“Whenever a government even starts considering meddling with property rights in rural and farming areas, red lights should be flashing. — Pine Pienaar

ECONOMISTS and outraged landowners have warned that a controversial new Bill aimed at granting farm workers the right to farm commercially and build houses on their employers’ properties “could wipe out the agricultural sector” if written into law.

The government says the draft Land Tenure Security Bill seeks to provide for the protection of farm workers’ rights as well as support frameworks so they might enjoy “sustainable livelihoods”.

But agricultural unions and opposition parties believe the proposal could be more sinister than simply to address human rights issues, slamming it as “unconstitutional” and “ unworkable”.

The draft Bill was gazetted by the Rural Development and Land Reform Department on December 24 and is now in the public participation phase, which is expected to be completed early next month.

Agri Eastern Cape’s new president, Ernest Pringle, an attorney who farms in the Bedford district, says the organisation feels that if the Act comes into effect, every commercial farm would “be converted into a real or potential communal farming area” or even a “squatter camp”.

“(The Bill) makes provision for the range and number of persons given residential rights on each farm. This includes a variety of people associated with each employee, notably brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces.

“This would ensure no farmers would be able to control the numbers, or even know the identities, of people living on their farms. It poses a real threat to the personal security and property of agricultural landowners.”

Pringle was even more concerned about the fact that the only stipulation proscribed for farm workers was that they should not cause harm or damage to the farm, and should not assist non-residents in erecting new dwellings for themselves. This, he said, meant evictions would become “virtually impossible”.

He said the department had been “sneaky” in having the Bill gazetted over Christmas, as it meant it allowed less time for landowners to respond.

Rhodes University economics professors Gareth Fraser and Geoff Antrobus believed that since property rights were “the basic tenet of the economic system”, the Bill “will negate the property rights” of the farmer over his or her land.

“There will, in all likelihood, (also) be a reduction of employment on farms, as the owners will lose control over a portion of their land without compensation.”

“They will move to more capital intensive methods of farming as the loss of land will impact significantly on their profit margin

“There will be no incentive for workers to maintain the quality for the resource as the land does not belong to them.”

Fraser and Antrobus added there would “definitely be an impact” on the value of the land. “Firstly, in the event of the farmer wishing to sell the land due to the rights of the workers to utilise the land and, secondly, due to a possible degradation of the land, as it will effectively be seen as common property with the accompanying problems”.

In addition, the professors alluded to management issues that could surface, such as:

How much land will be required by the workers;

How many animals the workers will be allowed to keep;

The type of farming involved. For example, if the farm is an intensive vegetable farm, will the workers be permitted to keep cattle?

Workers’ animals, if not managed properly, could have a detrimental effect on the farmers’ animals with regard to disease and affecting the breeding programme.

“If the workers were farming commercially, by definition, it would be expected that they would have to pay for their inputs and the use of the resources, such as land. Would farmers be compensated for the use of their land and the use of other inputs provided by them, such as licks, ploughing and water?”

“When would the workers find the time to farm their portion of the land or run their animals? There would be a conflict of interests as the farmer is paying them to work for him, but they are also running their own farming operation.”

Well-known Econometrix senior director Tony Twine told Weekend Post that should a partition of property occur between landowner and worker as a result of the new regulations, it “would cut across the Constitutional right to own land” and in cases where no partition existed, there would be “great confusion between workers’ and farmers’ rights”.

“If this becomes an Act, it will have to be very specific about how land is separated, as it could give rise to violations of Constitutional rights,” Twine said.

“Although agriculture contributes only 2.5% of South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product, there is a lot more subsistence farming that takes place. This Bill could have a huge effect – if the government fails to regulate it, it could wipe out the agricultural sector.”

But Rural Development and Department spokesman Eddie Mohoebi said the Bill was born out of necessity, not only because many farm workers had come forward to report abuses but also because South Africa’s rural areas needed to be developed.

“Since 1994 we have been alarmed by rural underdevelopment and poverty. This Act is in keeping with our vision of equitability and sustainability,” Mohoebi said.

“Many farmers are relying on hearsay and have not read the Bill properly. There are three principles on which we are operating, namely the principle of de-racialising the economy; the principle of democracy which looks at property and its use and the principle of advocating a strict production discipline.

“Together, these principles will create sustainability which will give national food security to all. But what farmers will realise if they read the Bill is that there are regulations in place that do protect their rights as well. If a dispute is declared, then a formal process will be followed and the matter settled.”

Pringle argued that while Agri Eastern Cape agreed employment in the commercial agricultural sector had declined markedly since 1994, it maintained this was largely as a result of government interference in the sector through labour laws and minimum wage legislation.

“The other factor giving rise to this decline in employment is never mentioned in government reports, notably the continuing decline in the profitability of agriculture.”

DA spokesman for rural development and agriculture Pine Pienaar said having read the Bill “one should ask yourself who will provide and pay for water, grazing and other costs related to farming?”

“Whenever a government even starts considering meddling with property rights in rural and farming areas, red lights should be flashing.

“It is only a matter of time before the government will insist on meddling with property rights in cities and business districts,” Pienaar said.

He said many aspects of the Bill created the impression the state was trying to shun its obligation to provide jobs and housing to its citizens.

The ruling party should remind themselves they were the ones “who promised housing, running water and jobs to the electorate”, Pienaar said.