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As elections loom, South Africans call for faster land reform

Government programmes meant to turn small black-owned operations like hers into sustained, mid-sized agricultural businesses are well-intentioned but too slow, she suggests.

A woman works the land on a farm. Pictures: Sethembiso Zulu/EWN

JOHANNESBURG - 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’ cooperative 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 like hers into sustained, mid-sized agricultural businesses are well-intentioned but too slow, she suggests.

“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 in South Africa, where racial inequality remains entrenched more than two decades after the end of apartheid when millions among the black majority were dispossessed of their land by a white minority.

The issue has been fought over in the run-up to 8 May parliamentary and provincial 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-chairwoman of BlueDisa, a cooperative 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, Sidumo says. They trace the co-op’s legal and financial journey since the Department of Public Works first granted them access to the land.

ABANDONED BY WHITE OWNERS

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 200-hectare farm, in a lower working-class neighbourhood of Lawley south of Johannesburg where half the households are shacks, was abandoned by its white owners a decade ago.

The cooperative 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.

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