain and reliable life for any family. Even careful management of the mix can result as easily in reversals as in tentative steps forward.

Take Khumalo, for instance. In 2005, when he benefitted from land reform, he owned 14 cattle and worked on a farm earning about R1,500 a month. Today, he owns 41 cattle excluding the five oxen he sold this year to earn an additional R20,000 income for the year, works as a driver earning R4,500 a month, owns a tractor, a bakkie, a block house and supports three children at university. His pensioned mother, who lives with him, draws a state pension and one of his children gets a child grant. Then there is Shabalala. In 2010, he owned three cattle after he had sold one to pay various family expenses. He worked as a security guard earning about R1,600 a month. Two years later, he had lost his job due to ill health, a cow had died and his bean crop had failed following the drought earlier this year. He decided to sell one of the remaining cows, which was also sick, and bought various veterinary medicines to treat his last cow. This cow he sold when the family had no food. They now live on two child grants, R520 a month to support eight family members. It is enough to buy 25 kgs of mealie meal, soap and potatoes, and pay the transport fees for a child’s schooling. Shabalala would like a job, but work isn’t easy to find. Or he would like to loan the cattle of urban folk who have no land, which he could receive milk, manure and rental from, but the CPA does not allow this. Instead, he hangs on for his old age pension and begs food from his extended family in the interim.

Khumalo and Shabalala have very different views on what should happen with the land reform farm operation. Khumalo would like to see the collective herd growing, heifers kept to expand the breeding stock, profits ploughed back in to purchase new equipment and build infrastructure. “This is our future if we manage it well now,” he declares. Shabalala would like to see regular financial dividends paid out to ease the food shortages at home even if this means the sale of cattle and a shrinking CPA herd. “How do I think about tomorrow when my children are hungry today?”

There are as many ways to think about land reform as there are individual histories, circumstances and people. And judgements of success or failure have to do with how one looks at it.

The first ever land reform cattle stock sale held just outside Ladysmith recently netted a turnover of nearly R1,1 million, providing KwaZulu-Natal Premier Zweli Mkhize, who was observing the sale, the evidence he needed that government’s plans for land reform farms are beginning to work.

The sale, which saw 216 cattle offered by 72 sellers from 45 participating land reform farms with 208 cattle sold, was the first time an auction of cattle raised on land reform farms has taken place in the country. The historic nature was marked by the attendance of Mkhize, who as a cattle farmer himself, was able to assess the quality of the stock on offer.  The land reform farms are in the beef farming districts of Besters and Elandslaagte.

Mkhize, who addressed the buyers and sellers before the sale began, said he was attending the sale in order to see whether government’s land reform and agricultural development plans were materialising. He told sellers that their cattle “look good”, and that he was very pleased to see that “it’s becoming visible where government work is taking us”. He said the tendency of land reform beneficiaries not to use their land must to come to an end and urged collaboration between black and white farmers “because we’re all working the same land and we’re in the same economy”.

Other participants were also upbeat. The chairperson of one of the collectively owned land reform farms, Ntombenhle Mavimbela, said the prices were good. The 474 kg ox she had brought earned R7,750 while one of the farm’s bulls brought in R9,000 to the group owner’s coffers. Mavimbela was also pleased that 1,5% of the turnover, an amount of R16,500 would be allocated to an association made up of the 45 farms and would be used in part to subsidise costs of transporting animals to sales. “We finally have our own sale and don’t have to depend on white farmers,” she said.

A Department of Agriculture official from Veterinary Services, Khumbulani Hadebe, who was central to the initiative, said the idea originated when department undertook a survey of livestock at dip tanks in communal areas and found that nearly a third of cattle owned by black farmers were oxen, which they were not selling. This contributed to their veterinary costs without increasing herd productivity. 

One of the six buyers at the sale, Alan Roy, and the KZN Manager of the auctioneers, Vleissentraal, Dup DuPlessis, both described the cattle as “good quality animals”. DuPlessis, like Hadebe, and some of the sellers said the prices were good but not excellent. “Cattle prices have eased slightly in the past two weeks,” said DuPlessis, but added that the sale had “surprised and pleased” him. 

Previously published in the Natal Witness




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