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Land is not a commodity. Land is a system.

Land Dispossession – Government’s principal

Candice: Last month we looked at how the dispossession of land in South Africa resulted in a one of
the most enduring and intractable problems that the country faces today. I asked Greg what the new
government has done since democracy to redress dispossession and how effective it has been.

(Catch up from last months’ discussion here)

Greg: “Sjoe! It’s been a mixed bag to say the least! And a problem that I don’t think is anywhere near
being solved. As an example of how difficult the problem is for government, you can look at the
principle that was established early on of “willing buyer, willing seller” which is a noble intention but
an impractical policy.

The idea is that the government (willing buyer) purchases land from white land owners (who may or
may not have acquired the land under Apartheid) at market related prices and then gives the land or
sells it cheaply to communities or individuals who come from previously dispossessed or
disadvantaged backgrounds.

This is a noble principle, because:

  • It protects the market. If the government simply took the land or forced sellers to accept less than market value, then public confidence in the land market would be severely affected with resultant negative economic consequences.
  • It embodies the principle of forgiveness rather than revenge in that individuals who
    occupy land in the present should not necessarily be penalised for the sins of the past.
  • It provides compensation to those who have suffered by giving back land stolen from
  • It encourages ownership not charity in that most transfers still require some payment
    whether in cash or sweat equity.

But in practice the policy has made everything worse. Estimates of how much farm land is now being
used effectively vary from 50% to 10% – which by the measures of my school days is a FAIL! We
began our democracy as a net exporter of agricultural produce and we’re now a net importer.

Part of the reason for this is that “willing buyers” have held the government to ransom, holding out
on sales to inflate prices while allowing their farms to deteriorate. Where land has been distributed
to previously disadvantaged communities or individuals, farms have failed because the necessary
skills to work the land have been wanting.

It’s a bit like winning the Lottery. Despite the fact that almost everyone knows that winning the
Lottery is almost never a good thing, still millions of people play for the chance of winning big. And
when they do, they often end up poorer than before they won… They often end more bitter and
resentful too.

If you’re a white farmer who feels angry and resentful at the new government, managing a farm
with little or no help from anyone where previously the government fixed prices and provided
massive subsidies, then the thought of selling up at an inflated price and retiring to the coast is a
more than tempting solution to your problems. But you have no motivation to continue looking after
the land, and even less to co-operate in the sale. The more the price goes up, the more you think
you can get. The temptation of the big win is irresistible and is ultimately destructive.

If you’re a black farmer who applies for land and gets it, you may not get the land you know or need.
It could be too small or too big, in the wrong area or climate change may have made the farming
skills you still have completely redundant. You’ve won the lottery and are on your way to financial

ruin… You’ll apply for a loan because you need capital to the get the farm running again, but the
interest rates are killing you and the market forces inscrutable. So you pour more and more money
down a bottomless pit, more indebted to white money than you were before Apartheid.

Shouldn’t we be using the skills of white farmers? The ones who know their stuff sold up long ago.
We’re exporting these skills to neighbouring countries where states like Zambia and Tanzania are
paying top dollar consulting fees to white South African farmers to run state-run farming start-
ups. The irony of this is a bit mind boggling… I used to travel on flights to Zambia filled with South
African farmers, their wives and their children, commuting to schools and shopping in South Africa.
Most of the time they were still deeply racist, but they loved the fact that they could make a lot of
money farming without any risk and still enjoy extravagant lifestyles even better than they were
used to under Apartheid. And they were being paid by black governments; they would inform me
with glee!

While these kinds of stories are not the whole picture, unfortunately they are all too commonplace.
And the saddest part for me is that we have managed to entrench our polarised stereotypical views
of each other by confirming that white farmers are hold-outs against change and black farmers are

But we are learning and I believe there is hope. What we’re starting to realise is that land is not a
commodity. Land is a system. It is the pointy end of a much larger framework which is highly
complex and needs to be well understood and organized. A farmer doesn’t just own land; a farmer
owns land and skills and connections: land to produce, the skills to manage production and the
connections to turn products into money. To give land back without the system dooms people to
failure. To remove those who have organised the system, forces them to take the system elsewhere.

Understanding and creating policies that re-orient the system to the cause of land reform is no easy
task but there are examples of how land reform is working by harnessing the power of already
existing systems. Whether these examples can be assumed by government and taken to scale is
uncertain, but what the successful examples all have in common, is that:

  • The appropriate skills needed are deployed in the appropriate places regardless of race
  • Land is always connected to larger systems through market distribution or skills
    development and transfer.
  • And most importantly: the benefits of the land are shared and real to those who
    participate which motivate people to stick together and work hard.

South Africa has suffered a major set-back over the last 10 years under the Machiavellian genius of
Zuma and his henchmen. Land reform is just one of many policies that need attention. Hopefully our
attention and that of government can now be turned more fully to understanding examples of
effective land reform and experimenting with how to translate these into workable models for the
rest of the country.

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Dispossession and what his key example of the process is.