South Africa’s Bitter Harvest

William Rees-Mogg, Times (UK), September 11, 2006


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A forced takeover of white farms threatens to bring economic ruin and hunger to a land of plenty

There Are two ways of looking at the historic problems of land ownership. One is the traditional way of seeking justice for the original owners, often through land reform. This often has its own problems, since it is sometimes impossible to establish who were the original owners; there may be several competing claims. The alternative is to give preference to those who will use the land to produce the most food, most efficiently.

In Africa, the historic approach is favoured by the black majority who often believe that their tribal lands were stolen by white farmers. The white farmers naturally advance the productivity argument; they regard farming as a large-scale scientific business requiring capital and highly trained skills. It is a conflict between traditional rights and the modern economy.

These two attitudes are to be found wherever there is an historic dispute over land ownership. In Africa it may be black versus white, but land disputes arise all over the world, including Europe. I am sure there are Roman Catholic farmers in Ireland who still resent the expropriation of their ancestral lands by English Protestants in the 16th or 17th centuries. Such injustices can rankle over many generations. Human beings have a territorial instinct and will fight to defend their territory as fiercely as robins.

Southern Africa is at present the global focus of this contest. In Zimbabwe, President Mugabe has seized the white farms, driving out many of the farmers by brute force. Despite some pretence of legality, these have been illegal takeovers. The consequence has been that Zimbabwe has ceased to be a net exporter of food and has become dependent on international food aid. This collapse of food production has wrecked the whole economy. Mugabe has been a disastrous leader, and is seen by the non-African world as an incompetent dictator. To many Africans he is still a hero, asserting the black people’s rights to reclaim their ancestral land.

Last month Lulu Xingwana, the South African Minister for Agriculture and Land Affairs, made an important declaration of policy. Of course, the new policy must have been approved, perhaps initiated, by President Mbeki. Ms Xingwana was speaking at a rally in Limpopo province, in the main farming region of South Africa. The African National Congress had always been committed to returning white-owned farms to black claimants under the Black Economic Empowerment programme; so far only 4 per cent of the land has been transferred. Now Ms Xingwana has put an official time limit on the process. She says vehemently that it must be redistributed completely by December 2008; black farmers will have the right to buy out the existing white farmers.

“We will no longer waste time negotiating with people who refuse to see the transformation of our country . . . from now on we will only negotiate for six months and, if all fails, expropriation will take place.”

In Limpopo province, black claimants have already launched their claims for the return of 99.8 per cent of the farmland. Many white farming families have enjoyed ownership for several generations. Even the black claims that are based on the undoubted injustices of the apartheid system may now be 50 years old; other claims for the colonial period would be even older. Claims may be based on tribal rather than individual ownership.

The South African Government is anxious to avoid the comparison with Zimbabwe. Ms Xingwana has also said that expropriation will be the last resort. Ministries have established a programme for joint ventures, under which land coming into black ownership could be run in partnership with existing white farming enterprises, if they chose to do it.

The stakes are very high. South Africa is much better governed than Zimbabwe, it is true, but South Africa is also far more important than Zimbabwe; it is the dominant economy of Southern Africa. Some 95 per cent of South African food production comes from the 45,000 white farms that employ half the agricultural workers. Only the remaining 5 per cent of food is said to be produced by the 740,000 black workers on black farms. The white sector operates at the level of modern efficiency of the global economy. Most of the black sector is devoted to traditional subsistent farming. One can go into any British supermarket and find South African food on sale. It is mainly food from white farms that competes in the global food market.

Modern farming requires large capital for equipment, for bulk seed supplies, for marketing. The black farm sector does not have this capital. Modern farming also requires management skills and trained workers, in which the black sector is deficient. There is a very wide gap between the productivity of the two sectors.

In Zimbabwe, forced and often violent takeovers of white farms led to a disastrous collapse of farm production. In South Africa a legal process of takeover under a democracy might lead to less disastrous results, but would still replace high-productivity white farming with the lower productivity of black farming. At best, the Government of South Africa would have a hard struggle to limit the damage done by its own land policy.

The timetable seems to be much too short for such a large-scale farming revolution and the objectives seem much too ambitious. This is not a question of racial capacities, but of farming productivity. If expropriation is completed by 2008 one expert considers that by 2009: “South Africa will no longer to be able to feed itself nor assist Southern Africa.” That would be a humanitarian tragedy. South Africa needs the white farmers who are an essential and efficient part of the national economy—indeed, they contribute to feeding the whole of Southern Africa. The main victims of this policy would be those poor blacks whom it is supposed to benefit.


Former president FW de Klerk’s spokesperson Dave Steward believes he and his wife were “very lucky” to have emerged relatively unscathed from an armed robbery at their Claremont, Cape Town, home.

Steward, who is also executive director of the FW de Klerk Foundation, said on Friday that he and his wife, Lanice, were attacked as they prepared to reverse out of their garage to visit her elderly parents at 6.15pm on Sunday.

“Suddenly one guy yanked open my door, and his accomplice yanked open the door on my wife’s side,” he said.

Gun to the head

“The guy on my side put a .38 revolver to my head and demanded money, jewellery, watches and so forth.”

The couple gave the robbers what they had on them, and the men—one wearing a balaclava, the other an anorak with a hood—then demanded they close the garage door.

Steward said his wife pretended that they could close it only by pressing a control button next to the kitchen door.

One of them accompanied her in that direction, and as he did so, kissed her on the cheek, fondled her lower body, and pressed himself against her.

When Steward called to her that he did not think it was a good idea to close the door, the other man punched him in the eye.

Security alarm

Meanwhile, she was repeatedly pressing a hand-held security company alarm button she was carrying.

Unaware of the unfolding drama, the couple’s son Anthony (22) assured the security company it was a false alarm.

He found out what was going on when, alerted by the barking of the family’s two poodles, he emerged from the house to be confronted by the robbers demanding cellphones. He went back into the house to fetch one.

The man with Steward ordered him to get into the boot of the car, which Steward refused to do.

“I said no. There was no way I would do that. It would leave my wife completely exposed,” he said. The robber punched him again, this time on the mouth.

In response to the repeated alarm, the security company set out a response unit and, hearing sirens, Steward told the robbers he thought it was time for them to go.

“They had a bit of a discussion about it, and then they decided to leave,” he said.

Police “very professional”

They took with them two cellphones, two watches, and his wallet with credit cards. Steward said the security company arrived minutes later, followed soon afterwards by the SA Police, who were “very professional and very courteous”.

The police even organised a counsellor to come and speak to them, he said.

A docket had been opened, but there had to his knowledge not been any arrests as yet.

“We were very lucky. The horrible reality is, this is what the vast majority of our population have to live with on a daily basis,” he said.

He and his wife were now being much more vigilant and security-conscious, and were getting together with other members of their community to do “whatever we have to” to protect themselves.

He said there had been a “large number” of attacks in the suburb recently, including an assault on an elderly couple a few blocks away on Thursday.

Sobering crime stats

Since Sunday’s incident, he had been doing some research, and discovered that since the US invasion of Iraq in January 2003, an estimated 41 000 to 46 000 civilians had died in that conflict.

Over the same period 70 000 to 80 000 South Africans were murdered.

This was more than the total number of American casualties in the entire Vietnam conflict.

“A low-level war is going on. That’s what it comes down to,” Steward said. “I don’t want to blame the police or the government. This is something we all have to fight against.”

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