Rethinking Agriculture in South Africa – Constraints and Opportunities

By William Beinart, Associate, African Studies Centre, University of Oxford

PLAAS at the University of the Western Cape organised a very valuable and successful conference on Rethinking Agriculture 11-13th October 2016. This response is my personal perspective on papers given at the conference, drawing a little on related research. As there were parallel sessions, I did not hear all of the papers. My notes are partial even for the sessions that I did attend, so this cannot pretend to be a full summary. Presentations focused largely on the future of smallholders, but there were also important papers on large-scale commercial enterprises.

My response is shaped by a concern with production, employment and income opportunities in the rural areas. It is equally shaped by the urgency of keeping capital, investment and skills on the land – as well as stimulating innovation. The logic of these responses and recommendations is to maximise state expenditure on the poorest rural communities in the country in the areas where they already hold land.

My impression from conference proceedings was that production in commercial agriculture was, with some exceptions, expanding and surprisingly buoyant in view of the uncertainties for this sector. But the information on smallholder production is uneven, and less clear; it suggests a decline – at least until very recently. This raises important issues around the direction of land reform and agricultural policy more generally.

Land reform has, for the past two decades, primarily focused on political aims – to redress injustices of the past. My own view is that agricultural production should now be a priority. If my understanding of the material presented at the conference is correct then the implication is that commercial farming operations should, as far as possible, be given greater certainty that can encourage investment.

A further implication is that government, NGOs and private sector agencies should prioritise tenure upgrading, agricultural assistance, education and extension to the existing, and already expanding, smallholder areas. This, rather than additional land, is the critical gap for smallholders. Subsidised land transfers should and will continue but these should be gradual with an emphasis on retaining investment and productive capacity. This approach is likely to maximise rural investment and livelihoods, as well as the diversity of enterprises in rural areas. A fast-track land reform is very unlikely to benefit South Africa’s rural poor.

A persistent theme in presentations concerned the lack of adequate statistics; agriculture is not covered by the Statistics Act and so collection cannot be enforced. With respect to smallholders, no systematic production and ownership material is collected at a national level. Ben Cousins noted that some general data is recorded in the quarterly labour force and the general household surveys but they do not even give an adequate picture of the number of smallholder families: the first suggests 1.4 million engaged in “subsistence farming” and the second 2.6 million. (“Subsistence” in this usage is misleading.

It does not imply that that such smallholders meet their food needs from farming but simply that they produce primarily for family consumption and not for the market.) With regard to the quantities produced, local studies and surveys are the only guide. The position is a little clearer in respect of commercial farms. No full agricultural census has been taken since 1993 and one speaker joked that we “have no clue what is going on”. But there have been some subsequent partial counts and also figures from producer groups and national estimates.

Some further clarification of terms may be valuable. The boundaries of these different categories – commercial farmers and smallholders – are blurred. Broadly speaking the figures for “commercial” farmers seem to apply to privately-owned land. This may include some land transferred to Communal Property Associations (CPAs) through government land reform programmes, said to be about 7 percent of land at the time of the conference in October 2016. (In 2017, the Minister for Rural Development and Land Reform announced that 9 percent of land had been transferred – see below). Most commercial farms are still owned by white individuals or families, but significant areas are owned by companies and, in addition to the CPAs, some black owners have purchased land privately as individuals.

Smallholders are largely black and largely hold land under different forms of customary or communal tenure in the former homelands. However, the term is also sometimes applied to those who collectively own land through CPAs and to a limited number of black as well as white private owners.

There is apparently no national record of racial ownership of land because private transactions are not included in the figures for land reform. (AgriSA published a land audit that includes such figures in November 2017 – see below.)

Commercial farms

The evidence presented at the conference suggests robust growth in commercial, large-scale agriculture over the past couple of decades, despite insecurity, the decline in subsidies and the uncertainties of land reform. It is often argued that farm ownership has become more concentrated over the past few decades (and in fact since the early 1950s when the number of commercial farms peaked at about 120,000).

Frikkie Liebenberg noted that the figure of 39,000 is now used for commercial farmers, compared to about 63,000 in 1993. However, the figure of 39,000 is based on returns of those registered for VAT with a turnover of more than R500,000. A number of farmers either have a smaller turnover or sell informally and thus disguise their income. (Commercial farmers, he noted, are generally reluctant to give farm level information.)

Such farming units may include black beneficiaries of land reform. Johann Kirsten added that it is difficult to get VAT registration and the SARS is not pushing it; he thought 70,000 was a more likely number for commercial farming units. (This number was reported in Landbou Weekblad, 28.10.2016)

Although there has been concentration of ownership, especially in the drier areas dominated by wildlife and livestock farms, fragmentation may be evident where intensive farming is possible or where land transfers have taken place. High values can be produced on small farms with respect to products such as wine, table grapes, vegetables and poultry. Diversification into tourism and an increasing number of leisure or lifestyle farms is also part of the picture.

If agricultural production is not the major income of a landowner, then there is less pressure to expand. In a localised Karoo study, Beatrice Conradie found that average farm size had increased from about 5,600 to 9,000ha between 1993 and 2015 (Karoo Conference, Stellenbosch, 2016). She also suggested an average turnover of R817,000 a year with the implication that a significant proportion fell below R500,000. 12 per cent of land was owned by lifestyle farmers who did not need to generate their primary income from their farms.

Ferdi Meyer presented statistics suggesting 2.5 per cent annual growth in the value of production on privately-owned farms over the 10 years to 2015, which is less than China at 4 percent and Chile at 3.5 percent but more than major agricultural producers such as the United States, Russia and Mexico (and certainly more than the UK).

This is an extraordinary figure for a sector often seen as insecure and contracting; if correct then agricultural output and investment is more than holding its own in the South African economy. He noted that this expansion peaked in 2014, before declining as a result of drought.[2] But the harvest, especially of maize, in 2016-7 was the largest ever so that the upward curve has likely been restored. His analysis contrasts sharply with the more negative picture painted by John Sender – although some of the latter’s figures cover a longer term.[3]

Output of a few very significant crops, such as wheat and groundnuts, did not increase in this period. Poultry, now accounting for the highest proportion of meat consumption, also struggled in the face of imports and feed costs. Wheat, rice, palm oil, poultry, soya and tobacco are imported annually – with a large growth in demand for animal feed. Maize was imported in 2015-6.

However, over the 10 years to 2016, South Africa produced an annual average of over 12 million metric tons (2007-2016) of maize compared with 9 million in the previous decade (1997-2006). The 2017 harvest was a record, at over 16 million tonnes, aided by good rains and favourable prices in the drought; prices have since declined sharply but South Africa will be a net exporter in 2017.

Over the past five years statistics from various sources show significant growth especially in the production of high value crops such as canola, citrus, soya, macadamias, table grapes, avocados and deciduous fruit. The area planted with tomatoes seems to have expanded quickly from about 5,000ha in 2007 to 12,000ha in 2012 and avocado from about 7,500 to 11,000ha over the same period.

Specialist greenhouse crops such as berries and cut flowers are taking off but not effectively recorded. Olives are also a growth crop. A new plantation near De Rust, first making oil in 2011, reached 118 ha by 2016 and yielded nearly 10 percent of South Africa’s total (Landbou Weekblad, 28.10.2016). Exports have started and there is a growing market within South Africa, still largely supplied from Europe.

Citrus, according to Amelia Genis, was the most valuable export crop at R13 billion from 68,000 ha with another 11,000 ha planted; about two thirds is exported. Given that trees take over five years to bear fruit, this investment in new plantations is striking. Adetola Okunlola discussed deciduous fruits, especially table grapes, as a major growth area, with over R10 billion exported. Wine occupies 100,000 ha (compared to 1 million in Spain), with 10 percent growth per year to 2015.

The number of producers has declined from about 4,300 to 3,000 over those 10 years but the quantity risen from about 630 to 970 million litres (Figures from web). Exports quadrupled over 20 years and, although the pace has ebbed in the last few years, the value went up from R7 billion in 2013 to R9 billion in 2015. Citrus and subtropical fruit, deciduous fruit, and wine give very high values on small areas of land.

Most farming corporation and families own the land on which they produce, but not all. An example was given of a mohair producer who owned 6,000 ha but used 57,000 ha.

In parts of the Karoo, land prices are pushed up beyond their production value for extensive stock farming, either by game farming or by owners who are partly lifestyle landowners. The cost of land may be high for production but it is low for those with wealth from elsewhere, especially foreign purchasers with strong currencies.

The drought disabled a number of commercial farmers and there were reports in the papers of bankruptcies and attempted sales. Better rainfall in 2016-7 and in the 2017 planting season may modify the picture but there remains agricultural land for sale in South Africa.

Four papers by researchers at PLAAS (Monieba Isaacs, Jeanette Clarke, Amelia Genis, Adetola Okunlola) explored the potential for employment in fishing and commercial agriculture.

Statisticians agree that agricultural employment as a whole has declined over the past two decades but the figures are not clear and don’t adequately distinguish between permanent, full-time and temporary, seasonal jobs. Expanding output has probably not led to much new permanent employment although each product has different demands. But high value agricultural commodities remain major employers.

In citrus, for example, there are about 85,000 workers but only about 10,000 are permanent because the major demand is for seasonal picking. In other spheres of citrus farming, methods are becoming more mechanised. Nevertheless, the expanding area under citrus is likely to create some new jobs (6,500 was mentioned). Other major commodities have a higher percentage of permanent workers. Taken together with citrus, deciduous fruit (roughly 110,000 employed; 47,000 on table grapes); wine (300,000 directly and indirectly including retail and tourism – figure from web); sugar (79,000 direct jobs – from web) and forestry (95,000 and considerable additional downstream employment) are major employers.

Jeanette Clarke suggested that forestry was becoming more mechanised, especially bark-stripping, which used to provide seasonal jobs for rural women. However, it was hard, low-paid work, which could cause physical damage to those who did it over a long period, and these may not be the kind of jobs worth protecting.

A few large corporate enterprises survive within the former homelands, products of ambitious Development Corporation projects in the apartheid era, such as Magwa tea estate in Lusikisiki, Eastern Cape. It was immobilised by a destructive strike in 2011, but has been revived by a government subsidy reported to be over R100 million. It formerly employed over 1,000 and provides valuable, though poorly paid local jobs especially for women.

In general agriculture employs a greater percentage of people than its share of GDP (though generally for lower wages), often in rural areas where there is little other employment. In some areas, notably Limpopo and Mpumalanga, employers rely partly on non-South African migrants for some unskilled work; Western and Northern Cape fruit growers depend partly on migrant workers from the Eastern Cape. Farmers generally pursue mechanisation in order to avoid the cost of rising wages and responsibilities as employers.

Nevertheless, even if employment is not expanding as fast as production, reduction in the enterprises devoted to such agricultural commodities could have a marked impact on rural livelihoods in the areas affected. There was some discussion of the persistence of tough and inadequate conditions on farms; wages are clearly lower than in many other sectors. Papers did not compare conditions of employment on commercial with smallholder farms and there seem to be few figures for the latter.

Expanding game farms, national parks and other protected areas tend to reduce farm employment, and possibly local employment as a whole, but their role in overall investment, income generation and employment may be more complex in that they create opportunities in research, environmental management, tourism, services, transport and supply. In these spheres, the boundaries between agriculture, tourism/leisure and transport are porous.

Nimrod Zalk stressed that the boundaries between agriculture and manufacturing are also blurred – and that the value of production and employment “downstream” tend to be underestimated. Without agricultural production, agro-processing would contract. He argued that agricultural policy and land reform should focus on high value crops that created more income and employment in processing.

Counter-arguments suggested that constraints on water supply may make it very difficult to expand high-value crops that required irrigation. Some commercial operations – forestry was mentioned – cannot now expand further because they have reached the limits of their water quotas; they may, however, be able to use smallholder water quotas in partnerships.

All agreed that private landowners of agricultural land were highly differentiated. In some spheres, especially forestry (70 percent) and sugar, corporate groups were responsible for the bulk of production. Even where they are not, producer groups co-operate around research. Farming families also sometimes form companies and corporate bodies, which facilitate continuity without subdivision and provide economic benefits as well as opportunities for members of extended families to be involved – including work off the farm.

Various speakers focused on high levels of concentration, probably still increasing, in supply chains and processing. Antoine Ducastel thought that this may help to keep food prices lower, although not all agreed. There is certainly space for more competition and especially more local and national production of upstream inputs such as fodder, veterinary medicines, machinery and chemicals – an example of local production of oil cakes for fodder was discussed.

I did not hear sustained discussion of technological innovation that might benefit smaller producers. Smallholders are discouraged by the bottlenecks around access to affordable machinery, such as tractors for ploughing or irrigation equipment. They tend to pay more for inputs – from fertiliser to veterinary medicines – because they buy in small quantities from retailers.

Various figures were offered to capture the scale of differentiation: Cousins argued that 20 percent of commercial farmers produced 80 percent of the value of agricultural production and Kirsten that 50 percent of farmers produced 93 percent of value. These figures clearly have implications for land reform in the sense that the value of agricultural production overall may not suffer greatly if land which is not highly productive is transferred. However, it is very difficult to steer land reform in this way and some of the farmers producing lower values are on land with very limited potential.

In sum, production figures show considerable investment, innovation and diversification over the last decade on commercial farms, for domestic as well as export products, and also for new rurally based enterprises such as nursery and seed production, tourism, leisure activities, environmental initiatives, wildlife breeding and hunting. Change in the agricultural sector is quite rapid and space is opening up in unpredictable areas.

This evidence suggests the importance of creative rethinking of land reform around existing structures – facilitating production and deracialisation rather than prioritising a rapid expansion of land transfers to undercapitalized smallholders. Corporate enterprises may be advantageous for deracialisation, while still retaining the organisation and skills required for sophisticated capitalist agricultural production.


Rauri Alcock gave the most forceful paper on the future of smallholding and his analysis serves as an ideal type of one route of change. Speaking in the panel on Water, Drought and Climate, and from his experiences in a goat project in Msinga, KwaZulu-Natal, he began with environmental problems which he considered “bigger than any agricultural issue”.

This part of KZN, little more than 100 km from the coast, is getting hotter and drier with less grass and more bush. (Bush encroachment is more general and related both to changing land use and, William Bond argues, to global warming and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.) Drought in 2015-6 reduced cattle numbers and he thought that they were unlikely to recover. Cultivation is also limited.

In his view, there is no longer the climatic base for the old African smallholder maize and cattle economy that coexisted alongside migrant labour for more than a century. His experience points to a future for smallholders essentially based around a goat and chicken economy. Goats are hardier, better adapted to drier climates and to browse.

They might partly control bush encroachment. Goats are less easily stolen than sheep; they require less labour in that they “self herd” and generally return to their kraals in the evening. Child and youth labour for herding has diminished as education has become near to universal. Self-herding animals are advantageous for communities on customary land and Communal Property Associations because families lack labour and don’t generally have the resources or commitment to maintain fencing.

This shift in the “primary base” of the rural economy to goats and chickens, he argued, both reflects social and environmental realities and may contribute to undermining rural patriarchy and inequality. Rural women can own and work with goats, which thrive in small herds and hence are appropriate for poorer families.

There is less reluctance to sell and slaughter them and they can fetch a good return – over R1,000 a head. They don’t need to be of high quality because they are generally sold in local informal markets where demand still exceeds supply. Cattle by contrast require more grass and water and they also perpetuate older hierarchies; sales are often a last resort.

Agricultural experts are not generally keen on goats but they could be effective in poverty alleviation for the poorest families and there is plenty of scope to improve production. Women and youths, he thought, are particularly receptive to advice and potentially key agents of rural change.

Problems with this analysis include, firstly, that it may overestimate the direct effects of climate change. The decline of smallholder cultivation preceded climate impacts and has other, socio-economic, causes. Climate change has not prevented increases in output in agriculture where capital and investment are possible – even in some branches of dryland agriculture.

Secondly, it is by no means clear that goats are always great survivors. Where tick-borne diseases such as heart water are rife on the coast, they seem to be as vulnerable as cattle – possibly because goats are less likely to be dipped and treated. On a national scale, there are still probably more cattle than goats. In the multi-sited interviews for the book African Local Knowledge, Karen Brown and I found considerable smallholder commitment to cattle in the Eastern Cape and North West Province. Thirdly, a key question is: what do unherded goats preclude?

They may produce significant value, and they can of course be farmed alongside cattle and chickens. But they may also undermine the capacity to sustain other forms of production, notably gardens and the remnants of arable production (see Beinart and de la Hey below). If goats rule everywhere, who is going to grow grain, vegetables and fruit? Will an even greater percentage of these commodities have to be produced on a declining number of tightly-fenced, large commercial farms?

Mike Kenyon pointed to the likely stability of livestock numbers in the former homelands of the Eastern Cape and a considerable take off rate, cautiously estimated at 14 per cent per year of cattle when slaughter for the “ritual economy” is included. Like Alcock he emphasises the hidden value of livestock in the smallholder economy.

There is also potential because demand for meat cannot be met by local production and commercial farmers tap into this market. Kenyon does not suggest a particular weighting towards goats but argues that both in the former homelands and in transferred land, livestock are dominant. A conservative estimate of the value of smallholder production in the Eastern Cape may be R1 billion a year and possibly R3 billion. (14 percent of 2 million cattle at about R5,000 per head = R1.4 billion plus other livestock.)

The tendency for smallholders to focus more on livestock and withdraw from cultivation was also evident in two Eastern Cape case studies presented at the conference. Farai Mtero spoke about his research in Matatiele where he thinks that Betterment had a major effect in undermining agriculture – especially because it reduced the area and diversity of fields. More generally, his informants saw field agriculture as risky and expensive.

He confirmed a growing literature that most smallholders have turned to smaller gardens around their homesteads rather than arable fields. In two out of three villages, 80 percent of households were still cultivating gardens but in one village, he thought that environmental constraints were the major factor in only 28 percent cultivating gardens. Mtero confirmed a point that Colin Murray made about the Lesotho village in which he worked in the 1970s: wealthier people (and the poorest) tend to remain more involved in rural production.

Beinart and de la Hey underlined this route of social change. Total arable output probably increased in former Transkei until about the 1960s, maybe longer, but has almost certainly declined since the 1980s. The great majority of families have withdrawn from cultivating fields over the last couple of decades.

Their interviewees cited many reasons. One major factor is their inability to protect crops from wildlife and livestock. Another is, as Mtero notes, their perception that field cultivation is economically risky. (Siyabu Manona and Hebinck and Lent have developed detailed examinations of smallholder perceptions of risk in the Eastern Cape.)

Perhaps most emphasis was laid in interviews on the lack of family labour despite high unemployment. Most households do cultivate some maize and vegetables in smaller gardens adjacent to their homesteads but they purchase much of their food – perhaps more than 75 per cent of needs on average. The livestock economy remains lively although there are probably fewer cattle and goats in the village than there were a few decades ago.

The overall picture from these papers is a decisive shift away from smallholder arable production, though not all draw the same conclusions from the evidence. As Alcock and Kenyon emphasise, the value of smallholder livestock economy has been underestimated and it is inadequately recorded in agricultural statistics.

The area of land available to African livestock owners has increased significantly since 1994, probably by more than 50 percent, and much of it in the area of South Africa that has rainfall over 500mm. But there are no clear statistics on the implications for livestock numbers and production.

Other presenters found “pockets of dynamism” in smallholder cultivation – particularly around gravity fed irrigation schemes. Ben Cousins has made a detailed study of the successful irrigation project at Tugela Ferry in KZN which supplies a thriving local market as well as vegetables for urban markets transported by bakkies.

Seventy percent of the commercial farmers at the scheme are women with an average age of 58. More generally, conference participants felt that local food systems were “bigger and more vibrant than we think” and pointed to the growth of informal food supplies and markets, especially in Limpopo and KZN.

For example, local slaughter is deeply entrenched and also reduces costs by bypassing abattoirs and retailers – although there are health and hygiene risks. It is not regulated (except indirectly by customary practices) and not taxed. (To reach the income tax threshold of R75,000 about 10 head of cattle would have to be sold a year, but it is unlikely that such transaction would be recorded.) Ben Cousins argues more generally that the value of, and employment in, smallholder agricultural is underestimated.[4]

Paul Hebinck explored “styles” of farming in Willowvale, a coastal district in the Eastern Cape, and suggests the interviewees expressed a strong sense that “farming is our life” and “it saves money”. He cited examples of collective endeavour – wealthier people in the village, notably a healer with a tractor, ploughed for others.

There was an interesting debate around issues of culture and style – as opposed to economic motivations – in explanations of continuing smallholder production. Derick Fay has also suggested a strong “affective” attachment to arable fields, even when they were not being used. Perhaps the more interesting point is how to link such explanations. Style alone does not easily account for historical trends.

A key question that cannot definitively be answered from any of the presentations is whether the value of smallholder production in the former homelands and on transferred land is declining. Equally, there is neither the statistical nor empirical material available to clarify whether the additional c.9 per cent of agricultural land transferred through restitution and redistribution programmes is being used effectively for agriculture.

It would be attractive to find evidence for success or even stability but overall evidence – with limited local exceptions – suggests that smallholder production has probably declined over the last few decades, even if it is underestimated. Many argue that the relationship between “rural” and “agrarian” has largely broken down in the former homelands – even where families can still be described as smallholders in the sense that they have access to arable fields and communal grazing.

However, this is not necessarily irreversible. A significant exception may be in the sphere of private sector joint ventures, some of which Donna Hornby assessed in her contribution. These are now very diverse – with different variants in sugar, forestry, dairying and wool. The sugar outgrowers scheme, started by the industry and supported by the KwaZulu homeland government in the 1970s, has probably been the most successful over the long term.

The number involved have, however, reduced from a peak of over 50,000 to about 30,000. Forestry currently seems most promising. Only 4 percent of forestry land is currently held by 30-40,000 smallholders whose trees largely go into charcoal and wood chip markets. Jeanette Clarke estimated that Eastern Cape outgrower production could expand by 100,000 ha and KZN by 40,000 ha. Richards Bay has a thriving woodchip facility for export to Japan and China. In Umzimkulu (now in KZN) a Mondi-sponsored scheme works on 1,320 ha of forest in a communal area creating 100 jobs. Some of the profits go into community development, including ecotourism and agriculture. In the Eastern Cape, invasive black wattle that grows on commonages is harvested and processed into charcoal for export to East Asia and the Middle East.

An alternative system is sponsored by the National Woolgrowers Association in the communal and transferred areas where extension officers provide training and advice on improving wool output amongst sheep-owners. This has been highly successful in the Eastern Cape; those within the scheme have benefited from an overall growth in income from R4 million to R150 million in less than 20 years. Wool is sold through formal channels and the wool from African smallholders and communal areas has gradually moved closer to the average value by weight realized by commercial growers.

Land restitution is resulting in a variety of leasebacks where successful claimants gain ownership of the land but lease it back to established or new commercial operators. The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform is keen on such arrangements especially where restituted land has been intensively developed and has valuable resources such as citrus plantations.

Such arrangements were also the basis for restitution of the upmarket private game reserve, Mala Mala. Makuleke involved a similar, earlier arrangement with SANParks. Corporate agrarian enterprises are now also moving into existing areas of customary landholding. In Willowvale, the local traditional council, together with BEE entrepreneurs and a specialist private company, is planting macadamia nut trees on a large scale.

Participants did not agree about the best route forward. Clemence Rusenga argued against trying to keep large-scale capitalist enterprises intact and imposing them on communities when land was transferred. A good deal of recent literature is critical of “partnerships” because they are seen to perpetuate “power asymmetries” and a continuity in the structure of agriculture.[5]

However, Tshililo Manenzhe, working for Parliament, noted that the costs of acquiring land was high and there was generally not capital available for investment as well. Recipients seldom had capital or skills to maintain production. Partnerships with the private sector may be the best way of generating income and employment.

Manenzhe and others analysed some of the problems encountered. In partnerships, tensions were evident in that CPAs wanted to redistribute a greater percentage of profits while strategic partners responsible for production wanted to invest (or increase management fees). He described one example where CPA members, who – as owners and beneficiaries – had access to jobs on the transferred land, but went on strike because of disagreements over wages and the distribution of income.

As in the case of outgrower schemes, much depends on whether the contracts and management practices provide sufficient incentive for all involved as well as sufficient for reinvestment into the farming enterprise. The pressure for redistribution of farming profits to poor families is a major factor inhibiting successful commercial farming on land taken over by communities. Yet partnership arrangements provide a valuable route for retaining capital and skills on agricultural land.

Michael Aliber and others focused on the potential for expanding irrigation. The National Development Plan ambitiously estimates 500,000 ha could be added to the existing 1,300,000ha of irrigated land by 2030. No-one thought that this could be achieved. However, there is roughly 110,000 ha of land in irrigation schemes, many of them in the former homelands, that are not operating effectively. Efforts have been made to regenerate some of the schemes, with limited success, and Aliber estimated it would cost R15 billion to do so.

Some progress has been made in identifying the longer term problems on these sites and whether once-off expenditure would resolve them. Even where they have been revitalised, some smallholder irrigation projects have been limited by management difficulties, uncertainty as to whether they would be publicly or privately run, incapacity or unwillingness by landholders to pay irrigation levies, and also by local political conflicts. Fodder plots rather than high value food crops have been most successful. In some cases, commercial producers have taken over plots in exchanges for rentals to the landholders.

New projects are more expensive and irrigation is largely feasible as a byproduct of multipurpose schemes. The Mzimvubu dam in the Eastern Cape is likely to cost R12 billion but its main function is to generate hydroelectric power and drinking water; a projected 1,700ha of land will be irrigated.

Finding routes forward on existing smallholder projects remains a priority. The Tugela Ferry example, though untypical in its success, also demonstrates potential for creating employment. Despite water deficits elsewhere, there is still scope for increased water capture along the eastern seaboard of the country, both at the household level and in dams. Contributors to the conference stressed the potential value of localised water harvesting for garden production.

The significance of peri-urban sites in land reform also came up in discussion. Many rural families prioritise access to urban economies and peri-urban residential sites are arguably the most important and most neglected element of land reform. RDP housing sites are generally too small for urban agriculture.

Even a limited enlargement in planning such settlements to about 0.1 ha per stand could provide opportunities for intensive food production close to urban markets, in areas where water may be available. Demand for accommodation in the large conurbations, however, creates attractive incentives for owners to rent out rather than cultivate part of their plots.

Ndiko Ludidi, speaking in the climate change panel, emphasised the importance of scientific research and biotechnology for smallholders as well as commercial farmers. The drought of 2015-6 underlined South Africa’s precarious water supplies. Maize, the most widespread crop, is water hungry. He argued both for genetically modified maize that was more water efficient and expansion of more drought-tolerant sorghum. (Production of sorghum on large farms did expand in 2017.)

Over 80 percent of South African maize is already GM seed (and 95 per cent of soya). Ludidi also argued for publicly controlled breeding, including non-GM strategies, so that seed would not be monopolised by private corporations such as Monsanto. In the discussion, reservations were articulated about the expansion of sorghum; a major reason for caution is the difficulty of protecting the crop against birds. Percentage losses to birds may be higher than those of maize.

The issue of marketing smallholder produce came up in various discussions. This is not generally a constraint on production. Firstly, within the communal areas, where so small a proportion of food is locally grown, local markets are available.

The figure of 300,000 tons of white maize “imported” annually into the Eastern Cape was quoted a number of times, and replacing this with local produce would provide enormous opportunities to growers. There is enough land available to smallholders already to grow this amount. Livestock seem to fetch good prices in informal markets even if they would not be of sufficient quality to sell to butcheries.

Commercial producers and smallholders are not generally in competition. Prices for major commodities are largely set internationally. Local markets for specific commodities can be glutted occasionally, especially when large-scale producers sell off low grade fruit and vegetables through informal channels.

But smallholders often supply different, more local, markets and in more informal ways. Where they have produce to sell at competitive rates, then they can attract bakkie traders. Cousins illustrates this for the Tugela Ferry vegetable producers and Beinart and Wotshela for informal collecting and marketing of prickly pear in the Eastern Cape.[6]

Smallholders find it difficult to enter formal markets, for example supermarket supply, although participants mentioned that independent businesses under the SPAR umbrella are more open to local suppliers. Smallholders face problems in providing the expected quality and regularity of supply as well as meeting health standards for livestock. They are, however, incorporated into formal supply chains through outgrower schemes, for example sugar and wool.

Some implications for policy

One implication of the papers is that there is great scope for innovative thinking and projects in areas already occupied by black landholders in the former homeland areas or on land recently transferred through government schemes and private transactions. This now constitutes over 25 percent of agricultural land (13-15 percent in the former homelands plus about 9 percent transferred land, plus purchases) much of it in areas with over 500mm rainfall. In its recent land audit, the most thorough so far, AgriSA calculates that 29 percent of agricultural land is now held by black South Africans and perhaps 46 percent in relation to land potential.[7]

Effective projects and “pockets of dynamism” were reported during the conference and these may be guides to unlocking the productive potential of such areas. This is surely the first priority for the government, working with private sector and NGOs.

In one of the final sessions, discussion focused on “multifunctionality”, or broad-based rural development, with strategies for overall livelihood generation, rather than simply agricultural production, in impoverished rural districts. This is of course recognised by government and has been central to debates about Development for a few decades. In a perverse way, it was promoted by the apartheid government, which invested heavily in policies of industrial decentralisation as well as irrigation and plantation projects. Multifunctionality is clearly a good thing but the term is so broad that it is not particularly useful as a strategy.

Especially in the northern provinces, mining – largely controlled by external enterprises – is transforming some rural areas; is this part of multifunctionality? The benefits are often skewed. How far should the state be responsible for initiating non-agricultural schemes?

There is probably already a considerable transfer of wealth from the major metros to the rural areas and from Gauteng and Western Cape to some of the other provinces through grants, projects and government services. What are the limits to such transfers? Perhaps the single most important strategy mentioned would be to invest more heavily into rural schools and to ensure that rural youths are in a better position to innovate in the rural areas and to compete on a national job market.

There is, however, still a strong argument for prioritising agricultural development in the rural areas. Malawi, which is about the same size as the former homelands with roughly the same population, produced an average of about 3.3 million tonnes of maize a year or about 25-30 per cent of South Africa’s total production from 2007-2016. This is very largely produced by small- and medium-holders. It is unlikely that maize production in the former homeland areas is more than a third of this amount, possibly much less. There is clearly great potential but maize alone may not be the best solution.

Clifford Mabhena and others argued strongly for a shift to newer, higher value crops such as vegetables and fruit. More diversified agricultural production and rural enterprise, could generate considerable, widely distributed income and provide the basis for more “multifunctionality” through opportunities for decentralised transport, trade and services. The “production silo”, as it was critically called by one participant, should not be neglected and could be a valuable component in underpinning other elements of multifunctionality.

Agricultural production and food can also be linked to tourism, which was discussed as one key route, but it was noted that this tends to follow existing lines of infrastructure. There is now an extensive network of accommodation and leisure activities on the large commercial farms that is not replicated in the smallholder zones.

The former homelands include many scenically attractive places and a number of them also have established protected areas – many of which have become national or provincial parks. Some provinces have tried to expand tourist routes – including sites in the political struggle – but most small towns and villages in the former homelands lack attractive places to stay, even for adventurous self-guided tourists.

For the great majority of smallholders, expanded production would go towards household consumption or local markets. Most smallholders now focus on gardens with a diverse range of vegetables and only limited production of cereals. At a workshop organized by the Donald Woods Foundation in Hobeni, former Transkei, in 2015, participants emphasized dietary deficits amongst poorer rural families who often depend largely on shop-bought, refined cereals and sugar.

Diseases such as diabetes as well as heart and weight problems are expanding. Garden schemes linked to education about healthier diets were proposed as one route for policy and intervention. This echoes the prescriptions advocated by South Africa’s innovative community medicine schemes in the 1930s and 40s, immediately before the apartheid era.

As noted above, some of the most exciting developments involve outgrower or partnership schemes with private enterprise leadership. In sugar, forestry and wool for example, there may now be around 60,000 black farmers who connect with major companies both for production and marketing. For smallholders starved of capital, knowledge about new techniques, and technology, such connectedness may now be increasingly important – though of course the terms of connection are important.

One contributor emphasized that academics and commentators should not look to the state for agricultural innovation and leadership: the ‘state has no money and is dysfunctional’. Agriculture is low in government priorities and production is not really a key issue in land reform, where debates still operate largely at a rhetorical level in racialized language. The private sector also had its constraints and limits but was more likely to innovate.

However, the state does engage in numerous ways. Nkosinathi Daniel Motsoane, from DAFF, noted that government was planning to expand the number of extension officers to 9,000 – a major commitment. Animals Health Technicians play an important role in some districts in assisting veterinary care of livestock. The government has promoted the idea of agri-parks as multi-purpose servicing hubs for rural districts that may stimulate production. There is very little specific research on the nature and outcomes of these extension services and initiatives.

Some interesting suggestions emerged from discussions:

A popular initiative around food and nutritional education, aimed at young people and connected to a more positive image of agricultural innovation

Promoting the “cultural economy” not only through home-based slaughters but also festivals and tourism.

Connecting areas of African occupation for expanded tourism.

Security – theft of livestock and infrastructure is as big an issue for smallholders as for commercial farmers; also perceived as a hurdle for expanding tourism

Pilot projects with measures that have worked elsewhere, for example input subsidies – which are an element of outgrower schemes.

Innovation around affordable technology, especially for ploughing, rural processing and rural transport

Localised water-harvesting and reticulation

Diversification through seed/seedling distribution and knowledge transfers.

Enhancing security of tenure especially over arable fields

Legalisation of dagga, not specifically for the benefit of users, which is usually the focus of discussion, but of producers. They get limited financial rewards from the plant because marketing and distribution is controlled by middlemen who shoulder the risk and take most of the profit. Legalisation might broaden the range of buyers and even provide direct access to markets – as there is to some extent for medicinal plants. Even if large-scale producers take up a legalised crop, it is unlikely that the market will be flooded.

While garden and goat projects might benefit poor families, there seemed to be some consensus that upscaling was important for investment and growth. Beinart and de la Hey noted that while communal consumption was widespread, communal production was less so and the old forms of co-operation were waning. At the same time, many smallholders did not think that they could afford to employ agricultural workers.

Cousins argued for a focus on enhancing the capacity of about 200,000 smaller scale farmers – perhaps 10 per cent of the total – who are, insofar as this can be gleaned from various surveys, more active producers, selling some of their produce and possibly employing labour. There is considerable evidence that the expansion in maize production in other countries in the region, such as Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique, over the last decade has resulted in part from this grouping. The logic of this argument is to explore how they are attempting to consolidate and whether this may be facilitated.

There is plenty of land available within the areas now controlled by smallholders in South Africa but accumulators may not always be able to gain secure access to such land. The layout of villages and insecurity of tenure can both be difficulties. Policies aimed at consolidation and privatization of landholding were suggested by the Tomlinson commission in the 1950s but not implemented – although they have been more successful in parts of Kenya.

Overall the papers were sympathetic to smallholders and provided some evidence of successful enterprises – particularly in relation to livestock. Some presenters argued that poor rural people draw benefit from land and this, together with social justice, rather than a focus on enhanced production, is the key issue.

If smallholders can improve their livelihoods even marginally from access to land and natural resources, then this justifies a more radical redistribution. The problem with this argument is that it takes insufficient account of the likely overall loss of production and employment should commercial farms be further significantly diminished or undermined. This has implications for the national economy as well as rural communities as a whole.

Supporting existing smallholders is clearly a priority, but there was less consensus about land transfers. Should the state put its main effort into existing smallholders and leave the big farmers alone? A significant number of commercial farmers and corporate agricultural enterprises, no longer all white, are clearly able to innovate and invest successfully but to do so over the longer term they require a greater degree of security and certainty. Sender, who is pessimistic about both capitalist and smallholder agriculture, argues that the state should support the large farm sector because it is the only effective route to sustaining employment, food security and rural livelihoods.

By contrast Cousins argued, on the basis of figures cited above (80 per cent of value produced on 20 per cent of land) that a large percentage of land could be redistributed quickly with relatively little impact on production. There is a good deal of land for sale. Ronald Wesso noted that this had increased because of the drought and he suggested that even within the parameters of current policy the government should use the opportunity to purchase land – some of which may be at lower prices. Wesso noted that Aid agencies and private enterprise sometimes benefited from disasters and he coined the phrase “emergency or disaster socialism” as a description of what could happen in the current conjuncture: land reform benefitting from the aftermath of drought.

President Zuma and government ministers have articulated their concern to speed up the process of land transfers. He has prioritised restitution, and 160,000 new claims were made during the period between the passing of the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Act in 2014 and Constitutional Court judgement invalidating the Act in 2016. My own view is that restitution, by its nature, is not conducive to enhancing production and rural incomes.

Restitution was a valuable response to the injustices of the apartheid era. But it was intended as a limited and short term process. Given current government propensities, the policy might well see land transferred to rent-seeking chiefs. The focus should now be on redistribution programmes that prioritise production. Given the evidence about smallholder production, a fast track process – whether through restitution or redistribution – is unlikely to succeed on this front and may be a disaster.

Can the country afford to undermine food production, food security and agricultural exports? I think this would be very unwise. Commercial farmers may take fright and become even more hesitant about investing in production on the land they retain.

Schemes such as the Wool Growers depend on a healthy capitalist sector. Some of the farms that are not at the top end of value-creation, partly because of their location, may nevertheless successfully be producing food. Many of the lower-value farming enterprises are in semi-arid areas where it is difficult to generate income.

My sense from the evidence presented at the conference, and in other recent research, is that the state should prioritise assistance to, and innovative programmes for, smallholders in the areas where they already hold land. The large farm sector does not require subsidy but would benefit from more certainty in order to encourage investment. A clear and specific policy around gradual redistribution, and the areas to be prioritised for this purpose, rather than rhetorical flourishes, would be valuable.

Regulation around employment and also strategies for deracialisation, especially in corporate-owned enterprises, are clearly important. A buoyant agrarian sector will require cooperation between commercial farmers and smallholders, as well as private enterprise and the state. Synergies are clearly possible between commercial farmers, farmer associations, expanding agricultural servicing organisations, NGOs and smallholders. These may stimulate innovation and connectedness for smallholders and offer a way forward.


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