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  • Jerry Schuitema

Grabbing land in La-la Land.

A groundswell of clearheaded action to counter the populist hysteria in the land issue.

If there is one thing that the economic gods will not forgive, it is the consistent plundering of resources without value being added. It may take years, decades, or even centuries, but inexorable forces will manifest in imbalances, disconnects, shortages, discord and conflict.

Adding value means creating wealth and is the most fundamental justification for any commercial endeavour or use of resources. It means simply judging that endeavour on the tangible and measurable value it has it added to other’s lives; the extent to which it has served the community at large. In practice this means serving demand or customers. It is that condition that justifies and sustains jobs, profits, and taxes. (See article: “Customers create Jobs”).

Look around you: at global finance that has largely failed to flow to productive enterprise on the back of a speculative market system; feverish pursuit of short-term rental and capital gain; customer neglect; lack of inclusivity; paltry performances of state owned enterprises, and government failure to promote and support value-creation by free individuals and collectives. All of this can be traced back to one single thought: that these endeavours and ownership of assets exist primarily and perhaps even singularly for self-gain. It is that thought that makes a populist cry for redistribution of assets and wealth facile and tempting, yet severely flawed.

It cannot be allowed to happen in agriculture. Here the customer must be king, albeit even in pauper’s clothes. Nothing can justify a threat to the maximum production of best quality food at the lowest possible cost. This is critical in a country of malnourished millions, and the voices of those that champion the opposite simply have to be silenced.

We cannot deny that it is an emotionally charged issue. Comments on my previous article on inclusivity latched on to a peripheral reference to land grabs and bore testimony to just how blinkered our thinking can become on all sides. Property ownership, especially farmland can do that. It evokes in many a sense of security and permanence; of an anchor; of self-sufficiency; of a nest and a nest egg; of power and control. Some feel the pull of a genetic nostalgia drawing them back to the days of distant forebears; before red- or khaki-coated colonialism and land-acts; bare feet on virgin soil absorbing nature’s energy; of wide open spaces and peace and serenity. It is in that romantic pool that political preachers punt their false gods and gospels and prospects of paradise. Even rational swimmers are drawn to it.

And then there is a reality, an inexorable force that will brook no resistance even at the cost of earth soaking up blood or widespread starvation. Urban property ownership may have the same context, but a very different texture. It is more easily dealt with by urban renewal and expanding home ownership (already one of the highest in the world) through transferring state-held title to tenants that number hundreds of thousands. Farmland is subject to another overwhelming force – the nutritional survival of our species. Hungry mouths are multiplying at a frightening pace. The space to accommodate billions of extra bodies is constantly shrinking and it is that very space that has to provide nourishment for the masses. They are the real issue and to cut through the prose: we need a lot more food from a lot less land to feed a lot more people. Every square fertile centimetre has to be used to extract maximum value.

In the absence of a credible land ownership audit, political mischief has ensured a vague and highly skewed picture of the extent to which land reform has already happened, including the fact that the government has bought some 4000 farms, which have not been transferred to claimants. But while politicians dance with the devil, some in a seductive waltz and others in an aggressive tango, it is simply inconceivable that they cannot foresee what will happen when the music stops. Given the Zimbabwe experience next door; our constitutional and judicial fortifications; our young but still strong democracy that is currently openly and dramatically clipping the wings of malevolence, and indeed even the underlying messages coming from both the ruling and many other parties; I simply cannot agree with the prophets of doom.

There is at least some assurance that expropriation without compensation is not official government policy – most likely because they already own a number of dysfunctional farms and don’t quite know how to treat the R145bn farmers’ debt. But more fundamentally, they fully recognise the self-evident reality, reflected amongst others in this statement to Moneyweb’s SAFM Market Update, by Senzeni Zokwana, Minister of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries:

“We should present it (land reform) in a way that seeks to preserve the current commercial farming community, which produces the bulk of our food, and get black farmers to a level where they can become commercial farmers very soon.”

And there is another, even more pertinent force at play – a force that should silence the jaundiced and blinkered “talk-talk” sceptics. It is the undeniable fortitude, innovation, expertise and goodwill of the vast majority of South African farmers. Living in a farming area, I am fully aware of the many blemishes in the behaviour of a few; but also the reaching out and inclusive approach of many. Standard journalist practice would require a long list of what they are doing on a national scale: showing that the talk is indeed the walk. It’s not only beyond the scope of this article, but would discourage those who need it from going on their own journey of discovery to witness how this unsung resolute group are dealing with the many crushing variables as well as the challenge of transformation. Those who don’t take the journey have surely lost their relevance in debate, although sadly not their impact. It is reflected convincingly here and on the Nation in Conversation website, which is an agricultural sector initiative and formed part of the NAMPO harvest festival near Bothaville.

After doing that, then picture the NAMPO panels discussing the empowerment of a multitude of small black farmers and the need for land reform; while surrounded by monster farm machinery and mind blowing technological innovation. The marriage between those two is the challenge. The sector is meeting that head-on in many world ground-breaking ways.

Any discussion, debate or conflict around land reform that does not constantly and pertinently bring this into reckoning is one-sided and dangerously disingenuous.

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