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Black Farmers in South Africa Still Struggling with Land Reform

South Africa's plans to undo the wrongs of apartheid by returning land seized from native blacks is embodied in the life of farmer Koos Mthimkhulu, shown inspecting his crop at his farm in Senekal, February 29, 2012.

South Africa's plans to undo the wrongs of apartheid by returning land seized from native blacks is embodied in the life of farmer Koos Mthimkhulu, shown inspecting his crop at his farm in Senekal, February 29, 2012.

South African President Jacob Zuma revealed another land-reform strategy last week in South Africa, less than two months before the ruling ANC’s party elections. Land reform was one of the major promises made to the black population after the end of apartheid, but it has not worked out as planned.

Land reform, failing

Solomon Mokwena opens the rusty door of the barn and proudly walks in, showing the farming machines he partly owns. Ten years ago, the South African government bought the land from a white farmer for distribution to disadvantaged black farmers. The goal was to reverse the inequalities of the white-minority rule era, when black people were not allowed to own land.

Mokwena and 200 farmers formed a cooperative to manage the land. The former owner grew maize and sunflowers on the fertile land, but in the past decade, Mokwena says the cooperative's machines have been used only once.

"We did plough once in 2002. We never ploughed again," he stated.

Mokwena explains the cooperative lacks funds to work the land, to buy seeds, fuel and fertilizer.

The land is now being leased to another farmer, who makes money out of it. The rent the cooperative receives is just enough to pay the electric bill.

The failure of Mokwena's cooperative is common. About 90 percent of the farms distributed to black farmers since the launch of land reform 16 years ago are no longer productive.

Michael Zulu is one of the farmers in Mokwena's cooperative. He had worked in the farming industry for 20 years before joining the cooperative.

He said he thought his expertise could help the other farmers and make the cooperative work.

But he said the cooperative's management did not pay the bills and set aside enough for the next year's seeds before running out of cash.

He says the first thing to do, after harvesting, is you must start paying the debts, then you put money aside for the seeds for next year, and pay your employees. That was not done, and the cooperative quickly ran out of money.

When land reform began in the mid 1990s, more than 80 percent of the commercial farms in South Africa were owned by white farmers. The ruling ANC party had promised to redistribute one-third of them to black farmers by 2014. Today, less than eight percent of the land has been redistributed, and the land reform minister has admitted the target will not be reached.

Increased competition

Senior researcher at Cape Town's Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian studies, Ruth Hall, partly explains this failure by the fact that black farmers entering the industry face increased competition.

"South Africa now has a very liberalized economy, in which new black farmers are competing not only with established white farmers, who have had the benefit of learning over time, but also with other producers on the global market," said Hall.

Hall says the government provides some training, but this only reaches one percent of the farmers.

South African President Jacob Zuma announced a new strategy for land reform last week. Among other measures, he proposes to buy the land from white farmers at 50 percent of the market price, versus 100 percent today. But many experts have slammed the measures as hazardous and purely political.

Hall says the pressure is high to make land reform work. "Clearly the land reform process, if done right, could substantially improve food security, by promoting different scales and types of production," he added. "But also by broadening it out and making incomes less unequal."

Hall says if the ANC does not seriously tackle land reform, it could affect the party's rule.

Land reform remains a very sensitive problem in South Africa, as the shadow of what happened in neighboring Zimbabwe looms over government policy. Zimbabwe's once-flourishing agriculture sector collapsed after it forcibly expropriated white farmers. The ANC Youth league has recently called for the same kind of evictions in South Africa.

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