In many ways, South Africa is an agricultural success story. Its produce and its wines are enjoyed in many countries around the world, and the country isn’t plagued by famines or food shortages like others on the African continent.
And yet beneath the apparent prosperity and stability, risks await farmers in a country still struggling with the effects of its recent past.
Fear of forced land redistribution is beginning to rear its head in the South African farm community following President Jacob Zuma’s open musings on the idea of taking farms away from their current white owners without compensation.
The embattled president and others in South Africa see this as a way of speeding up the restitution process that has been underway since the end of apartheid in 1994.
In neighbouring Zimbabwe, this approach led to a widespread collapse with white farmers forcibly driven off their properties or even killed, and turning the former so-called bread basket of Africa into a shell of its former self, plagued by inflation and food security problems.
South Africa’s land ownership problems date back to colonial rule and the Natives Land Act of 1913 that stripped most blacks of their property rights and designated most land for white ownership. Since 1994, the national government has purchased at fair market value close to five million hectares to be redistributed to black South Africans who could make a successful land claim.
To date, however, research shows 70 to 90 per cent of land transfer projects have essentially failed.
One of South Africa’s most successful commercial farmers, Brylyne Chitsunge, is blunt in her criticism of the government, which she says gives no support to new black landowners who get their ancestral land back but have no real idea how to farm it.
“The government needs to stop just giving land to black people without support,” she said during a visit at her 1,000-acre farm near Pretoria. “It’s painful to see the land fallow. Farmers are given land but not the knowledge.”
Chitsunge bought her own farm in Gauteng province in 2010, where she raises Kalahari red goats, African Nguni cattle, pigs, ostrich, rabbits and chickens, and grows vegetable and fruit crops.
But with a PhD in plant biotechnology, she has advantages many new black landowners do not, including resources and knowledge that she has put into learning how to farm her land productively and profitably.
“I mapped this whole farm for soil and water quality, which is so valuable for knowing what to plant,” she said. “The government should be giving the information to the farmers to tell them what grows well where. Farming is not easy; it’s not kid’s play.”
For white South African farmers, the land reform process, which is lengthy and cumbersome, can bring risk and uncertainty. Banks, for example, will not lend on a property subject to a land claim, and many farmers are unwilling to risk expansion or reinvestment on an uncertain future.
And tensions between blacks and whites in rural areas led to a sharp increase in violent farm murders in some parts of South Africa in 2017, with 35 murders in January and February alone.
But not everyone is deterred. Kallie Schoeman of Schoeman Citrus, a family business that grows oranges, lemons, and mandarins on approximately 3,500 acres northeast of Pretoria, said that while land reform is not investor friendly, he is still focused on expansion.
“I’m not worried about Zuma, people still have to eat,” he said, adding that he’s more concerned about the concentration of power in urban areas.
Tommie van Zyl of ZZ2, one of the largest farming enterprises in South Africa and grower of tomatoes, avocado and other vegetables and fruits, feels land reform is an opportunity for South African society to move forward from the past.
“Even if there are claims, there is no problem if we are a willing seller (of the land),” he said. “Land reform is where we think about how to create a different society. It is not only a threat; it can be an opportunity as well.”
In fact, last year ZZ2 formed a half-billion rand (approximately $23.9 million Canadian) partnership with the Makgoba people, beneficiaries of the land reform program in Limpopo province, to turn a former tea plantation into a large avocado orchard.
“They approached us if we can work with them to develop their land. After careful consideration, we proposed to them to convert their land into avocado farms,” van Zyl explained, adding the arrangement gives the Makgobas enough funds to meet the needs of their community and to undertake developmental projects. “The land is their input, and we bring the know-how.”
Van Zyl said ZZ2 is committed to buying the crop produced on the land and is marketing it under a special branded program called Makgoba Afrika.
In the Western Cape region of South Africa, Van Loveren Family Vineyards, South Africa’s biggest family-owned winery, is one of many in the area participating in Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) projects, going into partnership with their workers to share economic benefit and provide skills and knowledge training.
Their first such initiative began in 2006 with the purchase of the De Goree farm, where a trust of 116 Van Loveren farm workers holds 52 per cent of the shares in the property and has a long-term supply contract with the winery. Van Loveren was one of the first wine estates in South Africa to undertake a BEE project; De Goree was recognized as BEE project of the year in 2008.
“Van Loveren has always been innovative and we want to be part of the process of change,” said Bonita Malherbe, brand manager at Van Loveren. “We want to share our success with our workers. Many of our employees here are third generation or longer, that’s 80 years of walking a path together.”
A second BEE program involved purchase of their Middelburg Farm, where local Van Loveren workers currently hold a 30 per cent stake, but the goal is to boost that to 50 per cent by 2030, according to Malherbe. A third initiative, Olyfberg, was launched in 2016.
“We had an obligation — everyone should be part of our growth strategy,” Malherbe said.
Nearby Du Toitskloof Winery launched its fair trade initiative in 2005, dedicating a portion of funds from every bottle of wine to social supports for its workers.
This includes day care centres for the children of farm workers, a clinic and medical care, primary school, bus service, bursaries for high school and post-secondary education, adult literacy projects, and health and safety education.
“This is our project for our community — 26 of our teachers were previously farm workers,” said Bernard Kotze of Du Toitskloof, adding that the next dream is to add a retirement village. “The rural farm labour community is among the poorest of the poor, but our project is helping to eradicate this. We are extremely proud of our labour force.”