A Deed Changes Hands And a Farm Still Thrives

Image: Flickr, Christopher Griner
Image: Flickr, Christopher Griner

State support, rule of law and collaboration are key to ensuring successful land reform in South Africa.

The Mataffin Farm in Nelspruit, South Africa is testament to the country’s thriving – and transforming – agricultural sector. Tidy rows of robust avocado trees splay across soft, rolling hills. Two schools and a spacious soccer pitch are enjoyed by the farm workers’ children. Mataffin’s white managers and its new black owners are working hand in hand to ensure that this coveted land continues to produce abundant harvests as it has for more than 100 years.

The South African Land Claims Commissioner, Tozi Gwanya, holds Mataffin up as proof that land reform can be triumphant in the country. ‘We didn’t believe it would be successful,’ Terry Mdluli, the new black chairman of the Mataffin Farm, explained. ‘But after the government paid R63 million [to buy the farm from the white owners], we have been much happier.’ Yet the Mataffin farm may contain the crucial – and scarce – ingredients necessary to make land reform, and in particular, emotionally charged land restitution, a seamless transition.

Redistribution, Restitution and Tenure Reform

Land reform in South Africa has been fraught with problems, ranging from financial constraints and lack of human capacity on the ground to fierce resistance from white farmers and frustrated blacks represented by the Landless People’s Movement which carried out a ‘No Land, No Vote’ campaign in advance of last month’s national elections.

Adding fuel to the fire, more than 1,500 whites have died in violent attacks in rural areas since 1991.

The government has vowed to transfer 30% of white owned land to blacks, either through land redistribution, land restitution or land tenure, by 2015. So far, only 3% of that land has been transferred from whites to black. According to Glen Thomas, Deputy Director-General of Land and Tenure Reform at the Department of Land Affairs, the land reform budget will have to increase four-fold to reach that target.

South Africa has the second largest disparity between rich and poor in the world, after Brazil. Thomas firmly believes that one of the best ways to close this gaping divide is land reform.

Land reform ‘is not meant to exacerbate the two economies, it’s meant to close the gap. Land being returned underpins growth, and the only way to do that is to give land as an economic resource to the poor.’

Restitution, the return of land to blacks who lost ownership rights after 1913, presents the biggest challenge to the overstretched, cash-strapped Department of Land Affairs. Only 500,000 of South Africa’s 86 million hectares of commercial farmland had been transferred through the restitution programme by last January. Of the 68,000 claims about 70% have been settled, but mostly in urban areas. Most of what remains is cast well beyond the city limits of Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth or Durban. Vast tracks of rich farmland, many owned by whites, who have no intention of leaving their swath of earth, are still under review. The government has promised that all of those cases – and nobody knows exactly how much land is under dispute in the country – will be resolved by the end of next year. Gwanya and Land Affairs Minister Thoko Didiza must put their hands together and say a small prayer that all parties involved are half as amenable as the Mataffin players were, if they are to pull off that fantastical feat.

Land Reform Success

Last December, Mataffin was smoothly transferred from HL Hall and Sons to the Mdluli clan without a trace of animosity. Key to this was the white owners’ fundamental belief that land reform is necessary in South Africa.

‘We’ve had a positive relationship with the black community that worked with us all those years. We even fought with [the apartheid] government to have schools for the workers’ children,’ explained Rob Snaddon, the original owner’s great-grandson. ‘It became apparent to us that things needed to change with the evolution of the political scene and in the 90s we came to believe that we needed to find a long-term fix for those people who were landless under apartheid. Without land reform, we would have strife in the future.’

The Mdluli clan occupied the land in about 1840, when their leader Matsafeni Mdluli, a powerful Swazi chief, conquered the area. After the Native Land Act was passed in 1913, millions of blacks across South Africa gradually lost all rights to their land. In 1921, HL Hall and Sons became the registered owners of what became the Riverside Farm. After 82 years of waiting, the Mdlulis ownership rights were finally restored. But chaos could have easily ensued. Some 1,200 members of the Mdluli clan lodged a claim for 6,000 hectares of HL Hall and Sons land in 1994, shortly after the ANC government passed the Restitution of Land Rights Act. Yet they didn’t include the 5,000 labourers and their families who had been living and working on the farm for decades.

Snaddon bargained with the Mdlulis to include the labourers in the claim and to his delight, they complied. In return, Snaddon will be leasing and managing his old farm until the Mdlulis gain the skills to run the farm on their own.

‘They don’t have the machinery or the managerial expertise to run a show like this,’ said Snaddon, who still owns other farmland in the area. ‘It’s a multi-million rand farm that needs to keep running. If you don’t have a seamless transition, you don’t have a crop. Subsequently, you’ll run into financial difficulties very soon.’

To stave off such a detrimental scenario, HL Hall & Sons is providing the Mdlulis with hands-on training and mentoring to ensure that his contribution to land reform doesn’t fail.

‘It’s vital for this thing to work, because if it doesn’t, our neighbors will be very unhappy at the end of the day. It’s our vision to help them make it work,’ Snaddon added.

On top of Snaddon’s training, Terry and the rest of his Mdluli clan have applied for a post-settlement grant worth about R10 million through the Provincial Land Claims Commissioner, which will enable them to purchase expensive equipment necessary to grow their crops and reap their harvest (existing equipment is not included in the land transfer).

The Mataffin Farm is ahead of the game with willing white and black partners, farm-savvy labourers who’ve worked the fields for decades and a huge dose of progressive thinking. But many trials still lie ahead.

‘It would be a challenge to start this business on our own at this point in time,’ admitted Terry Mdluli, who believes it could take years of Snaddon’s help before they’ll be ready for absolute independence. ‘But we can’t and won’t let such a big farm fall down, though it will take time to develop because such an opportunity was not given to our people in the past.’

Zimbabwe Revisited?

Detractors like Pretoria-based attorney Philip Du Toit claim the country is facing much worse than a painstakingly slow process.

‘The Department of Land Affairs decided they must do something and invited the media out to farms to see success stories. I’ve challenged them: if there are successes, let’s see them. I’m saying, “Listen, stop doing this. You’re wasting taxpayers’ money. All you’re creating is land lying fallow,”‘ said Du Toit, who has links with the right-of-center Transvaal Agricultural Union (TAU). ‘Will we have a Zimbabwe? No. We’re already having a Zimbabwe,’ he added.

Earlier this year, Du Toit published The Great South African Land Scandal, which provides dubious ’empirical’ evidence that blacks have ruined the farms they’ve acquired. The book is widely viewed as a 268-page long racial slur.

‘Property rights are secured in the constitution,’ said Nic Opperman of AgriSA, the country’s largest agricultural association. ‘We have a different approach [from Zimbabwe]. Our advisers aren’t Third World people. They know what they’re doing.’ Yet some of Du Toit’s concerns, expressed in an interview, warrant some reflection. South Africa is no Zimbabwe, but last year, the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill was passed, which gives the Minister of Land Affairs the ability to expropriate land without going through the normal routes of due process of law. The bill, which was promulgated earlier this year but has yet to be invoked, states:

‘To amend the Restitution of Land Rights Act, 1994, so as to empower the Minister of Land Affairs to purchase, acquire in any other manner or expropriate land, a portion of land or a right in land for the purposes of the restoration or award of such land, portion of land or right in land to a claimant or for any other land reform purpose; and to provide for matters connected therewith.’

‘They want to expropriate land and I have proof from inside circles, but now because of my book, they’re cautious because I have found them out,’ Du Toit claimed.

Fears Unfounded

Yet experts such as Ruth Hall of the Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape, believe Du Toit’s fear that South African land reform mirrors Zimbabwe’s politicised land grabs, is largely unfounded. According to Hall, it is highly unlikely that the Minister of Land Affairs will systematically use the new freedom to expropriate without going to court. But the incumbent may invoke this right in a few cases to make a much-needed point: land reform is a fact of a life and will move forward despite resistance.

‘If there is good reason to expropriate land from a particular farmer [who resists land restitution], then the government will have to do it,’ warned Thomas of the Department of Land Affairs.

Du Toit is also very skeptical about the validity of land claims dispossessed blacks have lodged, and believe the government’s Land Claims Commission has an agenda.

‘Whites put in these boreholes. There’s no way they [black claimants’ ancestors] could have lived there. Man can’t survive without water,’ said Du Toit as he pointed to a map of Limpopo Province, much of which has been lodged for restitution.

Again, Hall disagrees. She argues that the verification and validation process involved in land reform is accurate and legitimate. And the Land Claims Commission has not been the only decision-makers in the process; much of the work has been farmed out to the private sector.

‘The validation process is very thorough and transparent,’ Hall said. ‘Is it inconceivable that a few invalid claims have slipped through? I suppose not. But overall it is working. My impression is that [white] commercial farmers threatened by land claims have a narrow understanding of what constitutes a valid claim. It’s not necessarily people who owned the land per se, but those whose ancestors had beneficial occupation of the land also qualify.’

Louis Nel, a white farmer and TAU member whose land has been claimed by 500 squatters of the Matabane community, may be one who shares that narrow understanding.

‘I won’t sell to the government,’ said Nel, from his farmhouse near Vaalwater in Limpopo Province, displaying frayed deeds proving he is the rightful owner. ‘I will farm my cattle till I die.’

But the Matabane community says they, not Nel, are the rightful ancestral owners of the land where they worked as farm hands for decades. They’ve filed a claim for the return of thousands of hectares of valuable land nearby, much of which is surrounded by leopard-filled game lodges for tourists.

‘I’m praying to God that our land will be given back to us. We want to go back and plough and eat,’ said Catherine Mafifi in front of her shack in the squatter camp she and her community erected in Vaalwater after they were evicted from Nel’s land.

Reform Too Slow

The Matabanes, who vowed not to vote in national elections unless they received their land, represent growing frustration with land reform’s slow process.

‘So far one would say land reform is moving at a snail’s pace,’ said Siphiwe Ngomane of the Nkuzi Development Agency, which is helping the Matabane with their claim. ‘Our job is to adopt a pro-active role, asking the government to expedite the process.’

Glen Thomas at Land Affairs said that, although the process hasn’t gone as swiftly as he would like, there are reasons. The process didn’t really take off until 1999 when policies and procedures had been put into place. Furthermore, despite good intentions, a tight budget has, and continues, to constrain the programme.

‘Within the framework of their budget, they’re doing a good job,’ said AgriSA’s Opperman. ‘There are certain constraints and we should not create expectation that we can fulfill all the promises that we can give all the land to the people.’

Nel’s banking on it. He described how he has struggled on his land since the apartheid government collapsed and hence, generous farm subsidies vanished. He believes if the Matabane win their claim, his farm will disintegrate into nothing but a large squatter camp itself.

‘There’s no need to redistribute land. It would be a disaster,’ Nel explained. ‘Even white farmers can’t make a living here. How can you give land to people who don’t know how to farm it?’

Despite Nel’s attitude, land reform is marching forward. Now the biggest challenge is providing the much-needed cash to fund training and development once property is transferred to blacks. The Matabane will need this assistance if they ever manage to wrench the land away from Nel.

‘Restitution is necessary and is part of people’s identity that was ripped away from them,’ said PLAAS’s Hall. ‘Transferring land is the first step. But without development we could face a disaster.’

If this advice is followed, as Snaddon of the Mataffin Farm has, South Africa’s land reform process, with a few inevitable bumps along the way, can prove successful.

‘There shouldn’t be land for land’s sake, but land for empowering people. We must avoid land reform as it happened in Zimbabwe where it destroyed the economy. We must avoid killing the commercial farming sector,’ said ex-president F.W. De Klerk at a recent press conference in Johannesburg. ‘Skills and support must be made available. The existing white farmers need to be a part of this initiative in assisting development in regions where they are farming.’

28 Apr 2008