You do not have to have done much travelling in the new South Africa to see how dramatically the rural landscape has changed.
Where dorps in the bad old days typically had a small township, these now are outsized – home to the thousands who have left farms.
People have been pushed off farms by farmers worried about land claims and minimum wages, or they have been pulled by the attraction of housing and better social services than they can access on farms.
I have been able to take stock of this transformation in two recent bike journeys in three provinces, the Western Cape, North West and Northern Cape. This includes the food basket of the Western Cape, the sheep lands of the Karoo and the intensive irrigation lands along the Gariep (Orange) River.
I have called in at many farms, often to get water, and I used the opportunity to speak to locals. A striking fact is how few people Karoo farms employ. Particularly where sheep are reared for meat, the farms are often huge, but if they employ two people it is a lot. Many a sizeable spread will employ just one person.
After cycling past single-job farms, I spent the night at Carnarvon in the Northern Cape. That evening at a restaurant I asked how many people it employed. The answer: 18.
Employment grows as you move from the mutton to the mohair districts, but overall the numbers are still low, say, four or five jobs per farm. Along the Gariep, where Eskom power has brought intensive agriculture in the past few decades, employment numbers jump, but only to 20 – not too dissimilar to that of a restaurant in a Karoo town.
Some of the towns, ironically, are booming, as projects such as the Square Kilometre Array, wind farms and other hi-tech energy schemes are being set up. The bed and breakfast establishments are full and homeowners are rushing to convert their homes to provide accommodation.
What do farmers worry about the most? If they are involved in any agriculture that requires a lot of water, they worry about electricity tariff hikes. If the farms are denuded of people, the towns have been growing explosively. Idle groups sit around everywhere. Last weekend, I visited four or five of these Karoo townships. All had good, new facilities in the form of schools, clinics and others.
For a time, I wondered whether the solution was not to pay farmers to hire more people – anything to get idle people into productive work. But people are choosing to live in towns because of the better services they get there. This applies to farmers as well as farm workers. I have met farmers who live like bachelors during the week because their wives and children are away in towns that offer quality education.
Note that land claims do not apply to these regions because they were settled already in the 1800s, long before the 1913 cut-off date for land claims. It is also important to note that in the Karoo the farms are often marginal. There are undoubtedly prosperous farmers, but vast areas are unoccupied or underoccupied.
How do farmers treat their staff? I cannot answer this question, but some farmers I have met have been at pains to say that bad treatment is a thing of the past. Many are proud of the facilities they have installed for their staff and say that you have to have good working relationships to keep good people. It is certainly easier now for maltreated staff to move off a farm and into towns.
Social grants, almost universally condemned by the farmers I spoke to because they are seen to encourage laziness, provide some income, as does seasonal contract work. But the rural economy as it is now structured appears to be hopelessly inadequate to the task of providing gainful employment to a burgeoning population.