Land tenure limits Eastern Cape’s crops

Like many agricultural industry representatives, at this time of year, I travel the country, conducting farm visits and regional meetings. Recently, I visited Matatiele, in the Eastern Cape, to talk to emerging grain producers.

On Mthatha’s outskirts I noticed fertile maize fields. I could see joy in the eyes of emerging farmers when I mentioned rising maize prices. One elderly man said: “Hayi, sonwabile nyana [We are very happy]”. Although this great maize yield may mean a lot to people like him, little effect will be felt by the rest of country.

Given the Eastern Cape’s small contribution to South Africa’s maize production (at 0.78%, according to National Crop Estimate Committee figures), its improved yields won’t be meaningful to national food security. Still, subsistence maize production contributes to food security in the province.

According to Trade and Industry Policy Strategies (Tips), an independent economic research institution, “more than 37% of the population engage in a form of economic activity related to farming”. In 2009, a Tips report suggested the Eastern Cape produce 1.2-million tonnes of maize a year, thus increasing its national contribution to 8%. This is achievable. Between 1990 and 2014, production rose by 79%; the area planted decreased by 44%. Increased production was a result of improved agriculture practices and technological improvements, and to organised agriculture’s involvement.

Production potential
In Grain SA’s revised crop estimate for 2015-2016, it was stated that the drought in the western and other parts of the maize belt might lead to South Africa having to import about 1.17-million tonnes of maize this year. The Eastern Cape has the potential to contribute significantly to national food security and the economy by substantially decreasing the need to import. The province’s maize production potential has not been fully exploited for many reasons, including poor infrastructure and crop management practices. In my experience of having grown up there and having witnessed farmers’ capabilities in improving crop yields, though the area planted has shrunk, I say it can probably be attributed to communal land policies.

The existing land policy in the former homelands is communal tenure, which refers to the systems most rural communities operate to express order, ownership, possession and access to regulate use and transfer land. Rights to use the land are regulated by customary law.

In the State of the Nation address, President Jacob Zuma said the government is reviewing land reform policies. Given the agricultural potential in former homelands and the challenges of communal land policies, mainly the lack of collateral when farmers need loans and investments, this may be the time to review communal land policies.

Whereas 75% of South Africa’s white maize production is at risk, Eastern Cape farmers experience stable climatic conditions that allow for acceptable production levels, at the least. In South Africa’s interests, and in light of growing concerns over national food security, the potential of Eastern Cape maize production and agriculture should be unlocked.

This inability to unlock the potential lying within the soils of the province greatly concerns me, and other economists.

I have not stated anything new here; this view has been widely researched and debated in both academia and agricultural industry sectors. Unless the problems causing this production failure have been identified as the result of some other malfunction, I will maintain that current (traditional and state) land policies are limiting investments, and are the root cause of the failure of agricultural production in the Eastern Cape and pose a threat to national food security.

Wandile Sihlobo is an economist at Grain SA. The views expressed here are his own

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