Between 23 January and 25th January in East London, and 4 February and 5th February in Cape Town, two conferences were held on the land issue in South Africa. The first conference was organised by the Institute for Development Assistance Management (IDEM) and the second by PLAAS, an NGO operating from the University of the Western Cape. Both conferences were dominated by inputs from academics, mainly from Fort Hare University, Rhodes University and the University of the Western Cape. 

It is interesting that, while Agri SA and its affiliates were invited to attend these conferences, they were not invited to make any formal presentations or other inputs. Agri SA and its many affiliates represent 90% of South Africa’s commercial farmers, as well as a very large number of the country’s emerging farmers, who play an active role through Agri SA’s producer affiliates. Examples of these are Grain SA, the National Woolgrowers of South Africa, Sugar Cane Growers, Forestry SA and various role-players in the wine and fruit industries. 

Since 1994, a number of talk shops of this nature, and workshops running for days in expensive venues, have been held in an attempt to find solutions to the land issue in South Africa. Again, while Agri SA and its affiliates were always invited to participate, formal inputs by way of talks or presentations by the organisation were seldom – if ever – requested. In this respect, the government differed little from the various academic institutions who also organised events of this nature. 

This is why, during August last year, Agri SA and Landbouweekblad organised a land conference at Bela-Bela. At this conference they were able to showcase the enormous contribution that Agri SA had made towards solving the land question, through the efforts of its affiliates as well as those of its members. For two days, the conference was taken through case studies of land reform that had quietly and successfully been implemented under the umbrella of Agri SA. The dimensions of these were mind-boggling and contrasted sharply with the almost uniformly disastrous efforts by our government at doing the same thing. In every case, production had been enhanced by voluntary co-operation between white commercial farmers and emerging black farmers, and for the first time the country was shown a formula which worked. Finally, there was light on the darkness of the road ahead, and farmers were talking to each other about farming, and how problems could be solved in our industry. 

It is therefore surprising that there are still academics and many government officials who do not want to listen to the farmers of this country. It is these farmers who, through their expertise and diligence, have ensured that South Africa remains the only African country that is not only food self-sufficient, but is a net exporter of agricultural products. This is a proud record for a country that is two thirds semi-desert and has only 12% of its land surface as arable land. If we wish to retain this self-sufficiency, it is clearly vital that our commercial farming sector be given its proper recognition, and carefully nurtured going forward. Without its energy, expertise and capital inputs, the arid two thirds of our land surface would soon be abandoned for farming purposes, and the remainder be given over to subsistence farming.  

This would mean that our cities would either starve or rely on imported food for their survival – a recipe for disaster for any government of this country. Guy Arnold points out in his book, “Africa – A Modern History: 1945 – 2015” (Atlantic Books, London 2017), that food shortages, or food and fuel price increases, remain the single biggest cause of coups in the modern history of our continent. One should not forget that 65% of our population live in urban areas and are therefore not self-sufficient in food production. 

Land reform continues to fail in South Africa, mainly because it is hopelessly underfunded and mismanaged. Beneficiaries who wish to farm are under-skilled and inadequately supported; moreover, most are selected as beneficiaries as a result of their political connections, and not because of their ability, or enthusiasm, as farmers. Historically, this has been the case throughout Africa, as Guy Arnold points out on p. 917 of his book, where he states “Hardly anywhere in Africa have the post-independence elites worked to create egalitarian societies, as naïve aid donors have often assumed; they wished to replace the settled or colonial elites with themselves …”. However, when farmers themselves become involved with land reform, beneficiaries are selected on the basis of their ability, and efforts are made to assist them with technical expertise and even capital, in some cases; this goes a long way towards assuring success. In addition, efforts are made to give the beneficiaries title to the land, which enables them to help themselves. 

It should therefore be obvious that no further discussions on land reform should take place in South Africa without active participation by our commercial farmers; otherwise, they simply become a meaningless academic or political exercise. If we are serious about land reform, and if we wish for a prosperous agricultural sector in South Africa, then we must make sure that our existing farmers play a key role in this process. – Ernest PringleAgri SA