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Government Drive to Set Up White SA Farmers in Africa

Published on Monday 12th October 2009

AGRICULTURE, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat- Pettersson is spearheading a new drive to establish white farmers from SA throughout the African continent -- partly because SA's redistribution programme will create land shortages at home.

Joemat-Pettersson said at the annual congress of farmers' union AgriSA on Friday that the government remained committed to transferring 30% of white-owned farmland to blacks in five years, but this would leave little room for white farmers to expand in SA.

"If we can't find opportunities for white South African farmers in this country, we must do it elsewhere in the continent."

She announced the government was negotiating agreements with five countries, and was offered large swathes of high-quality agricultural land in two. Secure tenure would be a central pillar of the relationships. "We cannot have a repeat of what happened to our farmers in Zimbabwe."

She assured delegates this was not a thinly veiled threat to drive white farmers out of SA. "We absolutely need our commercial farmers. SA is your country. Your forebears are buried here, and you are South Africans."

Another driver was the government's concern that Asian and South American competitors, especially China, India and Brazil, were stealing a march on SA in establishing agricultural enterprises and gaining preferential access to markets elsewhere in Africa, she said in an interview .

She envisaged white farmers retaining some agricultural property at home but expanding their farming operations in other African countries that had more land available.

Countries targeted initially are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Angola, Zambia and Uganda. Angola has offered two farms totalling 140000ha in a prime production area, and Uganda 170000ha near Kampala. Reviving southern Sudan's farm production forms part of SA's peace and reconstruction plan for the war-torn region.

This is in addition to agreements in place with Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, and plans to establish agricultural ties with Burundi. Other countries have approached AgriSA directly with invitations to establish commercial farm enterprises . They include the Republic of Congo, which has 10-million hectares of arable land lying fallow yet needs food aid and imports, and, most recently Libya, which wants private-sector support to revive production along a state-owned canal.

Joemat-Pettersson stressed the relationship between South African farmers and their host country would be symbiotic rather than paternalistic. "It's an equal relationship between people of the African continent," she said.

"One of the concerns the Zambians raised is the perception that white farmers want to create apartheid enclaves. We are assuring the governments of these countries we do not want to export our problems." The thrust would be rebuilding commercial agriculture in the countries targeted, including through a transfer of expertise, technology, equipment and scientific advances.

Commercial farmers would form agriprocessing hubs for neighbouring smallholders, who would benefit from infrastructure, shared knowledge, access to markets and bulk buying of inputs.

The agriculture ministry was thrashing out a policy framework for the initiative in consultation with AgriSA. This would include safeguards for property rights independent of present political leadership.

"We will sign state-to-state agreements confirmed in international courts so you are guaranteed your land will not be taken away from you," the minister told congress delegates.

Theo de Jager, the AgriSA representative instrumental in expanding the reach of South African farmers throughout Africa, said he was heartened by Joemat-Pettersson's announcement. About 600 to 800 South African commercial farmers were already operating in other African countries, mostly in Mozambique, he said. Large fruit exporters in Limpopo and Mpumalanga, where most commercial farmland is under land claim, were establishing orchards in Mozambique until uncertainties surrounding SA's land reforms were resolved.

"But this is not about driving white farmers out," he said.

"Farmers go where there are opportunities to make money. It's a bonus that the government is supporting us now."

Joemat-Pettersson had initially been hostile to De Jager's overtures to other African countries. In June, when AgriSA announced plans to explore opportunities in the Republic of Congo, she warned the government could not guarantee farmers protection.

"We explained we are doing it not because we are negative about SA but positive about Africa. And if anyone is equipped to farm in Africa, it's us -- we've been doing it for more than 300 years."

Zimbabwe remains out of bounds for now as its government refuses to include land tenure security as part of a bilateral investment protection agreement being negotiated with SA.

Libya is the next frontier. A delegation headed by De Jager is expected to go on a fact-finding mission there this month following an invitation from Muammar Gaddafi. Gaddafi apparently rejected World Bank advice to involve Indian or Chinese experts because he insisted on African involvement. "If we can do it in Libya, we can do it anywhere in Africa," said De Jager.

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