Chuck Stephens on land hatred: Is communal farming better than extremist EWC?

Expropriation without compensation, or EWC for short, has been put forward as a way to speed up the process of redistributing assets from the haves, with European heritage, to the have-nots – the dispossessed who are ethnically African. The poor might think it is a marvellous idea: one day you have nothing, the next day you own an estate that makes you look like a rich person. The reality, in South Africa and Zimbabwe, is that land expropriation has not resulted in a seismic shift for the better in the lifestyles of the previously disadvantaged. There have been no real winners. Chuck Stephens, who has human rights at the forefront of his priorities, raises the issue of communal farming as an alternative to EWC, which is generating heat and hatred, rather than light and reconciliation. – Jackie Cameron

Glimpses of a Future Food System

By Chuck Stephens*

Conversation over lunch with Dr Naudé Malan at the University of Johannesburg was encouraging. He is an anthropologist who shares my optimism that a “centrist solution” can be found to the Land Reform conundrum. At present there seems to be a stand-off between the Statists and the status quo who would rather fight than switch. Dr Malan hosts regular stakeholder consultations which are called Farmers’ Lab. He shared the Minutes of one such Indaba which was held on the 24 August 2019 at UJ’s Soweto Campus.

The iZindaba Zokudla Farmers’ Lab hosts such an event at least once a month. These Indabas each deliberate on one key issue in the South African food system. The debate on that day was on this topic: Is it possible to settle large amounts of people on a single piece of land under a collective production regime?

These open forums are well attended.  Some owners of significantly large pieces of farmland mixed with emerging small-scale African farmers. Some other stakeholders interested in the issue of Land Reform also came along – from business and some of the agricultural agencies of the SA state. Dr Malan was the Moderator and recorder of the Minutes.

The sessions hinted at common-property regimes although no clear example and discussion emerged of this important dynamic. The farmers and owners of land are still seeking models that work. Farming models need to be seen as part of a “true-cost” accounting that enumerates social, environmental and all other possible benefits. To approach this only with a legal or monetary perspective in mind is too narrow an approach.

Communal farming has a certain nostalgic attraction. However this is a dangerous path to tread, and history shows us numerous examples of famine and failure when communal settlement and farming takes place. Looking to the future rather than the past, a process of stakeholder engagement, on the ground, regular and durable and robust will create opportunities for people to voice difficulties and to change their own behaviour. It is going to be very important to have these as regular and effective exchanges between all parties.

It will be necessary to develop a suitable institutional system that will only thrive by allowing people to explore new avenues of production and other forms of expression. The inclusivity of this system must be such that it encourages and rewards innovation by those who are able to. This is crucial and needs to be done so that value added enterprises are built on top of the basic institution.

Somewhere, near the bottom of the system, self-interest and property must be secure, as this protects individual interests and is the basis of productivity seeking behaviour.

We have to single out the idea of a cooperative, mainly because it is so prevalent in policy circles today. Most people in South Africa do not know what a cooperative really is. Cooperatives thrive if each member can take care of themselves and if each is strong independently. Each has to bring benefit or else great unfairness is created in a cooperative.

There is also the need to acknowledge the importance of some kind of ownership, private ownership, and property rights at the basis of production decisions and enterprise creation. These rights demand responsibility, which will drive innovation and lower risk.

Common Property Regimes are the hidden gem of the pre-colonial world. They have attracted attention and Nobel prizes have been given to those who advocate for them. They are powerful and can turn the fortunes of a community and a resource around and we need many more of them as we are confronting a warming planet.

If finance and the ability to manipulate credit are understood, it increases the chances of innovation and the creation of enterprises and infrastructure on top of the base of production that the farms will allow. It is in the creation of these secondary enterprises on top of production where the real value lies. It starts to look like a multi-tier system. In fact the Indaba just glimpsed the great complexity of a suitable business model and the financial system inherent to it.  Key elements were identified but no institutional model agreed on.

Most farming technologies available are not designed with the small farmer in mind. They also assume we have unlimited amounts of energy available. Technologies are becoming available that can enable great increases in production on smaller landholdings. There are others suited to dry-land farming and other niches that offer low-cost alternatives to mechanisation. They are labour-intensive but remarkably efficient.  And they may actually be more environmentally friendly?

Stakeholder consultation – not confrontation of opposite poles – could lead us to a new place. It could even represent the beginnings of a new agricultural and food system in South Africa. The current emphasis on volumes may have to give way to an emphasis on sustainability and earth-care.

Support is available for open and frank Indabas, for business plan funding, and for pilot studies and initiatives. There is moral support for stakeholders together devising a new path of change for the South African food system.

The great debate over Land Reform may have generated more heat than light? Dr Malan believes that we need to lay our ideologies aside and find one another in robust and frank encounters. There is too much at stake to simply try to win the vote. We need win-win solutions. Land and natural resources belong to all citizens. Somehow we need to capture that in collaboration – not in confrontation. In mutual respect and not in hatred.

  • Chuck Stephens works at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership. He has written this article in his own capacity.
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