Almost three decades into the democratic dispensation, South Africa is still confronted with multiples crises: deepening inequalities, rising unemployment, worsening rural poverty, deteriorating race relations, water crises, multiyear droughts and a persistent fossil capitalism problem.

There is also a very clear movement away from the social contract, characterised by corruption and emergent apathy. The growing number of potholes and uncollected rubbish in our communities are outward monuments of this slow inner decay. Fewer and fewer people believe that “South Africa is alive with possibility” as the TV advert once proclaimed.

It is an aberration that, over three decades into the democratic dispensation, South Africa is still defined by apartheid geography. It is everywhere. It is the first thing that foreign visitors notice when they arrive on these shores. It is always painful to watch people shift uneasily as they try to offer a cogent explanation to this persistent problem.

Illustration: Boniswa Khumalo

It is not hard to find poverty either. It is pervasive, staring back at you in raw, inescapable, accusing fashion. In every city, every small town, every dorp, people mill around with exhausted, forlorn-looking faces, unmoored, seeking peace jobs or a few coins to purchase their next meal. That should not be happening in a country with a combined GDP of 351 billion USD.

Land and agrarian reform were once touted as key answers to the country’s economic problems. They have unfortunately become political footballs over time. And yet, there cannot be any doubt about it: land reform is a key component of the agrarian transformation and the agrarian transformation is a key component of the socioeconomic transformation.  

Too often the government has let the private sector dictate debates about these issues. An overly-cautious and undercapitalised approach means that the ANC government still has not done enough to advance the ambition of distributing 30% of fertile agricultural land to black owners – a target that was initially set to be achieved by 1999, and then 2001 and then 2015...the goalposts keep shifting.

Shortly after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced during the State of the Nation Address that he was about to set up a land reform agency to help speed up land reform, Agri-SA deployed its favourite scare tactic during an input session on expropriation without compensation bill, warning the government that any expropriation of land without compensation would have serious consequences on the GDP.

The Banking Association of South Africa’s Bongiwe Kunene added that “If we have insecure property rights and policy uncertainty, the result of that will be retarding investments and economic development, which is critical to tackling employment, poverty and inequality”.

The hermeneutics of land reform, hijacked as it is by agriculture lobbies and World Bank experts who threaten food insecurity Armageddon at every turn, has only helped to perpetuate an untenable poverty and inequality situation. It has also accelerated ecological collapse, with temperatures in Southern Africa rising faster than anywhere else on the planet.

Illustration: Boniswa Khumalo

The threat of food insecurity is predicated on wrong assumptions, e.g. that all white-owned farms produce food for the markets (not true); that all transferred lands must produce for the markets (not realistic), and that the government has enough time and resources to operate an orderly transfer land to a group of people who are not just willing but also able to make successful businesses of their land (again, unrealistic).

These assumptions ignore the hunger crisis which, if allowed to continue, there will come a time when high fences, barbed wire and stylish security companies will not be enough to hold a nation of hungry people back.

Here’s the thing – we are talking about just under 50% of the country here. That’s right, almost half of the country cannot eat two proper meals a day, let alone three! Another percentage, the precariat, is overworked, underpaid and trapped in a permanent violent fear of the unknown, fear of losing their jobs or if God forbid – a child falls sick, or someone dies. So more than 50% of the country cannot afford to buy what they sell on supermarket stands regularly and so, dramatically shifting how agriculture is done in the country will transform South Africa without negatively impacting food value chains.

Expropriation without compensation is certainly not the answer. At the same time, land reform must be accelerated for the good of the country. Delays in transformation are causing unrest – and different communities have started arming and weaponising their pathos.

We saw this in Senekal following the brutal murder of farm manager Brendin Horner.

KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala spent last weekend putting out fires in Normandien (Newcastle) where there have been tensions in the community since the murder of farm owners Glen and Vida Rafferty last year. Members of the black community are anxious about a growing number of evictions. They need clarity, they need their own properties.

On 12 April 2021, thousands of people and several political parties protested outside the Piet Retief magistrates’ court where four white farm owners accused of murdering two black seasonal workers had appeared in court. The scenes were repeated on 19 April 2021 when the murder accused appeared again for their bail hearing.

Senekal could have gone up in flames last year. This time around, Piet Retief is on the edge. Who knows where this train is going to move next?
The Covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated vulnerabilities and set people against each other. Rural poverty is a clear and present national emergency. Any politician with strong oratory skills can use it to their advantage. Arguments are often presented in simplistic sophistry.

All they need to do to whip crows into a frenzy is point to a farm or mine and say that ‘the white man still owns everything in this country’. Repeat a thousand times over and it becomes the truth. Joel Netshitenze’s blistering op-ed on the RET faction in the Daily Maverick a few weeks ago showed that the so-called Radical Economic Transformation faction will use this familiar playbook at the next ANC elective conference. Land will certainly feature prominently. The ANC has been in charge all this while, but don’t tell them that.

Illustration: Boniswa Khumalo

Black owners of large-scale commercial farms (LSCF) are also being targeted. The Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) admitted last weekend that there were clear issues of corruption within her department following evictions of black farmers in Gert Sibande.

At the same time, while we talk about land and agrarian change, we cannot forget that the world around us is changing dramatically due to anthropogenic action. We see ecological collapse everywhere. South Africa is the 12th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, largely due to its coal power fleet. Agriculture, forestry and other land use (AFOLU) is the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the country.

The LSCF that dominate South African agriculture use up more than 60% of the country’s available water. Current AFOLU practices which rely on constantly turning the earth, sometimes twice a year, to sow crops means that LSCF keep releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere. These LSCF must manage water and CO2 better, and it is a good thing that the biggest farmers’ associations have started those conversations. However, more still needs to be done by the agriculture sector in particular and the country in general.

Transformation is needed to ditch fossil capitalism and unlock the economy’s potential for millions of more people. It is becoming increasingly clear that South Africa can no longer postpone the just transition debate. The country’s drought episodes are getting longer and more communities are dealing with water challenges.

Small policy shifts are not enough; only radical, transformative ideas that fundamentally shift the way the country operates can unlock a greater distribution of wealth for all citizens and shake the country back into an exciting forward trajectory.

It is time to ditch GDP growth obsession and let the people have land! Land reform must become the new national mantra.

It is time to prioritise the right to food, dignity and degrowth strategies within land and agrarian reform programmes. It is time to prioritise urgent solutions that will make people believe in the national project again.

By the way, Land reform cannot be abandoned to government alone, as if we all do not suffer the consequences of poverty, inequality, unemployment and ecological collapse. The government should open up this process to the private sector and all must play their part. The same way that it took a multi-stakeholder coalition to defeat apartheid, so too must a multi-stakeholder coalition rise up to defeat poverty in South Africa.