(Mlungisi Louw / Netwerk24)
  • ANC chairperson Gwede Mantashe believes portions of farms above 12,000 hectares should be expropriated without compensation.
  • Large enterprises are responsible for a huge proportion of agricultural output in South Africa.
  • But the number of farms above 12,000 hectares makes up 0.22% of all farms in SA, according to the best available numbers.

Data on land ownership in South Africa is a mess, but according to the best available data, only 0.22% of all farms – a couple of hundred in total – are over 12,000 hectares in size.

That is the maximum size for farms proposed by ANC chairperson Gwede Mantashe, above which he believes land should be expropriated without compensation.

Doing that, the numbers suggest, could have a huge impact on the value of agricultural output – but will probably have a tiny impact in terms of the total land expropriated.

See also: These 6 types of property will likely be the first expropriated - here's why

South Africa lacks such basic data as how many farms the country hosts, and who owns them. And rapid changes in land use, and subdivisions of land, has left the government despairing in its own count.

According to a government land audit based on deeds office data released in February, SA has 419,005 farms at an average of 264 hectares each. But according to 2013 research the number of commercial farms in South Africa peaked at 119,600 – in 1953.

See also: Earning you almost R375,000 per hectare, this must be SA's most profitable crop

Part of the problem is that a land parcel registered at the deeds office has little resemblance to a farm, says economist Johann Bornman.

"A farm is an economic unit, a business, that can be on more than one piece of land or on only part of a piece of land," he says.

Bornman started his own personal land audit in frustration at the poor state of data, which later turned into a formal project in partnership with AgriSA and agricultural magazine Landbouweekblad. 

And farms of over 12,000 hectares tend to be made up of multiple parcels of agricultural land, registered at the deeds office in more or less arbitrary shapes determined by historical factors.

See also: Owners have already been notified of impending land expropriation – as the US moves to build its Mexico border wall

(The 12,000 hectare number too appears arbitrary. It is not clear where it comes from, although it has been around as a policy suggestion for years.)

In order to determine how many farms – economic units – above 12,000 hectares there are in South Africa, Bornman queried two databases of land transfers going back to 1994. Between them, the two list a little over 160,000 farms of 10 hectares or more. Of those, 361 – or 0.22% – were bigger than 12,000 hectares.

Looking for farms of that size in South Africa is basically like looking for a needle in a haystack, Bornman says.

See also: A Filipino megachurch has bought over 5,000 hectares in the Free State – and is establishing ‘eco-farms’ for congregants to live on

Then, when you find them, you have land "that nobody wants, with not even a springhare or a meerkat on it", because it is somewhere like the more barren reaches of the Northern Cape.

There appears to be only limited correlation between very large farms and very large farming turnovers, with everything from irrigated vegetables to cattle feeding lots taking up relatively little space to achieve huge turnover.

Just what that correlation is could become a newly fraught political point, because all data sets agree at least that there is some serious concentration in the agricultural sector. According to the last available agricultural survey from Statistics South Africa, the 100 largest agricultural enterprises in SA contributed just under 30% of the entire sector's income.

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