By Fred Bridgland
IN ONE of the biggest land deals in African history, white South African farmers have acquired access to 40,000 square miles of land along the northern banks of the Congo River to develop as agricultural land.
The transaction, newly signed and underwritten by the African National Congress government, will see up to 1,700 farmers acquire land in the Republic of the Congo â€“ the smaller of the two Congo states, north-west of the larger Democratic Republic of the Congo â€“ on 30-year leases. There is no charge for the land. The leases are renewable, and for the first five years, the pioneers will be exempt from taxes and import duties
Andre Botha, spokesman of Agri-SA, the main South African farmersâ€™ organisation, said white agriculturalists would initially begin developing some 800 square miles of failed and derelict state farms in the poverty-stricken former French colony, also known as Congo-Brazzaville.
Seventy white farmers have already established operations in Congo-Brazzaville, but a â€œfew hundredâ€ more will soon follow, said Mr Botha. Most would not settle permanently in Congo-Brazzaville â€“ the farming operations there will mainly be extensions of core South African enterprises.White farmers in southern Africa are seen as the most technologically advanced on the continent.
Farming elsewhere in Africa is stymied by out-of-date practices and communal customs that have made it difficult to acquire land title deeds required by banks before they will advance capital.
The move of white farmers north through Africa was pioneered by Bukola Saraki, the young andÂ dynamic governor of Nigeriaâ€™s Kwara state. He gave scores of white Zimbabwean farmers thrown off their properties by President Robert Mugabe four square mile parcels of virgin bush each on the banks of the Niger River to be developed into state-of-the-art farmlands. The Zimbabweans, said Governor Saraki, were Africans with expertise that they could pass on to people whose farming practices were mired â€œat the rake-and-hoe levelâ€.
When the Congo-Brazzaville government first made its move to attract white farmers in January this year, the largely black ANC government under former President Thabo Mbeki opposed the initiative. But President Jacob Zuma, who took office in May, backed the move and opened discussions with Congo-Brazzaville to give moral and legal support to the farming adventure.
â€œI think the change of heart came when we explained (to South Africaâ€™s Agriculture Minister, Tina Joemat-Pettersson that it was not because we were negative about South Africa but positive about Africa,â€ said Theo de Jager, deputy president of Agri-SA.
Andre Botha said the Congo-Brazzaville invitation does not mean South African farmers are abandoning their country. â€œThis initiative is not a new Great Trek for farmers to run away,â€ he said. â€œOf the seventy farmers already there, no one has sold their farm in South Africa.â€
Botha said farmers had a good working relationship with the current ANC government.