SOUTH African Land and Agriculture Minister Lulu Xingwana warned yesterday that her top officials would enforce a â€œuse it or lose itâ€ policy to ensure land-reform beneficiaries ran productive farms.
She also said the government had run out of money for land reform in its current budget, and blamed white farmers for charging the state inflated prices for land-reform farms.
Xingwana said the government would take back farms allocated to blacks under its redistribution programme if they did not farm productively.
â€œI have visited farms where not one crop was planted in one to three years,â€ she told a briefing in Pretoria.
â€œI have instructed my director-generals to, with immediate effect, (enforce) the principle of use it or lose it,â€ she said. â€œTherefore, those who do not use the land must immediately be removed, and the land must be given to emerging farmers and co-operatives.â€
The policy has been in place for some time, although some provinces, notably Limpopo, have implemented it more vigourously than others.
The ministerâ€™s strong statements yesterday suggest she aims to counter criticism in weekend newspapers that her disastrous handling of the land and agriculture portfolio threatens food security in South Africa.
Xingwana also blamed budget constraints and inflated land prices for delays in land reform.
â€œOur budget for this year is depleted because farmers escalate prices when they know government must buy,â€ she said.
In a thinly veiled attack on market value as a key determinant of land prices, Xingwana said it was unfair to expect the government to pay â€œthe price of a lifestyle estateâ€ for farmland.
â€œThis is inflating the price of land,â€ she said.
Last year, Parliament shelved a law that would have made it easier for the government to expropriate at below market value, arguing that it might prove to be unconstitutional. Xingwana would not respond when asked if she planned to use the threat of expropriation to force land owners to accept lower prices.
The departmentâ€™s R6,6 billion land-reform budget for 2008-09 ran out at the beginning of last month. The next allocation, of R6,83 billion, was due only next month.
The money funded a variety of restitution, redistribution and tenure reform projects and farms, many of which are struggling to stay productive. The budget crunch had delayed the finalisation of several major restitution projects worth R600 million to R800 million each, which should have been wrapped up in 2008-09, the officials said. Most were in KwaZulu-Natal.
The government was therefore devising â€œcreative waysâ€ of bringing down costs, said acting chief land claims commissioner Blessing Mphela.
These included persuading owners to retain a portion of their property.
â€œClaimants must also realise we are all feeling the pinch, and they have to accept less,â€ he said.
A land-reform consultant to a major company, who did not want to be named, warned that late disbursements entailed more red tape, which would result in further lengthy delays.
â€œWe have had several big projects approved, but Land Affairs is broke,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s very frustrating.â€
Xingwana also said that several senior officials had been suspended for financial mismanagement after recent internal investigations. â€œThere are serious questions of gross negligence. Action will be taken against those found guilty.â€
Xingwana dismissed the suggestion that senior officials were suspended as part of a witch-hunt against anyone opposed to her forceful leadership style.
â€œI am not aware of anyone who has problems with my leadership style so I donâ€™t know who I would conduct a witch-hunt against. My officials agree with the way Iâ€™m doing things,â€ she said.
Those suspended include Gauteng land affairs chief director Rachel Masango, who declined to discuss her suspension.
With the election looming, Xingwanaâ€™s fate hangs in the balance, too. Government said she might be moved quietly from her portfolio after the elections under the pretext of an administrative split in her ministry.
The sources said the agriculture component was expected to be merged with forestry to form a new department, with land affairs standing alone.
This would reflect thinking in the African National Congress that land was a political flash point that required more focused attention.
But a senior land affairs official said Xingwana might yet survive, and pointed out that ANC president Jacob Zuma invited her on the campaign trail recently. â€“â€“ Business day.