South Africa's government has acquired thousands of farms to redress racially skewed land ownership, but more than half have failed, or are failing, Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti told parliament on 1 September.
The government intends redistributing 30 percent of agricultural land (24.6 million hectares) to black South Africans by 2014, but by June 2009 only 6.7 percent (5.5 million hectares) had been parcelled out and many recipient farmers were struggling to survive.
In a written reply to a question in parliament, Nkwinti said 2,864 farms had been acquired, "29 percent of the 1,250 LRAD [Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development] projects reviewed have failed, and a further 22 percent are declining."
Of the 1,250 failed LRAD farms, 362 were unproductive and an additional 275 were on the verge of being unsustainable "if no agricultural support is received". The land reform programme so far had cost about US$800 million, Nkwinti said.
Karen Kleinbooi, of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape, told IRIN: "The biggest problem [with land redistribution] is there is no real vision as to what it is they [the government] want to achieve with land reform."
Under apartheid 87 percent of farmland was owned by the minority white population, leaving the black majority with 13 percent; reversing this situation has been a political imperative since the African National Congress (ANC) government came to power in 1994.
During President Thabo Mbeki's tenure, from 1999 to 2008, the 30 percent benchmark for land redistribution became a holy grail, resulting in often bitter spats between predominantly white commercial farmer organizations and the government over the slow pace of land redistribution.
was not suggesting there were no people wanting land, but rather that
beneficiaries had become necessities for transferring hectares, rather
than hectares being sourced to serve the needs of beneficiaries
The arbitrary 30 percent target
Analysts say the 30 percent target has hobbled rather than enhanced agrarian reform, as achieving it has overshadowed other considerations necessary to creating sustainable rural livelihoods.
The 30 percent target is not rooted in some sense of post-apartheid justice; it originated in a 1992 meeting of local and international experts convened by the World Bank on behalf of the ANC.
"Two members of this team focused on financial issues, including the cost implications of a future programme of redistributive land reform," Michael Aliber, a PLAAS senior researcher, noted in the organization's quarterly bulletin in June 2008.
"For good measure, they considered three scenarios: a 10 percent, a 30 percent, and a 50 percent - these were good round figures that captured the boundaries of what was thinkable at the time," he said.
The 50 percent option was dismissed as "out of sight", the 10 percent was seen as "politically unacceptable", and the "30 percent option was a reasonable compromise. That's it," Aliber said.
He recounted a discussion with an "overworked" provincial official tasked with land redistribution, who complained about how difficult it was to find beneficiaries.
"She was not suggesting there were no people wanting land, but rather that beneficiaries had become necessities for transferring hectares, rather than hectares being sourced to serve the needs of beneficiaries."
Kleinbooi said the failure of redistributed farms fitted "squarely" into Mbeki's era, but there were indications of "a shift away from chasing targets ... and a shift towards more efficient land reform" by the new administration of President Jacob Zuma.
Policy decisions reached at the ANC congress in 2007, when Mbeki was deposed as the party's leader and replaced by Zuma, placed a "new focus on agrarian reform, including the restructuring of value chains, [that] is appropriate and much needed, given the complete neglect of these aspects in the past," Ben Cousins, director of PLAAS, said in the organisation's June 2009 quarterly review.