Land Reform – Threat or Opportunity?

The Land issue – threat or opportunity?

By Derek Carstens

Intro by Steuart Pennington: The land “expropriation without compensation” call by the ANC and the EFF has caused what can only be described as an hysterical debate. It seems that everybody, particularly every political party, is shooting from the hip before trying to understand the incredibly complex nature of the Land Issue.

 In this article Derek Carstens puts forward an argument regarding how the land issue should be rationally dealt with. But just to give some context I did some research on both ownership and usage. There are two land audits published by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, the 2013 audit considers user categories and use extent, the 2017 audit only considers ownership by race and gender. It is a fact that 79% of land in South Africa is privately owned, but a large portion of this ownership is in the form of trusts, companies and traditional authorities, only 39% can be traced to private individuals. 14% is directly owned by the state, 12.5% is managed by the State, and some 7% is unknown – 8 360 000 hectares. It is therefore very problematic to establish the racial breakdown of both ownership and usage. Usage too is difficult to track, mostly because municipal records differ significantly from what is happening on the ground.

 The table below attempts to clarify both ownership and usage. It highlights the top eight usage forms (there are 16 in the audit) of land in SA. As can be seen only 30.3% is used for farming.

It would seem from the audit that while the State owns the former homelands – 14% of the total land mass, it uses and manages a further 12.5% of the land mass on a province by province basis.


LAND OWNERSHIP Ha as % of total
Total land available in SA (ha) 121 973 200 100%
Total land privately owned (ha) 96 550 791.  79%
Total land owned by the State (ha) 17 000 000.  14% (mostly previous homelands)
Total land owned by unknown (ha) 8 360 000.       7%
Govt, Municipality and Trad. Authority 14 831 000.   12.5%
Farms & Agriculture* 37 031 000.   30.3%**
Residential 3 198 000.     3.1%
Recreation/leisure 2 713 000.     2.2%
Conservation 1 864 000.     1.4%
Commercial 1 223 000.     0.9%
Forestry 1 536 000.     1.2%
Undeveloped 2 058 000.     1.6%

* According to the Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) audit on use and extent, some 110 million ha is ‘agricultural’, 13.9 million of which is ‘under cultivation’ (excluding forestry), with some 97 million designated as ‘rangeland’, much of which, presumably, is in the former homelands (State land) – some of which will be designated as farms and some not.

This is 90% of the total land mass in SA (121 924 881 ha)

 While we are told that there are 35,000 commercial farmers in the country employing 650,000 people it must be clear that many more citizens are using ‘agricultural’ land to cultivate and as rangeland, but are not considered to be commercial farmers or part of the farming community.

 If the DRDLR audit is accurate, whites own 26 000 000 ha of the 37 000 000 ha designated as privately owned farm land or 70% (the big ‘transformation’ beef).

But, if the DAFF audit holds true, whites actually only own 23% of the total land designated as ‘agricultural’ for cultivation and rangeland purposes – the 110 000 000 ha.

 All very confusing, making an accurate assessment of both land ownership and land usage difficult and adding complexity to the expropriation debate.

Source: Rural Development and Land Reform audit 2017

Derek Carstens writes “I recently wrote an article called “Turning hope into Reality” which was published in .

It was written with a positive intent in the full awareness of being labelled naive and simplistic. It was however written before the issue of land expropriation became a political reality.

Land – a Rubicon Moment?

Now that it is a reality the question becomes, what are its implications? Does it show me to be a naive, simplistic pot boiled South African frog or not? Is this the Rubicon moment which will set us on the path to poverty and degradation as emigration accelerates in tandem with withdrawal of foreign capital? Are we now on the path to becoming a rogue nation?

I am the fortunate owner of a beautiful farm in the Karoo in the Eastern Cape. And being an actual land owner I can assure you that the impact of the news was as viscerally nauseating as it was intellectually disturbing.

Since then I have however ridden out the emotional roller coaster ride and sought to try a more rational approach in an attempt to come to grips with its motive and possible impact, not just on myself and my family, but also on the Country.

What is Government’s “intent”?

In so doing I resorted to the wisdom of a friend and colleague, Dr Francois Hugo, a leading behavioural  psychologist and human relations specialist. In this instance I found his concept of “intent” to be especially relevant and helpful. Briefly it frames behavioural choices or actions within the context of “what is the intent?”. So for example when you go into a business meeting is it your intent to be constructive, destructive, self-serving , neutral etc and bear in mind being constructively critical is very different from being negative. They each speak to a different intent.

So I decided to try and frame the Land issue within this context of “so what exactly is the government’s intent here“. Is it to right so-called “wrongs”; is it to do with retribution/ punishment of some kind; is it to uplift the country; is it to involve more Black farmers in the agricultural sector etc? What exactly is it? I am positive that an honest answer to this will help determine whether the nay-sayers are correct or not as regards the prospects going forward.

I thought I would approach it as if the intent of the decision was in the best interests not just of the people, but also the Country and the all-important question of food production. Let alone our standing in the world and all the positive results that would emanate from such an outcome.

Having framed the issue in this way the next question was, well how could this be done? And the good news is that there is a way and it is not complicated, which is not to say it will be easy.  It just requires the right intent as regards more productive people and more productive land. A win-win.

State Owned Land

What I am talking about is the 17,000,000 ha of State Land. Roughly equivalent to the size of the Eastern Cape.

So this land is there. It already belongs to the people, ie the State and mostly lies fallow. Most of it also lies in the most densely populated parts of the country.

28% in KZN; 15% in Limpopo; 14% in North West. No need to dispossess anyone at this stage or cause any social upheavals and unrest. And most of it is underutilized. So if I had positive intent as regards the land issue, the Country and those of its people who actually want to farm this is where I would start.

Title Deed?

The question within this context this then becomes how and to whom should this land be given. Well firstly it should be allocated with full title and be given to competent Black farmers who are at least qualified to farm the land allocated in a self-sufficient way. All the better if they can move beyond just a subsistence level of output.

Title to the land is of course key and will doubtless upset many a rural chief, but the greater good must surely prevail in the interests of all the country as a whole. After all we no longer live in feudal times.  Title would unlock billions in capital and capital is what will drive development of the land. Billions of Rands of sorely needed capital.

Farmer Training

As regards the competence of farmers, agricultural colleges exist and should be expanded.

Rather than focussing on university education as much as we do there should be an increased focus on regional agricultural colleges, each geared to their specific areas in the sense that maize farming in the Free State is quite different to avocado farming in Limpopo. This too will help clarify what parcels of land to apportion based on a minimum size in terms of crop / yield.




All this will of course take time and require a detailed strategy with clear objectives, but if there ever was a topic that deserved a well thought out strategy it is surely this one.
The benefits of such an approach would be an actual increase in agricultural output, a bigger more vibrant and representative agricultural community in terms of not only farmers, but all the industries involved in the supply chain from fertilizer producers to irrigation specialists. Rural employment would accelerate. In the meantime nothing would stand in the way of the willing buying, willing seller concept. Nothing would disturb the existing social cohesion, as let’s say half the State Land (ie that deemed  arable) some 8,500,000ha, or even a quarter, was gradually turned over with title, to deserving, competent, Black farmers.

Sure it would take political will and firm resolve, but with the right intent in terms what is best for the country this could be done. All at little or no incremental cost. By the time it is completed the whole issue of valid claims could of course be brought back into focus and re-examined as lessons will doubtless have been learned and goodwill will be so much greater. I mean the question to me simply is if that is the intent then why not “just do it“. Why would you start elsewhere?

Which brings us back to the question. What is Government’s intent?

Expediency – I hope not

If on the other hand the intent is to use the land issue as a political football to appease the Left in any way, shape or form, or to exact some kind of retribution, I believe the outcome will be an unmitigated disaster. Social cohesion and trust will collapse, farmers will not willingly comply, food production would shrink, capital would flee and so on and so forth. We know all this so no need to belabour the point.

It is simply to say that these are the two extremes of the intent barometer and doubtless there are varying scenarios within these polarities.

So as and when the issue is placed before Parliament for debate, in August I believe, then I would invite you to try and assess it within the context of intent. It more than anything will provide the compass as to the future of ourselves and our country.

In the meantime please no more Zebediela disasters, no more purchasing of productive land which is then abandoned or left to lie fallow as has happened with three ex highly productive farms in the Fish River area near us. No more R1 billion being spent on a minute piece of land in Sabie Sand. R1 billion. No more. Please. It will be the end of hope.