Land matters… and mentorship.

Land really matters. It’s a highly emotional issue, and, in our collective reverie, land means home, dignity, wealth and opportunity. Land redistribution is long overdue, but we need immediate clarity from government on the processes and protections that will be put in place to safeguard this important period of land redistribution and restitution. And, as ownership of agricultural land may be transferred to new, unskilled beneficiaries, we need mentorship now more than ever.

I recently read an online article that claimed that the majority of people don’t actually want to own rural land; they don’t want to be farmers, because it is one of the toughest professions in the world, has always implied an inter-generational transfer of knowledge, and – with changing climate patterns – has become increasingly scientific and technical. If I were offered a farm today, I would probably run a mile. I wouldn’t know where to begin, and would probably run it into the ground in a matter of months. Having said that, however, people living in rural areas are the most exploited, marginalised and disadvantaged in the South African economy, and holding the title deeds to their own land may serve as a spur to upliftment.

But the transfer of productive, arable land needs to be done in a systematic, co-operative and rational way. And government needs to show its hand now, and provide a detailed road map so that we don’t open up the space for inflammatory, populist and divisive rhetoric that will only take us down the road to ruin. The solution, of course, is mentorship, something which I am passionate about. Take the celebrated case of Errol April. In 2013, the gnarled, hardy MK veteran put in an application to the Department of Rural Development for a farming project. His application was successful, and, with financial director of the Two-a-Day Group, Philip Toerien, as his mentor, April took a dysfunctional, debt-ridden farm and turned it around completely.

The point is land transfer needs to be something of a cooperative joint venture, with experienced farmers, financial managers and technicians training and up-skilling new owners, and with government perhaps holding back title transfer until the land is proven to be productive and viable. Otherwise we’ll see a repeat of the collapse of flagship farms like the Zebediela citrus estates in the early 2000s.We need to bring back the apprenticeship system, and encourage a new generation of farmers to take up the challenge and feed the nation.

But, much as the land issue is so highly charged, we need cool heads, collaborative ventures and a supportive mindset. What we don’t need is fear-mongering, inflammatory rhetoric and unrealisable expectations.

Rural land reclamation aside, the reality is that about two-thirds of South Africa’s population live in urban areas, and that figure is set to increase. Urban areas are perceived as the centres of opportunity and wealth, and, indeed, are the driver of any economy. What people in urban areas want is home ownership. As humans, we all crave some sense of security, and home ownership provides a very tangible sense of permanence. Home ownership also has a very real knock-on effect, and creates wealth over time: Once people own a home, they can make money. They can up their mortgage and buy a car, rent their home out as passive income, or leave it to their children.

What we need is an RDP-type housing programme that will provide attractive, cleverly-designed, affordable homes for urban dwellers. (I envisage a nationwide competition held across all technical colleges to design a low-cost, eco-friendly and trendy housing unit.)  Government can incentivise this programme with a first-time homeowner’s subsidy. Homes could be sold for between R400 000 – R500 000 per unit, and could be funded by the banks, with government covering loan repayment defaulters. The idea would be to create suburbs, not townships, with parks and libraries, and with well-developed infrastructure and facilities. Think of the job creation!

We also need to tap into the millennial mindset of homeownership. Millennials want lock-up-and-go homes, and they want to work, play and live in one area (I’ve talked elsewhere about millennials not wanting cars and inconvenience, but preferring experiences over possessions.) This kind of housing project could match millennial needs quite nicely.

But before we can embark on any of these ambitious projects, we have to bridge the gap between the idea of land – that highly-charged, highly-emotive concept – and the practical reality of land ownership and utilisation. And we need seasoned mentors to help us do it.

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