Starving for land: ‘Black farmers vs. govt. cowboys

While the fate of 39 Mpumalanga farmers hang in the balance, experts warn that without clear legislation, land redistribution is but a pipe dream. This is the only way to also protect black farmers against power hungry government officials

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The eviction of black farmers from profitable commercial enterprises – allegedly at the hands of “cowboy officials” – has opened room for a systemic crisis in government’s mission of equal land redistribution.

This is the view of prof. Elmien du Plessis, a leading Constitutional law expert, following reports of successful farmers being kicked from state-owned land by the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development.

Prof. Elmien du Plessis is a leading expert in land and expropriation law. Photo: Supplied
Prof. Elmien du Plessis is a leading expert in land and expropriation law. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Du Plessis warns the absence of a clear, concise legal framework for redistribution does not bring these official to account for their actions.

“What is lacking are clear guidelines for officials on how they must make decisions and exercise their discretion. This leaves a lot of room for ad hoc decision-making, and it makes it possible for officials to escape accountability. If there is no law if there are no rules,” she said.

Du Plessis’ sentiments are echoed by attorney Wilmien Wicomb of the Legal Resources Centre.

Wilmien Wicomb is an attorney with the Legal Resources Centre. Photo: Twitter

Wicomb represented a Western Cape pig farmer, Ivan Cloete (56), who recently beat government following attempts to kick him off a Darling farm.

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“There are no existing legislation guiding redistribution,” said Wicomb.

“There is nothing in law that tells the official who should get land, how they should go about it, what criteria they should use or under what circumstances they can cancel a lease or evict farmers.

“Policies are published every couple of years, but these are often not even published publicly, they are implemented haphazardly.”

What laws govern land redistribution?

In the continued absence of a legal framework, Du Plessis said, “Many of the farmers will be left to the whims of officials.”

She believes the problem with redistribution and long-term leases for state-owned farms are that they are framed around policy. “There was a 2016 version of the State Lease and Disposal of Land policy, and it was replaced in 2019.”

These policies, she said, were often not written in an inclusive and consultative matter, so they do not reflect the needs of people and are often not always clear.

“There seems to be an increase in these evictions, or at least to these evictions becoming known. This gives us the opportunity to question it and to hold people accountable.”

Wicomb added that the mushrooming in evictions would not get any better without proper legislative framework. The worst is still untold, she said.

“So many of these cases go under the radar because the land reform beneficiary is dependent on the department.”

Wicomb makes an example between the relationship of a tenant and a landlord.

“It is very difficult to go public with your concerns because if you anger your landlord, you may never be in their favour again. You may never get that lease again. The stories have only begun to pop up.”

Government should implement an urgent policy clean-up, Du Plessis suggested.

“We need to the department to consult with stakeholders, and we need a Redistribution Act as a framework Act that creates rights that people can use to enforce their rights.”

39 farmer wings clipped

Besides the Cloete debacle, the fate of 39 farmers in Mpumalanga currently hang in the balance after they were also allegedly kicked off their state-owned farms.

Thabani Nxumalo (37), now farms on 758-hectares mixed farming enterprise in the Gert Sibande district without a legal, written, and secure document on state land he was evicted from in 2019.

Thabani Nxumalo's (37) farming future hangs in the balance in the Gert Sibande district in Mpumalanga. In 2019, Nxumalo was evicted from his commercial-scale farm. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Thabani Nxumalo’s (37) farming future hangs in the balance in the Gert Sibande district in Mpumalanga. In 2019, Nxumalo was evicted from his commercial-scale farm. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Nxumalo tells Food For Mzansi he had initially entered into a three-year lease agreement on the Uitkyk farm from 2013.

In 2019 he was moved to Klipplaatdrift because of his fast-growing livestock, sheep, poultry, and grain enterprise. At the end of 2019 he was served with an eviction notice.

Nxumalo is also a former employee of the power utility Eskom and turned to the land to build his business.

He has now accused the department of denying him the opportunity to thrive as a black commercial farmer with extensive experience.

“Currently, the big issue I have with the department is the renewal of the lease agreement. In late 2019 I received word that my contract would not be renewed. I am just here – I do not know what is going to happen to me next.

“I have invested so much on this farm; you can imagine it is so stressful to be in this position. Your life hangs in the balance, where do I go with my livestock?”

Government responds

In a response to a media inquiry by Food For Mzansi, chief director in the Mpumalanga department of agriculture, land reform and rural development, Zanele Sihlangu, explained that Nxumalo’s contract had been terminated given his status as a civil servant.

Sihlangu further explained, “The process has been halted pending the process by the terminated lease. The office is currently in the process of engaging the office of the minister Thoko Didiza for a possible solution to the matter.”

  • On Saturday, Thoko Didiza, the minister of agriculture, land reform and rural development, suspended all eviction orders against farmers in the Gert Sibande district.

ALSO READ: Cloete case ‘unmasks fragility of land redistribution’

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