Where Is the Agricultural Support for Small-Scale Farmers in South Africa?

By Stephen Greenberg · 24 Jun 2009

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Picture: Curte Carnemark/World Bank
Picture: Curte Carnemark/World Bank

Mike Malehase has a strange travelling companion when he moves between his home in Soweto and Vleifontein, a small service centre some 25km south-east of Makhado (formerly Louis Trichardt) in northern Limpopo. He carries a molasses block with him on the bus as a feed supplement for his growing herd of pure-bred Simmental cattle. Malehase, a young man in his early 30s, earns a living as a traditional healer in Soweto, but his passion is farming. He uses money from his healing business to support his herd. 

Livestock management is in Malehase’s blood. His father won prizes for his cattle at the Rand Easter Show, and he taught Malehase how to look after cattle well. The family originated in the Nthabalala area that was incorporated into the former Venda homeland in the late 1970s, but left for Johannesburg at an earlier time. Malehase pays close attention to the health and safety of the cattle, and not without cause - a Simmental bull was recently auctioned for over R100,000. When he is in Johannesburg, he hires one person to tend to the herd and return them to the kraal every evening - a rarity in communal areas where cattle mostly roam free.

But Malehase has a problem. He lives on a small stand in an informal settlement on a restitution farm near Vleifontein. His cattle graze on the communal land on the farm, but nothing has been done to improve the pastures so the quality of grazing is poor. He is not a restitution beneficiary, and therefore cannot close off any of the land for his own use. According to Malehase, all he needs is “30 hectares, 40 hectares, it’s enough. Not a big piece of land. Just to lease for now, not to own”. He wants to show the Department of Agriculture what he is capable of. He has in mind an integrated production system. On ten to fifteen hectares, he would plant oats and yellow maize, lucerne and sunflowers. The remainder would be divided into paddocks and rotated for grazing. The sunflowers and maize would be used to feed broilers to generate a regular cash flow, while the lucerne and maize would be used to supplement grazing for the cattle in the winter. There are thousands of hectares of unused land surrounding him, but they are within the boundaries of farms that were returned to claimants through the government’s restitution programme. The beneficiaries have not granted Malehase permission to create paddocks or plant crops on their land.

This tale raises a number of burning questions that it is by no means clear will be addressed in the governments ‘new’ rural development plans. First is the question of land access. Perhaps we need to acknowledge that the way land was returned through the restitution programme has created new inequities while trying to resolve old ones. Farms were returned whose boundaries were constructed fore the purpose of creating ‘viable’ units of production under a large-scale commercial farming model. These boundaries do not accurately reflect the real settlement histories of claimants. Some occupied only a small portion of a farm. Other groups may have straddled existing boundaries. It also places more land in the hands of a relatively small number of people than they can use, while others immediately adjacent remain completely landless. In the context of a land-hungry population, perhaps some formal negotiation is required between those who have a right to restitution and those who remain landless but live in the same area to distribute land a bit more equitably.

It is equally clear that the redistribution programme in its current form is unable to identify appropriate beneficiaries and respond to their needs. Agricultural support needs to be far more flexible to accommodate different classes of people looking for land for agriculture. Malehase argues that government should make small parcels of land available on lease for a period of two or three years and provide appropriate support. In his case, he only requires support for fencing. In other cases, it might be more. After the three years, those who are successful can purchase (the same or other) land on their own, using the resources they have built up during the lease period. It is very similar to the ‘master farmer’ programme at the tail-end of apartheid. It won’t work for all - especially those without their own resources. But it can work well for some. 

The key is that beneficiaries of such a programme must have a proven track record in agriculture, showing potential to grow. This should be one of the criteria for eligibility for government support for any class of farmer. Even the most extremely poverty-stricken people in the rural areas do produce food if they are committed to it. They need to be identified and supported to stabilise what they produce, grow their production as far as they are able or want to go, and land must be available for them as and when they are ready to expand their production.

The first requirement is to identify producers quickly and mobilise resources to support what they are doing equally quickly. This needs a proactive extension service that is permanently out in the field, essentially making connections between food producers or those requiring land, and the relevant programme or department. Malehase indicates that he has never spoken to the Department of Agriculture: “Which doors must we knock on, and who to talk to?”, he asks. It should be the extension workers finding the producers, not the other way around. The producers should concentrate their time and energy on producing, not figuring out the government bureaucracy.

A chronic failure of communication pervades the rural areas. Dedicated, full-time staff are required as facilitators to constantly circulate between citizens (agricultural producers from commercial to backyard subsistence, restitution beneficiaries, township, village and informal settlement residents, farm workers, other land-hungry constituencies), the municipality at ward, local and district level, the departments at various levels (from national to local), commodity organisations, tribal authorities at various levels. The primary job would be to constantly provide information and updates about available resources, plans and activities, and to connect producers with technical support. The best location for such land reform facilitators would be in the municipality itself, since the municipality has the ultimate responsibility of co-ordinating development.

A quick response to producer needs also requires the devolution both of resources for agricultural support and of their control to the most local level possible, resources that are available to draw on as soon as required. Currently, few resources are controlled locally, and the convolutions of the bureaucracy mean minimal resources ever actually get to the ground. Instead, they are returned to the national fiscus unspent. This is in a context of limited resources flowing to rural areas in the first place. It is a direct result of the strategic framework, driven from the Presidency, which sees the future of South Africa in concentrated economic nodes with primary support to be directed to those nodes. The fundamental breakdown of this model is that it has no room to identify potential in areas already written off as marginal. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Second, in both cases, whether commercialising or subsistence producers, government programmes need to have the flexibility of starting small with the possibility of expanding as required. This means land, resources and the right kind of support must be available when needed. The Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy (PLAS) did aim to put land in the hands of the state in readiness for redistribution as required. But the level at which it is controlled is too high, and it needs to be devolved to local municipalities and even wards. At present, the (now renamed) Department of Land Affairs does not have any meaningful presence below the provincial level, which makes this rather difficult until some decentralisation is implemented.

In the meantime, Malehase has seven pregnant cows, with nowhere for them to live. The Department of Agriculture says it is Land Reform’s problem. Land Reform is nowhere to be seen. Malehase and many others like him are ready and waiting to contribute to the food security of the country. All that is lacking is tailored and targeted support.

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

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