It looks as if nothing changes, but everything changes

Wynand Boshoff on how a farmer's behaviour would shift once he loses formal title to his land

I regularly receive phone calls from farmers who wonder how to respond to threats of expropriation without compensation. My response is normally to say we should not panic, but neither should we be complacent.

We should not panic, because most probably we won’t see land invasions like in Zimbabwe. It has been suggested that the system of title deeds may be replaced with long-term leases of nationalised land. It might be that banks will accept the lease as collateral, just like a title deed. Nevertheless, we should not be complacent, because it might look as if nothing changes, but in reality everything changes. A farmer from Keimoes recently answered me quite comprehensively:

“Let’s say you are right. They take my land, but I may proceed farming on it. At the moment, I invest basically all my profits back into the land. I am switching much of my farm to pecan nuts. It is a crop which takes nearly a decade before the first harvest breaks even with that year’s expenses. Only then do I start recovering previous years’ expenses.

“My farm is near an informal settlement and pecan nuts are nice to eat. I have to fence the whole farm and purchase machinery to speed up the harvesting process – If I want to have a harvest.

“Infrastructure deteriorates. Technology improves. I have to upgrade stay abreast if I want to stay competitive. This means I keep on investing in my farm. I enjoy doing it that way, because I do it for the next generation. This is what most farmers do and that is why South African agriculture succeeds in an unforgiving natural and economic climate.

“When I retire and none of my children want to farm, I can sell to somebody else. The lifetime investment should maintain me until the children can inherit what is left, after I die.

“If I have a long-term lease from the state, I don’t know whether they will find my own children suitable lessors. If I sell, I only sell a lease agreement which can be revoked. Then I should not invest in my land more than is absolutely necessary.

“Infrastructure will gradually deteriorate, like in our towns. Permanent crops will have to stay in the soil, even if more profitable cultivars are available. I won’t replace machinery, unless it is absolutely necessary. All the money I save in this way, will be invested elsewhere. As much as possible abroad, because the future of me, my property and my loved ones is under the axe. What I can’t take abroad, I’ll take out of agriculture, because it seems that agriculture is earmarked for revenge.

“When I’m old and stop farming, the farm I return to the state won’t be worth all that much. I don’t think the next lessee will invest more into it than I did, so its productive value will keep on decreasing.

“Maybe the state expects me to keep on investing as if the land had been mine. I should be willing to close my days in poverty, comforted by the warm feeling that I returned prime property to the state. It’s not going to happen.”

The discussion reminded me of the basic feature of colonialism: To work in a colony, but to repatriate the profits to a metropolis.

The opposite is to regard the place of work as the centre of the world and to invest right there – something which Afrikaner farmers had done over the centuries in South Africa.

I realise that the present government wants to turn my friend into what we all hate: A colonialist.

Wynand Boshoff is provincial leader of the Freedom Front Plus in the Northern Cape.