Farming problems are clear but the solutions are not

Economic pressures are resulting in bigger and more mechanised farms. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Economic pressures are resulting in bigger and more mechanised farms. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Should land be redistributed to black commercial farmers, so-called emerging farmers or smallholders?

These questions were hotly debated at the Land Divided conference, hosted in March by the universities of Stellenbosch, Western Cape and Cape Town to reflect on the centenary of the Natives Land Act of 1913.

Government policy frameworks provide little clarity on the objectives of land reform, or who should benefit. Rhetoric about agrarian transformation aside, problematic notions of "proper farming" continue to be invoked. These involve questionable assumptions about minimum farm sizes, current technologies, income targeting and full-time farming, which have informed ANC policymaking since the early 1990s.

The notion of a small "progressive" and "modernising" full-time black farming class was seized upon by agricultural economists and their allies at the World Bank as an alternative to popular demands for confiscation, nationalisation and the large-scale redistribution of land.
This notion has some relevance for a small stratum of black farmers, but it has blinkered thinking about the rich diversity of situations, needs and possibilities to which land reform should respond.

Agrarian reform (the restructuring of agriculture) requires both clarity of purpose and political will. Since the early 1990s, however, there has been a profound disconnect between the ANC's land policies (premised on state subsidies) and its agricultural policies (emphasising deregulation). Economists who had the ear of the ANC at the time argued that the removal of subsidies to white commercial farmers would "level the playing field" and create space for efficient black small-scale farmers. Ironically, exactly the opposite has occurred, and commercial farming is increasingly concentrated in a shrinking number of very large enterprises, still mostly white-owned.

As Theo de Jager of AgriSA pointed out at the conference, commercial farmers face tremendous competitive pressures. "Get big or get out" is the name of the game, and big farming increasingly involves corporate entities and private investment funds. A few large companies dominate input markets for agriculture as well as agriprocessing and retail, and these generally prefer to enter into contracts with large farming operations that in turn are mechanising and shedding jobs.

Natural, simply capitalism
Henry Bernstein of the University of London suggested that these are global trends and quoted a farmer from Mpumalanga who characterised them as "natural, simply capitalism". Bernstein also showed, however, how political choices shape these "natural" realities.

In the light of these, the NDP's vision of creating a million new jobs in agriculture appears be a pie-in-the-sky sop to the politicians. Can it be made to work? Still needed from government are detailed proposals for a coherent farmer-support programme. Nick Vink of the University of Stellenbosch shows that R53-billion has been spent on state-driven land reform since 1994 but only about 8% of commercial farmland has been transferred, and many projects have experienced problems. The key missing ingredient has been a well-funded farmer-support programme for land-reform beneficiaries and communal-area farmers. Small farmers require the means to farm (capital, skills, technical advice, water for irrigation and access to markets, among others) in addition to land.

Should alternative models of agriculture be supported? Mazibuko Jara of the Democratic Left Front has argued that dominant industrial-style farming systems are not ecologically sustainable and that a shift to smaller-scale, labour-intensive family farmers would be environmentally and socially appropriate. But can they feed a growing urban population? Would they need to become more high-tech in order to do so? And how can a smallholder path (good for reducing poverty and inequality) be squared with the growing dominance of big agribusinesses and food retailers in South Africa?

New thinking on the future of farming and the role of land reform is desperately needed if the divided countryside inherited from the past is to be transformed. On the evidence of the conference, that much is widely agreed on, but what the alternatives are is much less clear.

Professor Ben Cousins is a department of science and technology and National Research Foundation chair and Ruth Hall is an associate professor at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape. See also www.landdivided2013.org.za

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