Where To For Rural Development After Polokwane?

By Stephen Greenberg · 12 Jan 2009

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Picture credit: Maureen Sill
Picture credit: Maureen Sill

Rural development was identified as one of the top five priorities for the next five years at the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) Conference in Polokwane in December 2007. This will be translated into the ANC’s 2009 election manifesto to be launched in January. But will this lead to practical changes in the ANC’s approach to rural areas since 1994?

The historical roots of the ANC lie in the urban areas. The organisation first represented an aspirant urban middle class and this class base later teamed up with the rising movement of industrial workers. The ANC’s overall policy in the past 14 years attempted to manage the contradictions of this multi-class alliance, with its multiple, conflicting interests. In the rural areas, this translated into attempts to improve the conditions of workers and the rural poor, while simultaneously consolidating a, slightly restructured, rural elite. In essence, the ANC’s rural programme has championed the cause of ‘modernising’ and export-oriented, capital-intensive agriculture on the one hand, and has strengthened the power of traditional authority on the other. Land reform has been no more than a poorly executed welfarist tinkering on the edges of the rural economy.

The ANC’s contradictory class base has resulted in a gap between its rhetoric and its practice. The ANC’s 1994 election manifesto, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), essentially saw rural development as happening through a combination of land reform and rapid delivery of infrastructure and services to the rural population. Both of these strategies faltered as resources dried up following the adoption of GEAR in 1996, and as top-down technocratic methods of delivery replaced mass participation as the driver of development. The 1997 Rural Development Framework emphasised governance issues and local economic development in the context of an export-oriented economy. However even this framework had no institutional home and fell by the wayside.

In 2001 the Presidency launched the Integrated Sustainable Rural Development Programme (ISRDP), the main aim of which was to support integration of existing policies and programmes of government, focusing on 13 priority ‘nodes’ with the greatest levels of poverty. In this way, rural development became no more than the sum of disparate and sometimes contradictory national-level departmental policies and plans. The Department of Land Affairs (DLA) transferred land, but other departments had their own priorities set in separate plans. The result was land transfers without extension support, water supply or electricity. The ISRDP singularly failed to overcome this ‘silo’ working in government. The reasons for this are structural and include an emphasis on quantitative over qualitative targets and a consequent focus on establishing as many ‘projects’ as possible without regard for their long-term sustainability or overall contribution to a broader plan. There was - and remains - no statutory institutional responsibility for co-ordinating implementation. While local government is responsible for integrated planning, this does not extend to implementation.

All the while, the ANC was moving full steam ahead to deregulate and liberalise the agricultural sector. The result was intensified consolidation and capital intensity in a sector that even the World Bank recognised as over-capitalised, a large scale loss of farm jobs and casualisation of farm work. Rural industrialisation subsidies were eliminated without providing alternatives, leading to further job losses in already seriously impoverished areas. This two-pronged restructuring of the rural economy threw the baby out with the apartheid bathwater. In the current context of high food prices, agricultural economists who favoured radical deregulation and trade liberalisation are belatedly recognising that these policies have had a negative effect on many farmers and on food security. In October 2008, Simon Roberts, senior economist at the Competition Commission, said: “it looks like the outcome of the [agricultural] deregulation process was undesirable”. In 1994, the vast power of commercial agriculture was being brought into question. But in 2009, the big, vertically-integrated export-oriented companies are seen in government as the only viable option for the rural economy. This is so to such an extent that even land reform is increasingly built around models of share equity and joint ventures that leaves power relations between corporate entities and the rural poor fundamentally intact.

The National Spatial Development Perspective (NSDP), a document formulated in 2003 and updated in 2006, takes the logic of support to capital to the extreme. The framework, hatched by technocrats in the Presidency, identifies 26 nodes of economic potential across the country. Unsurprisingly, given the assumptions underlying the methodology of the framework, these are all urban areas. The framework directs government to focus resources on these nodes, in the belief that economic growth in these areas will reduce poverty. Government welfare and training will be provided to the rural, small town and peri-urban poor to enable them to migrate to these economic centres. The long-term vision is one of rural areas depopulated of everyone but commercial farmers and a small core of workers. In essence, through the NSDP, government concedes defeat in any attempt to create thriving rural economies built on anything other that capital-intensive agriculture.

In the former bantustans and homelands, traditional authorities have won the battle to be seen as the representatives of the almost one-third of the total South African population who live in these areas. A brave attempt to institute wall-to-wall, democratically elected local government was compromised in a series of political trade-offs and the consolidation of a rural elite with bantustan roots. This is part of the same ‘class project’ responsible for the ‘narrow-based’ black economic empowerment of recent years.

If transformation is about a fundamental alteration of power relations between the dominant and the marginalised, there has been little if any transformation in rural South Africa since the ANC’s ascent to power in 1994. It may be said that the vision and approach of the past 12 or 14 years was precisely the product of the capturing of state power by the aspirant capitalist fraction of the ANC, led by Thabo Mbeki and realised by the technocrats gathered around him. So do the apparent class shifts in the ANC and the evident emphasis on rural development at Polokwane signify a real change in government’s commitment to transformation in rural areas? 

There are reasons for not feeling too hopeful. First, the entrenched power of large scale agricultural capital and the power of traditional authorities will not be challenged through legislative fiat, but through the presence of a strong, independent and organised movement of the poor. Such a movement currently does not exist and it is certain that the ANC and its alliance partners will not support the formation of a movement with the power to challenge these forces, lest it also challenge the power of the state. Any efforts at rural mobilisation will be tightly controlled from the centre, and will not be designed to threaten the fundamental interests of economic and political elites.

Second, as good as the statements of intent sound, there is likely to be limited change from an implementation point of view. A rapid scaling up of land reform, and even a scrapping of the ‘willing-buyer, willing-seller’ clause, is likely to compound the problem of failure if the programme continues to be locked into a technocratic, unresponsive, capacity-constrained and top-down implementation framework. Rhetoric aside, the ANC is highly unlikely to allocate the R74bn the DLA says it needs over the next 5 years just to meet current targets (the 2008/09 Medium Term Expenditure Framework allocates just R18.5bn over the next 3 years). Apart from a few additions to the woefully inadequate agricultural support programme and the enhancement of social welfare, plans for meaningful practical changes seem few and far between.

Third, it is false to characterise the post-Polokwane ANC as having a fundamentally different power base than the pre-Polokwane ANC. It is quite possible that sections of the middle and upper class will shift their support to other political formations in elections. But elites will gravitate towards parties that wield state power, and there is no doubt that the ANC will continue to hold the reins of national state power after the forthcoming elections. The current ANC leadership’s support base remains a contradictory alliance of different interests. Big and aspirant capital alike will remain core to the alliance, including existing and new rural elites. Jacob Zuma’s known closeness to traditional authorities, the overall social conservatism of his trajectory, his support base in KwaZulu-Natal and the ANC’s need to consolidate core constituencies in what is a very fragile alliance, suggest that traditional authorities will be feted rather than challenged in the foreseeable future.

The ANC’s need to assert its hegemony will put it in ongoing conflict with alternative organisational expressions with the potential to challenge its authority. Internal class tensions and contradictions may manifest in ways that occasionally spill into a radicalisation of policy or action, but not systematically or sustainably. All of this suggests the possibility of some alterations to policy here and there, a few limited attempts to provide support to the rural poor, but no fundamental change in strategy and no essential challenge to the existing rural power elites.

Stephen Greenberg is a freelance researcher with an interest in food systems, land, agriculture and rural development.

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