Will South African Farmers Move to Georgia?

At least ten White South African farmers have already abandoned their home country in the face of offers of land and ultimate citizenship of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, one of their largest farmers’ unions has announced.
The Transvaal Agricultural Union of South Africa (TAU-SA) confirmed in a statement that their memorandum of understanding, signed with the previous Georgian government in August 2010, would still be honored by the newly-elected government in Tbilisi.

“The new government immediately confirmed the agreement with TAU SA and gave the assurance that they are obliged to honor this agreement,” the TAU-SA statement said.

“The new government adopted a new policy with respect to the ownership of agricultural land by foreigners,” the TAU-SA said.

“In future foreigners may only lease farmland on a long term basis. There are no limitations to other investment opportunities.

“For entrepreneurs, the possibilities in Georgia are virtually limitless. The limitation to farmers to acquire agricultural land could be overcome by the possible acquisition of dual citizenship which implies no limitations on purchases of land.”

The TAU-SA is currently running information tours to Georgia in cooperation with the Georgian government to allow South African investors to gain first-hand information regarding the possibilities in that country, with the next tour scheduled for September this year.

Earlier, one of the first Boer farmers to move to Georgia under the scheme, 66-year-old Piet Kemp, was quoted as saying that "I have a new life here," he explained.

"I try to make friends with all the people in Georgia, learning their culture. I have been here since 3rd of March, and I have not heard of one murder in Georgia in this time. I didn't hear about any bank robbery. I didn't hear about any one hijacking."

"There is no security of land, absolutely no security of land in South Africa," he stressed.

Kemp said that over the last decade he successfully helped hundreds of white farmers hold on to their farmland in face of legal challenges from black farm workers and squatters.  But now, he says white farmers face threats of farm seizures.

"They have done exceptionally great job over the years in South Africa, and to give them an opportunity to do the same thing here and for Georgian farmers to learn from the experience they will receive from their new neighbors, from the South African farmers," said Georgia's Canada-educated Economy Minister, Vera Kobalia.

Kobalia praises Sandra Roelofs, the Dutch-born wife of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, for promoting the program.  Dutch is the mother language of Afrikaans.

"It helped in terms of making them feel more secure in Georgia," Kobalia noted.  "There is definitely that connection, the Holland connection in Georgia."

Kemp says that Georgia's Dutch-speaking first lady impressed a visiting group of Afrikaner farmers last year.

"Sandra, she was touring a week with us," said Kemp.  "We pick[ed] grapes together. We spoke Netherlands."

Kemp believes that Afrikaners will help jump start Georgian agriculture. But he cautions that they must integrate into Georgian society.

"We must go into Georgia as Georgians - in Georgian culture, in Georgian language - so that they see us as Georgians, not as South Africans coming to Georgia," Kemp explained.

Kemp adds that he does not want his new life in Georgia to be like his old life in South Africa, where he was part of a successful minority envied by the majority population.

"I do not want to live in constant fear," the 67-year-old said emotionally as he recalled the widespread killings of other white farmers in South Africa. “We tried to defend our rights, but we lost this war."

Amid the violence, Kemp said that he felt he had no choice but to leave.

"In Georgia there is no violence, the crime rate is extremely low. So I will never go back," Kemp declared, comparing the situation here to the high violent crime rates back home, which include some 46 murders a day.

He sold his farm in South Africa's Mpumalanga province, was given Georgian citizenship in 2011 and in March that year rented 700 hectares (1,730 acres) of land in the village of Sartichala, where he now cultivates maize and wheat.

"I moved to Georgia because I see tremendous opportunities here -- there is a good climate, fertile soil and a good market," he said.

Georgian Diaspora Minister Mirza Davitaia, who is in charge of the scheme, said "it is a very important investment initiative."

"Serious capital will be invested in Georgia's agricultural sector."

South African farmers, he said, "will bring in their skills, experience and technology."

Although Georgian land is incredibly fertile and a large proportion of its population works in agriculture, more than 80 per cent of foodstuffs are imported, fuelling drastic food-price inflation.

Georgia was once one of the larders of the Soviet Union, renowned for its citrus fruits, grapes, nuts and tea, but the amount of cultivated land has diminished by 43 per cent over the last seven years.

A hasty privatisation programme after independence in the 1990s aided the decline, when small plots of state-owned land were handed to millions of farmers, saving them from starvation but creating an inefficient subsistence farming system.