South Africa’s bitter harvest

By William Rees-Mogg (THE TIMES, 11/09/06):

THERE ARE two ways of looking at the historic problems of land ownership. One is the traditional way of seeking justice for the original owners, often through land reform. This often has its own problems, since it is sometimes impossible to establish who were the original owners; there may be several competing claims. The alternative is to give preference to those who will use the land to produce the most food, most efficiently.

In Africa, the historic approach is favoured by the black majority who often believe that their tribal lands were stolen by white farmers. The white farmers naturally advance the productivity argument; they regard farming as a large-scale scientific business requiring capital and highly trained skills. It is a conflict between traditional rights and the modern economy.

These two attitudes are to be found wherever there is an historic dispute over land ownership. In Africa it may be black versus white, but land disputes arise all over the world, including Europe. I am sure there are Roman Catholic farmers in Ireland who still resent the expropriation of their ancestral lands by English Protestants in the 16th or 17th centuries. Such injustices can rankle over many generations. Human beings have a territorial instinct and will fight to defend their territory as fiercely as robins.

Southern Africa is at present the global focus of this contest. In Zimbabwe, President Mugabe has seized the white farms, driving out many of the farmers by brute force. Despite some pretence of legality, these have been illegal takeovers. The consequence has been that Zimbabwe has ceased to be a net exporter of food and has become dependent on international food aid. This collapse of food production has wrecked the whole economy. Mugabe has been a disastrous leader, and is seen by the non-African world as an incompetent dictator. To many Africans he is still a hero, asserting the black people’s rights to reclaim their ancestral land.

Last month Lulu Xingwana, the South African Minister for Agriculture and Land Affairs, made an important declaration of policy. Of course, the new policy must have been approved, perhaps initiated, by President Mbeki. Ms Xingwana was speaking at a rally in Limpopo province, in the main farming region of South Africa. The African National Congress had always been committed to returning white-owned farms to black claimants under the Black Economic Empowerment programme; so far only 4 per cent of the land has been transferred. Now Ms Xingwana has put an official time limit on the process. She says vehemently that it must be redistributed completely by December 2008; black farmers will have the right to buy out the existing white farmers.

“We will no longer waste time negotiating with people who refuse to see the transformation of our country . . . from now on we will only negotiate for six months and, if all fails, expropriation will take place.”

In Limpopo province, black claimants have already launched their claims for the return of 99.8 per cent of the farmland. Many white farming families have enjoyed ownership for several generations. Even the black claims that are based on the undoubted injustices of the apartheid system may now be 50 years old; other claims for the colonial period would be even older. Claims may be based on tribal rather than individual ownership.

The South African Government is anxious to avoid the comparison with Zimbabwe. Ms Xingwana has also said that expropriation will be the last resort. Ministries have established a programme for joint ventures, under which land coming into black ownership could be run in partnership with existing white farming enterprises, if they chose to do it.

The stakes are very high. South Africa is much better governed than Zimbabwe, it is true, but South Africa is also far more important than Zimbabwe; it is the dominant economy of Southern Africa. Some 95 per cent of South African food production comes from the 45,000 white farms that employ half the agricultural workers. Only the remaining 5 per cent of food is said to be produced by the 740,000 black workers on black farms. The white sector operates at the level of modern efficiency of the global economy. Most of the black sector is devoted to traditional subsistent farming. One can go into any British supermarket and find South African food on sale. It is mainly food from white farms that competes in the global food market.

Modern farming requires large capital for equipment, for bulk seed supplies, for marketing. The black farm sector does not have this capital. Modern farming also requires management skills and trained workers, in which the black sector is deficient. There is a very wide gap between the productivity of the two sectors.

In Zimbabwe, forced and often violent takeovers of white farms led to a disastrous collapse of farm production. In South Africa a legal process of takeover under a democracy might lead to less disastrous results, but would still replace high-productivity white farming with the lower productivity of black farming. At best, the Government of South Africa would have a hard struggle to limit the damage done by its own land policy.

The timetable seems to be much too short for such a large-scale farming revolution and the objectives seem much too ambitious. This is not a question of racial capacities, but of farming productivity. If expropriation is completed by 2008 one expert considers that by 2009: “South Africa will no longer to be able to feed itself nor assist Southern Africa.” That would be a humanitarian tragedy. South Africa needs the white farmers who are an essential and efficient part of the national economy — indeed, they contribute to feeding the whole of Southern Africa. The main victims of this policy would be those poor blacks whom it is supposed to benefit.