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Failure of South African land reform

The South African government's efforts to redress the wrongs of apartheid by buying farms from willing white owners and giving them to blacks has been a failure, with many of the new owners having little experience to make a success of it. The policy has also stirred racial tensions.

November 21, 2010|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Greylingstad, South Africa — Michael Zulu trundles a wheelbarrow along the track to his farm homestead, where chickens peck at the carpet and skinny cats curl sleeping amid the bird droppings.

He's the farmer now, not just a tractor driver for a white farmer named Engelbrecht, like he used to be.

But he has a shirt full of holes, the roofless ruins of a dairy and a stretch of farmland whose only crop is cow manure, bagged up and stacked against a wall as a substitute for firewood.

There's no electricity on his farm, just an hour's drive southeast of Johannesburg. The fences and phone lines have been stolen, along with the dairy's roof and fittings. He has to fetch dirty pond water for drinking and washing and set out rickety rabbit traps for meat.

To him, it comes down to one wrong turn: He applied to get a farm under South Africa's land reform program.

"I thought I'd be much better off. But I think it was better with Mr. Engelbrecht. We lived high with Mr. Engelbrecht. We got money from him and we could look after our children."

The land program had noble intent: redressing the wrongs of apartheid, when blacks were denied access to farmland, and lifting black rural people out of grinding poverty by buying farms from willing white owners and giving them to blacks.

It has done neither.

What went wrong? Ask two neighboring farmers and the answer probably will depend on their race. There's so much bitterness beneath the competing narratives, it's difficult to discern what is fact, what is misinformation and what is just an ingrained disinclination to see the other point of view.

There's no dispute, however, that the government has spent about $4 billion on the effort and that most of the farms have failed, raising the specter of the kind of catastrophic agricultural collapse that Zimbabwe suffered after large white-owned farms were seized and handed to political cronies.

South Africa's target, to give 30% of commercial farmland to blacks by 2014, has been put back a decade, and will cost an additional $10 billion.

The policy was marred by corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency. But the main problem was that, like Zimbabwe's program, land was handed out to people who did not know how to farm.

"The government didn't have a strategy to ensure that the land was productive. If there was a strategy, it was not backed with proper resources," Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti said recently.

About 90% of the redistributed farms have failed, leaving idle nearly 15 million acres of once productive farmland, about 6% of South Africa's arable land.

"The whole policy is set up for failure," said John Kane-Berman of the South African Institute of Race Relations. "This is a very tough country to farm in, and you take people without a great deal of experience and without the dedication and commitment to farming and it's not surprising that they fail.

"You can speed up the redistribution of land, but you can't conjure up farmers."

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Johan Van Dyk purrs along the roads in a large SUV. He drifts by Michael Zulu's farm and another farmhouse where a white family once lived.

"The fellow that used to live there was murdered," he remarks blandly.

Van Dyk, one of the wealthiest men in Zulu's district, drives by the farms now run by blacks, gesturing toward the ruined buildings, the missing tin roofs and tumbledown walls.

"That's a white farmer now," he says, pointing. "All the roofs are on."

It's pretty, rolling country, greened by the summer rains, but resentment and racial stereotypes slither beneath the surface. There's bitterness on both sides, even violence: white farmers' dogs poisoned; break-ins, family photos smashed; farmers slain.

Men like Van Dyk, 56, would rather shoot a prowler dead than hit him in the leg. He calls his son a "bad shot" for doing just that to a robber, armed with a knife, who broke into their house recently. Van Dyk carries a switchblade knife. So does his wife.

And their black farmhands and gardeners never cross the threshold of their home.

Van Dyk's new black neighbors are disturbed by what they call his habit of carrying a gun whenever he turns up, "as if we were enemies." They believe most white farmers are just waiting for them to fail, so they can swoop in and buy the farms back, cheap.

Eight years ago, Michael Zulu joined a group of about 206 blacks who called themselves the Sizanani farming company. A few were farm workers, the rest township dwellers with no farming background.

With government grants, they bought seven farms, elected a committee and planted crops.

Zulu doesn't know anything about the Sizanani farm finances, just that the money ran out after a few bad maize crops.

Then he sold the tractor tires and radiator. He sold chickens. He gave up trying to farm his own land, and hired himself out on other farms, herding other people's cattle or working as a gardener in the nearest town.

"We think we should go to the government again, for more money," he says.

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