They are calling it the next great trek. Almost two centuries after Boers hitched their wagons to oxen and headed inland to establish the South African republic, they are on the move again. This time, they are flying — and their destination is the whole of the African continent.
White South African farmers are now being courted by the north, by countries who believe their agricultural expertise can kickstart an agrarian revolution across the continent. They are being offered millions of hectares of allegedly virgin rainforest and bush, as well as land already farmed by smallholders or used as pastures by herders.
In the biggest deal to date, Congo-Brazzaville has offered South Africa farmers long leases on up to 10 million hectares of land, an area that includes abandoned state farms and bush in the remote southwest of the country. The first contracts, which put 88,000 hectares in the hands of 70 farmers, were signed at a ceremony in the country last month.
Meanwhile, in Mozambique, about 800 South African farmers have acquired 1 million hectares in the southern province of Gaza, thanks to an arrangement set up by sugar farmer Charl Senekal, an associate of South African President Jacob Zuma. This deal will be celebrated at a ceremony in Pretoria next month.
There have been sporadic moves north by white South African farmers since the end of apartheid, but the current migration is more organized, says Ruth Hall of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.
“South Africa is exporting [not just] its farmers, but also its value chains, to the rest of the continent,” she told a meeting on international land grabs in Brighton last week.
The mass movement is mostly organized by Agri South Africa, an association that represents 70,000 South Africa farmers. Agri South Africa president Johannes Moller made a pitch for new deals at a conference on large-scale farming in Africa, held in Cairo in April last year. Since then, Agri SA has received offers of land from 22 African countries, Hall says.