Fearing that the ongoing land reform would stifle their businesses, White South African farmers have begun acquiring lands in twelve African countries. After criticizing their approach, Pretoria has decided to accompany them in their negotiations with governments of host countries. The South African government wants black farmers, deprived of agricultural exploitation for centuries, to own and benefit from land ownership. Land reform policies, which began about fifteen years ago, have proved to be a real challenge to the South African government.
Pretoria’s decision to facilitate the resettlement of white farmers abroad is a significant change in attitude from the South African government who, initially, did not take kindly to the decision reached by several white farmers to resettle in other African countries. The South African government has since opened negotiations with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Malawi, Uganda and Angola, among others. They aim to deal with the legal issues concerning land ownership in those countries ahead of the White farmers’ resettlement.
Chaotic land reform
The majority Black population in South Africa has been deprived of access to land for centuries. Consolidating White settler dispossession which had begun centuries before, “in 1658”, according to Wellington D. Thwala of the National Land Committee, the 1913 Native Land Act “restricted the area of land for lawful African occupation” and resulted in “only 10% of the land reserved for blacks”. This allowed the racist government at the time to move them to reserves, mining areas and, later, industrial areas where they constituted a pool of cheap labour. The lands were subsequently sold to whites only.
In 1954 “The Blacks Resettlement Act gave the state the authority to remove Africans from any area in the magisterial district of Johannesburg and adjacent areas,” Wellington indicated in his report. This historical dispossessions seriously affected the socio-economic structure and contributed to dangerous inequalities in incomes and standards of living in South Africa. With nearly 95% of the South African population being poor (est. 1995, SALDRU), “a reformation of rural economies to improve standards of living therefore has a strong relationship to agrarian reform. Land redistribution is a very important component of agrarian reform and consequently redistribution of wealth in rural areas,” he stated.
However, land and agrarian reforms, launched by Nelson Mandela, the first post-apartheid president, at the end of apartheid in 1994 to provide redress for generations of economic and social injustice towards black people, more often than not, stagnated. Upon assumption of duties in 1994, the Mandela government made a pact to redistribute 30% of farmlands by 2014. To do this, they set up a “Land Bank”, a state bank charged with financial operations pertaining to the redistribution of lands. The system, however, quickly hit the wall as the several thousands of registered applications for the home and land ownership programme were slowed down by bureaucracy. Numerous scandals also hit the Land Bank after several officials were accused of embezzlement. Furthermore, unaccustomed to managing industrial plantations, black benefactors found themselves unprepared to take over the management of farms. All these factors contributed to the slow redistribution of lands, which had been acquired by the state. Many of those lands were eventually neglected.
Persecuted white farmers
In addition to this quagmire, a wave of persecution befell white farmers. Over a thousand of them were killed following the change of government in 1994. This prompted the survivors to organize patrols in their neighbourhoods to safeguard their protection. Many white farmers believe that Jacob Zuma’s presidency has failed to console them, due to the fact that Land and Agrarian reforms have been given a prominent place on his government’s agenda. But observers think otherwise. They have argued that to avoid further attacks on the White population the Land reforms must be taken seriously. According to Wellington, as early as 1993 the world bank warned South Africa that “a major restructuring of the rural economy centered on significant land transfers and smaller scale agricultural production units” was needed, or the country faced the “danger of rural violence, and possibly even civil war.”
The arguments that have led White farmers to consider the option of resettling in other African countries are many. In recent times, their investments in South Africa have been drastically reduced as they seek to acquire lands in twelve African countries. By supporting their approach and assisting them, Zuma’s government intends to handle the reform in a way that does not harm his government’s relationship with citizens and also avoid flirting with the disastrous example of the Zimbabwean farm seizures, while strategically dealing with expatriation of White farmers as South African investments abroad. It will be noted that by forcibly expropriating White farmers, President Mugabe plunged his agriculture dependent economy into an unprecedented crisis. Zuma’s government’s decision to opt for such a strategy, i.e; to assist the farmers abroad, is to ensure a safe land reform policy without causing damage to both the government and the farmers, whilst raking in the benefits of overseas investments.
South African farmers are not alone in the overseas land rush. Countries like China, India and Brazil now have also sought to buy farmlands in other countries to feed their populations. Government support is therefore needed to help White farmers in their quest to expand within the African region. Host countries, on the other hand, hope to benefit from this trend through the creation of jobs, transfer of technology and experience.