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Johannesburg (South Africa) - South African President Jacob Zuma's dilemma over what to do about land and agrarian reform is no different than it was for his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, but the approach of the country's fourth democratic president is.
Rectifying the racially skewed pattern of land ownership inherited from apartheid and the alleviation of rural poverty are among Zuma's main priorities, according to analysts, and his first 100 days in office have reflected this.
The administration of land and agriculture has been the remit of the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Affairs since 1996, but Zuma has divided these responsibilities between the Ministry of Rural Development and Land Reform, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
The jury is still out as to whether this approach will be more effective, but the track record of the past 15 years, when agriculture and land reform were the responsibility of a single ministry, is less than inspiring.
Since the first democratic elections in 1994, the aim of redistributing 30 percent of white-owned farmland to landless blacks by 2014 has failed on two levels.
Only five percent of commercial land had been redistributed, and there has been an "extremely poor level of support [by government] for new, small and cash-strapped farmers who have been settled on this land", Ruth Hall of the University of the Western Cape's Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) noted in a policy brief.
''The Department for Rural Development and Land Reform estimates that half of all existing [land redistribution] projects have 'failed'; most independent research suggests that this is an optimistic reading of its track record''
Land reform failing
"The Department for Rural Development and Land Reform estimates that half of all existing [land redistribution] projects have 'failed'; most independent research suggests that this is an optimistic reading of its track record," Hall told IRIN.
Splitting land reform and agriculture into two portfolios appears at first glance illogical, as critics maintain they are implicitly linked, but Hall said in her brief that "land reform has been crippled" by combining them.
"The blame for the dismal track record of production on redistributed farms must fall largely on the national and provincial departments of agriculture, which have simply failed to come to the party," she said.
"Despite the introduction of some agricultural support and funds for land reform beneficiaries in recent years, the agriculture departments have remained biased in favour of commercial farming, and unsupportive of smallholder farming and the production systems of the poor."
Hall said the logic of separation acknowledged that there were two spheres of agriculture in South Africa - commercial and subsistence - and the agricultural department should "focus on commercial farming, rather than the new and poor farmers on redistributed land and in the former Bantustans, whose type and scale of farming and, therefore, needs might differ substantially."
The Bantustans were a creation of apartheid in which the black majority were to live in reserves comprising 13 percent of South Africa, with the white minority and the government owning the remaining 87 percent. In 1994 the Bantustans - only recognized by the apartheid government as independent states - were reabsorbed into South Africa, but the underdevelopment of these regions has remained a stark legacy.
The ANC's 2007 National Conference in Polokwane, capital of Limpopo Province - at which the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party unseated former President Mbeki as leader in favour of Zuma, putting him on the path to becoming the country's president - adopted a policy of moving away from large-scale land redistribution to the creation of black small-scale commercial farmers.
Hall told IRIN that although the strategic vision for the rural areas had yet to solidify, the thrust of rural poverty alleviation was expected to focus on the communal lands of the former Bantustans.
"If the new priority is to be placed on supporting agriculture and small farmers, then there will need to be substantial and sustained investment in the agricultural training colleges, as well as related professions," she commented.
''Government knows large-scale expropriation isn't feasible, even if they pass the Expropriation Bill later this year. They realize that if you expropriate you'll end up in the courts, so it won't be cheaper or faster anyway''
Willing seller, willing buyer
The redistribution of commercial farmland has been premised on the "willing seller, willing buyer" model, which has led to claims by government that farmers were inflating land prices, and counter claims by farm organizations that market-driven forces had increased land values, as has been the global trend.
Zuma told local media this week that there must be an alternative to the willing seller, willing buyer model to speed up land redistribution, but in reality there is little room to move.
Hall told IRIN, "There is scope for engagement with large landowners to partner with government to support land reform, and to share the cost and institutional burden. Some headway has been made in this regard, but has tended to privilege large commercial projects for black shareholders, rather than making land available for small farmers."
There is a delicate balance between the large-scale commercial farmers, who provide South Africa with food security and surpluses for food insecure neighbouring states, such as Zimbabwe, and managing the uneven land ownership that continues to instil resentment among poor and middle-class blacks.
PLAAS director Ben Cousins, a contributor to a green paper on land reform expected to be published later this year, told the South African daily newspaper, Business Day, on 21 August: "Government knows large-scale expropriation isn't feasible, even if they pass the Expropriation Bill later this year. They realize that if you expropriate you'll end up in the courts, so it won't be cheaper or faster anyway."
Annelize Crosby, the legal and policy advisor to AgriSA, an umbrella organization for commercial farmers and agricultural businesses, told IRIN that high land prices were often a consequence of the government's choice of land, which preferred citrus and wine farms with urban access and good road networks, rather than, say, farms in the karoo, South Africa's arid central plateau.
Also, government's purchase of going concerns, such as dairy farms, rather than vacant land came at a premium because of the existing infrastructure, she pointed out.
Crosby said AgriSA was "100 percent behind sustainable land reform", and noted that in the relatively short time of Zuma's presidency there had been some discernible differences in the approach of government departments towards commercial farmers.
"It's not a night-and-day difference, but a shift in attitude towards [commercial] farmers," Crosby said. The Zuma administration has extended "a hand of friendship and is serious about a partnership ... Mbeki was not all bad, but the partnership never really got going."
UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) - August 24, 2009.