Farmers work on a field outside Lichtenburg, a maize-growing area in the North West. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO
Farmers work on a field outside Lichtenburg, a maize-growing area in the North West. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO

Surrounded by a crop of wilting sugar beans, Georginah Sidumo rubs red dust off a folder of documents she says are the only proof her farmers’ co-operative has the right to work on the land it controls.

Sidumo, 47, is one of thousands of black South African subsistence farmers frustrated by faltering efforts to reform land policies shaped by centuries of white rule. Government programmes meant to turn small black-owned operations such as hers into sustained, mid-sized agricultural businesses are well-intentioned but too slow, she says.

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“We wanted to show people in the community that farming and owning land can work,” says Sidumo. “You don’t always have to work for a white man and struggling with piece [day labour] jobs. You can be your own boss and have something to leave behind for your children.”

Land is a hot-button topic SA and the issue has been fought over in the runup to May 8 general elections, amid stagnant economic growth and impatience among voters for an escape from poverty.

“I will vote for whoever can help us,” says Sidumo, co-chair of BlueDisa, a co-operative of 21 freehold and subsistence farmers given parcels of a hectare each by the government as part of the reforms. Nine years on, they are still struggling to raise collateral to make the improvements needed to expand their business.

The dog-eared photocopies she carries in a backpack alongside a bottle of water and pruning tools are a form of insurance, she says. They trace the co-op’s legal and financial journey since the department of public works first granted them access to the land.

Sidumo lacks a computer, so her teenage daughter prints out the official documents and correspondence with officials for her to keep in case they find an investor, or need proof of their right to the land to show other community members.

The 200ha farm, in a working-class neighbourhood of Lawley, south of Johannesburg, where half the households are shacks, was abandoned by its white owners a decade ago. The co-operative persuaded the department of public works to allow its farmers to work the land, with promises of financial help and full ownership once they reached commercial viability.

But the going has been slow.

After receiving their right to cultivate the land, Sidumo and the mostly female farmers set to work planting bamboo for export to Asia, sugar beans and okra to sell at regional produce markets, and a Japanese potato popular with the locals.

The group reinvested their meagre profits and the initial government grant in equipment and seeds. But then a drought and a lack of financial support for a dam and farm modernisation pushed many of them to abandon their portions of land, and look for more steady formal employment.

The experience reflects what critics say is the government’s inability to provide the long-term financial and technical help for new landowners and farmers. The large number of departments, officials and agencies tasked with land reform has led to a bureaucratic backlog that Sidumo says has made it difficult for the co-op to function.

In 2018  the governing ANC tabled a controversial constitutional amendment that will allow the government to expropriate land without compensation. The main opposition party, the DA has said it could go to court to stop the proposed amendment, but the smaller and radical leftist EFF backs land reforms.

“We don’t care about ANC, the DA or the EFF. We just want someone who can help. That’s who we’ll vote for,” Sidumo says, without specifying who would get her vote.

Since the end of apartheid in 1994, less than 10% of commercial agricultural land has been transferred from white to black ownership, according to the Institute for Poverty and Agrarian Studies, leading to calls for more radical reform laws.

However, the institute says that the problems were less about ownership and more to do with a lack of agrarian support, loans to businesses and farming skills, leading to many land transfers failing early and before formal ownership can be granted.

Sidumo says she is not ready to give up despite the delays. She has learnt to trust her fellow farmers more than government officials who appear during elections but disappear soon after. Finishing the dam, whether it means voting for a particular party or finding a private investor, is the priority.

“I’m still poor. Nothing has changed. We don’t care about politics, we are entrepreneurs. We are farmers,” she says.

Reuters