The Minister, her henchmen and SA's new land grab plan

How many does it take to bungle righting one of apartheid's greatest wrongs? Should these people be blamed for soaring food inflation?

There was a time when l thought maybe the land issue is past behind us, that South Africa is capable of handling its land reform programmes unlike our neighbouring Zimbabwe.

Of course it would be wrong of me to assume that we are going down that route, yet with so many inefficiencies in the land reform programmes and blame being shifted to unskilled lucky recipients of land, the stage is set for a major showdown.

All of this is happening at the height of political campaigns as the nation prepares to vote for a winning party, which could lead us through this land misery or plunge the country even deeper into the situation.

When Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs Lulu Xingwana addressed the media last week, she said land would be taken away from black recipients who have not farmed for three years.

Minister Xingwana was responding to media reports that land reform projects were failing - and to a large extent she feels unfairly treated and misrepresented by the media.

While she said she acknowledges the role of media in South Africa, she said in a statement "it is regrettable that the media did not consult my office or any MEC or the agriculture and land affairs, to ensure that their reporting is objective and complies with all the relevant standards set for free and unconstrained journalism."

Yet the minister and her henchmen don't play their role in helping to ensure their positive message, if indeed there are any positive outcomes, gets out. They don't do themselves any favours.

To date, they haven't been able to answer basic, even obvious questions. Like, how will the process work? Who is going to receive the land that is going to be confiscated from unproductive land restitution recipients? All questions that everyone wants the answers to after Xingwana summoned the fourth estate troops to announce a dramatic new step in the bid to get land reform moving in a productive direction - but couldn't provide the answers to on the day.

We are told she has a small army of consultants and workers in her communications and advisory ranks. Either they aren't advising Xingwana properly or she isn't listening. Of course, it is entirely possible too that the plan hasn't been carefully thought through and that there are no answers.

Land has always been a contentious issue in South Africa and now the ugly face of land reform is rearing its head at a time when voters are deciding on who is best equipped to lead.

The announcement has sent shock waves among many South Africans who feel these drastic measures will not remedy the agricultural problems nor will they help the land reform project.

Agri SA said it wishes to clearly state that it has no political agenda and does not want to maintain the status quo with regard to land ownership. The organisation said the "use it or lose policy" is based on the assumption that land reform beneficiaries intentionally neglect their farms while they are often a victim of the state's failure to provide settlement aid in time.

Meanwhile, politicians have lashed out at the minister's announcement saying she is pushing her own agenda instead of that of agriculture.

Freedom Front Plus (FF+) spokesperson for Agriculture and land affairs, MP Pieter Groenewald said the minister needs to be removed from her position.

He said taking back land from farmers who have failed to make it productive is her acknowledgement of her own incompetence.

The Independent Democrats (ID) said the responsibility of land reform projects failures lie with government.

In its quest to address the imbalances of the past, land was given to recipients and they were never given sufficient training and skills to sustain production in agricultural land, said MP Lance Greyling, that party's spokesperson for agriculture and land affairs.

When asked the minister whether the land beneficiaries understood the context in which land was being granted to them, she said land claimants were business people who presented their impressive business plans to prove they were capable of farming.

Asked about whether they were given support, the minister was once again coy on directly answering the question.

Rather, she posed a rhetoric question: "Do you mean l must buy cattle for you?"

As it stands, two chief directors in the land affairs department have been suspended and some land claims will not be settled in the financial year 2009/2010 because the budget of R6,6bn allocated for land restitution and redistribution will not be enough.

There are some land claims worth R600m and R800m respectively, which the minister said are questionable and would need a good reason to justify settling one land claim at a cost of that much amount.

She said her department cannot afford to fork out such huge amounts and when a journalist asked if land expropriation would be considered in a bid to get land owners to lower their prices, she could not answer that either.

Democratic Alliance (DA) MP Maans Nel, spokesperson for land affairs said in a statement last week, as much as one third of posts in the land reform and restitution programmes remain unfilled.

It is no wonder that over 4 000 land restitution claims remain unsettled and the uncertainty created by this has resulted in many farmers discontinuing their investments in farming, according to Nel.

He said a senior official at land affairs admitted that these failed land reform projects are "assets dying in the hands of the poor". The government now admits that 50% of these projects have failed, he said.

Amid mismanagement in the land department and delays in land reform projects, l found myself wondering about the shelved land bill . Land, 15 years into our new democracy, remains a thorny, unresolved issue. The biggest losers have perhaps been the poor, who feel soaring food costs most keenly.

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