* Land reform beneficiaries lack farming experience
* Previous land owners seen as suitable partners
* Land reform policy under review to speed up programme
By Olivia Kumwenda
MALELANE, South Africa, April 19 Reclaiming land
seized during white minority rule was a dream come true for
black families in the South African farming town of Malelane.
But the community had no farming experience, equipment,
money or market access. In search of a plan for its 3,300
hectares (8,150 acres) of sugarcane land, it agreed a joint
venture with the whites who had owned the land before.
Land reform is a sensitive issue in South Africa, where some
politicians are demanding a forced redistribution of white-owned
farms along the lines of neighbouring Zimbabwe and twice as many
white farmers are murdered as other South Africans.
The post-apartheid African National Congress (ANC)
government's policy is to buy land seized by whites, if they
want to sell, and return it to blacks who claim it.
But it has fallen far short of its targets, and many of
those who do get land back find it hard to compete in a highly
developed sector; some have sold the land back to the previous
white owners after struggling to make it productive.
In a new trend, three groups with sugar cane land have
formed joint ventures with TSB Sugar company, which says it
hopes they will become a model for others.
Petros Silinda, a former teacher turned farmer, was one of
the beneficiaries of the Malelane land. "It was challenging for
us as a community because we didn't have the expertise," he
said. "We had to look for a partner with experience."
In 2007, three years after they got back the land, the
Malelane families formed a 50-50 joint venture with TSB Sugar, a
subsidiary of holding company Remgro, that previously
held the rights.
The families still own the land, while TSB has the
expertise. The company owns sugar mills, a packaging plant and
transport fleet but 85 percent of the cane area it uses in South
Africa is in the hands of communities.
The joint venture known as Mgubho now produces 260,000
tonnes of sugar per year. It declined to detail exactly how the
deal is structured, but said it had annual revenue of 135
million rand, with 43 million rand ($4.68 million) in dividends
has been paid to the community since 2007.
"We didn't want a situation where today you benefit and
tomorrow the farms are gone," said Theo Chiyoka, the chief
executive of Mgubho.
Chiyoka and four other black farmers are on the board of
Mgubho, making decisions in its air-conditioned boardroom.
Outside, irrigation systems that the community could not afford
spray water over the green rows of sugarcane.
Other beneficiaries get jobs in the fields after training.
Two other joint ventures between the communities and TSB
follow similar patterns in this fertile and steamy region about
400 km (240 miles) east of Johannesburg.
TSB said the main aim of the partnerships with communities
was to facilitate the transfer of skills in what it said was "a
successful land reform model".
Critics of the joint venture idea, which has yet to spread,
say it means white farmers continue to reap the benefits of
apartheid-era policies, first by making money from the sale of
the land, then by partnering with communities for profit.
"White farmers are only too happy to sell up the ownership
of the land but still be able to be involved in making profits
out of agriculture," said Ruth Hall of the Institute for
Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies.
"These are some of the bizarre formulations of land reform
in South Africa."
President Jacob Zuma, however, said in February there was
"need to provide better incentives for commercial farmers
willing to mentor smallholder farmers".
A CENTURY OF ENTRENCHED INEQUALITY
In the two decades since the ANC came to power, about 4
million hectares of commercial farmland have been transferred
out of a target of 24.5 million hectares or 30 percent, creating
about 230,000 new black farmers.
Commercial farming is very diverse, ranging from maize and
sugar to citrus and cattle. It accounts for only around four
percent of GDP, but crops such as maize and grapefruit bring in
export revenues and South Africa is the regional breadbasket.
"As far as land reform is concerned, we need new models on
how to go forward. We cannot let land just lie idle," said
Johannes Moller, president of farmers group Agri SA.
The need for reform has been brought into focus by the crop
decline in neighbouring Zimbabwe, where white-owned farms were
seized by President Robert Mugabe's government.
More than a decade after the chaotic and violent seizures in
Zimbabwe, food production is believed to be returning to 1990s
South Africa typically grows between 2 and 2.3 mln tonnes of
sugar a year and consumes around 1.6 mln tonnes, with the rest
exported. Getting the raw product to mills and then finding
customers requires capital and infrastructure.
The South African government has acknowledged the lack of
adequate support for new black farmers to compete at the
commercial level and has invested 1.8 billion rand ($195.78
million) since 2010 to help them improve productivity.
Land reform has also proved costly as demand lifts land
prices. The government is reviewing matters to speed transfers
and undo the skewed ownership ratios entrenched a century ago
when the Native Land act reserved 87 percent of land for whites,
with more land seized during apartheid rule from 1948 to 1994.
Among the changes sought are limiting the sale of land to
foreigners and setting up an office of valuer-general to provide
"fair and consistent" land values.
Mtobeli Mxotwa, a spokesman for the land reform department,
said the aim was to make the changes law by the end of the year.
New farmers still have to come to terms with the fact that
owning a piece of land does not mean instant wealth.
"One of the problems with restitution is that when the
people got the land, no one told them that they cannot drive a
Mercedes Benz like Mr Du Plessis used to drive when he owned the
farm," Chiyoka said.
($1 = 9.1941 South African rand)
(Editing by Ed Stoddard and Philippa Fletcher)