Almost 6,000 online applications received for 900 farms in land reform programme

In early October, the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development announced it was making almost 900 farms available for emerging farmers to lease on underutilised or vacant state land.

Agriculture Minister Thoko Didiza said on Tuesday that 5,838 online applications had been received from cooperatives, companies and individuals. A number of physical applications were also made, which have yet to be tallied.

“We… urge all South Africans to seize this opportunity and submit their applications online or at our provincial and district offices in the seven provinces before the closing date of 15 November 2020,” Didiza said.

When the initiative was announced, rigid timelines were laid and so the process should be completed about eight weeks after the deadline for applications. 

One of the many challenges that have bedevilled South Africa’s largely failed attempts at land reform has been a lack of capacity at the department to properly vet and complete applications from aspiring farmers.

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Asked if the department now had the capacity to pull this off in a timely and transparent manner, Didiza replied: “Yes, we do and we have also mobilised other stakeholders to ensure that the process is not doubted and is actually transparent.” These other stakeholders include farmers’ organisations, faith-based groups, NGOs and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

“We do need this capacity of individuals who work with us in ensuring that the process is credible, is transparent, and everybody can feel that the matter was attended to. We have also set up independent panels that won’t involve our government officials, who would actually deal with issues of objections and disputes. So there is quality insurance in the processes that we undertake,” she said.

The minister also provided some more context about the land in question, saying it had been earmarked by the apartheid state for homeland use and was held by the South African Development Trust. Some of it was used by communities for communal livestock grazing but not on a formal basis.

“After 1994 an attempt was made to transfer some of these farmlands to farmers; unfortunately, this process was not concluded. In order to address the land rights of these various communities, a land rights inquiry is critical,” she said. That process is ongoing. 

As the historian John Laband recently noted in his book The Land Wars, South Africa’s “bitter legacy of dispossession calls urgently for redress”. Sadly, land reform efforts to date have lacked a sense of urgency. 

The target of transferring 30% of white-owned land into black hands by 2014 has been missed by a margin about the size of the Free State’s maize fields. Meanwhile, the issue of expropriation without compensation has rattled investors, and the legacy of dispossession can still inflame social and political tensions against the backdrop of glaring inequality.

The latest initiative will be welcome but question marks remain over it. Leaseholds for 30 years with the option to buy are on offer, but that raises the old red flag about how emerging farmers without title deeds can access finance. Agriculture is becoming increasingly capital intensive and hi-tech. 

Still, at least the minister is providing updates on the process with a pledge of transparency and competent administration. That marks a welcome departure from the past. BM/DM