By Ed Stoddard
LOSKOP, South Africa (Reuters) - New farmers are turning the soil to profit in South Africa's old tribal homelands as Pretoria speeds the transfer of land from whites to blacks.
Land is an emotive issue in South Africa, with most remaining in white hands 21 years after the end of apartheid despite the ruling African National Congress's efforts at redistribution.
The rural homelands, however, are held in trust by tribal authorities and are not on the government policy radar screen as it focuses on dealing with white-owned commercial farms.
Known as Bantustans under the apartheid regime, different tribes were confined to them but they were abolished with the end of white minority rule.
Most rural South Africans still reside in such areas, and partnerships between locals and agri-business on the underutilized soil may provide an alternative to the ANC's model.
Jabulani Mbele, 64, is one black farmer who is making the transition from spartan subsistence to marketing cash crops, assisted by commercial agriculture.
Standing amid rows of maize in the old Zulu homeland of KwaZulu, he told Reuters he expected to get 7 tonnes a hectare when he harvests in a few weeks' time - an excellent yield in drought-hit South Africa.
"I built these with the money from these fields," he said, pointing to the homes on his plot.
Mbele has been taking part in a project to help subsistence farmers become agricultural entrepreneurs sponsored by Grain SA, a grouping of mostly white commercial farmers.
Subsistence farmers in the area 300 km (180 miles) south of Johannesburg have been introduced to new techniques and the use of genetically-modified crops. Soil samples are sent for testing to decide what nutrients are required. The emerging farmers have also been taught marketing.
Alpheus Mnculwane, 67, said he had more than doubled his yields, reaping 20 tonnes last year of white maize used for human consumption and yellow maize for animal feed.
Diversifying, he sold most of the white maize but kept the yellow to feed his chickens, which he sells live at a local market.
"I'm going to have an extra big batch to sell next month on Easter Friday," he said.
CALORIES TO CAPITAL
Standing in his yard is his new planter, which he bought for 40,000 rand ($3,275). Mnculwane used savings because those working communal land cannot access credit without collateral - one obstacle faced by farmers in the old homelands.
Expansion hinges on permission from the local chief. Farmers in communal areas can also cut deals with neighbors not using land allocated to them by tribal authority, but there is no private ownership in a formal sense.
The Ingonyama Trust, which administers 2.8 million hectares in the former Zulu homeland, prefers to lease land or allow those who already live on plots to work it.
In the apartheid past, the farmers in such areas were cut off from wider markets and confined to household production.
Under the Grain SA project, more than 3,500 subsistence farmers have been trained to turn their crop into capital as well as calories.
"Most of the guys in the project used to grow maize for household consumption. Now they are making money as well," said Jurie Mentz, a Grain SA trainer.
About 8.2 million hectares of land in South Africa have been transferred since 1994, a third of the 30 percent targeted under a "willing buyer-willing seller" scheme and a parallel process of claims by those dispossessed under white rule.
The ANC said it planned to speed up the pace of land redistribution by capping ownership at a maximum of 12,000 hectares or two farms and barring foreigners from owning agricultural land.
It has also floated a vague and poorly explained idea of forcing farmers to sell 50 percent of their land to workers.
Analysts have said this is populism aimed at shoring up support with the ANC's rural political base.
Critics also say many of the transferred farms have failed as newcomers have lacked the capital and skills needed to compete in South Africa's sophisticated agricultural sector.
Another obstacle to the creation of a black farming class
is an aging farmer population at a time when South Africa is fast urbanizing as many blacks leave the homelands to which they were previously confined.
In 1980, 57 percent of South Africa's population was rural, now it is 37 percent.
Mnculwane and Mbele both have sons who have sought work in the cities or nearby hotels. None have stayed to farm.
"They don't see the wealth that is in the soil," Mbele said.
(Editing by James Macharia and Angus MacSwan)