Revitalising Agriculture: Healing the Land, Feeding our Nation

By Glenn Ashton · 30 Jun 2014

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Picture: Women packing vegetable courtesy AUSAID South Africa/flickr
Picture: Women packing vegetable courtesy AUSAID South Africa/flickr

South Africa is a harsh country, a place of extremes. Producing sufficient food for our people has always been a difficult challenge.

The new Minister of Agriculture, who can only be an improvement on the previous incumbent, is an interesting choice.

Senzeni Zokwana is the national chairperson of the South African Communist Party, as well as having headed up the National Union of Mineworkers. He has no background in agriculture, in common with his deputy, ex-Police commissioner Bheki Cele. He appears to be a capable and popular leader. Hopefully he will be able to focus clearly on addressing the serious shortcomings within the agricultural sector which remains essentially unchanged since 1994.
We are faced with two competing pressures in agriculture. On the one hand we continue to rely on an intensive, industrial farming model to produce most of our staple crops, dominated by maize. These crops are largely grown by white farmers who still control the majority of arable land. This model has serious impacts on both the land and our water resources.

Industrial farming is intrinsically linked to the dominant economic model: maximise profit while externalising impacts and costs. Instead of driving reform, this model has served to further concentrate land ownership amongst fewer owners while simultaneously failing to address the chronic levels of food insecurity. Jobs have declined and tenure has been eroded.

On the other hand there is increasing political pressure to reform the agricultural sector as a whole, while also redistributing and reforming land holdings. Agricultural sustainability and diversity are part of this reformation process.

It is the unenviable task of the government to manage this delicate balancing act and address these often competing requirements. Many feel that Minster Zokwana has been handed a poisoned chalice.

The departure of Minister Joemat-Pettersen is welcome given her inability to grasp the nettle of agricultural reform. Rather than dealing with core issues she fiddled with patronage based small-scale farming initiatives, which have yet to realise any significant or sustainable material gains toward food production, employment or land reform. The last five years have essentially been wasted.

While Zokwana has no agricultural background, his socialist roots may incline him toward addressing the gaping inequalities in our agricultural system, both in terms of access to sufficient land and in terms of allocating sufficient resources to produce food and livelihoods from that land. There is an innate irony that his present office can directly assist his retrenched colleagues from the mining industry, most of whom hail from rural, agrarian roots. However, translating his ideology into action is another matter.

The directorate of the Department of Agriculture was substantially restructured under the watch of the previous minister. It is top-heavy with administrators involved in pastiched programmatic structures while critical human resources like extension officers, who provide real, practical assistance to farmers, are by the department’s own admission, thin on the ground.

The Department’s Directorate of National Extension Services has a director of extension reform but no director of extension support. In other words the fundamental interface between the department and farmers is presently rudderless and poorly staffed, despite the department recognising that extension services are seriously compromised.

More worryingly, the department has considered reforming extension services along public private partnership lines. This would be a major retrograde step. This is one reason why the present minister has inherited a poisoned chalice – ideology and patronage have trumped sound policy formulation.

President Zuma’s recent State of the Nation Address explicitly recognised the importance of agriculture to the nation, both from the perspective of employment creation as well as from its essential role in providing food security.

Yet, since coming into office, his new government has been unable to make any sense of the competing agendas behind agricultural reform and production. Recent proposals to allocate shareholding to farmworkers appear to be little more than a side-show, which may incidentally compromise the investment climate.

More seriously, these kinds of proposals are incapable of tackling, let alone resolving the underlying land reform and restitution tensions. The spectre of food insecurity looms over vast swathes of the nation. This is exacerbated by the lack of a cogent national food security policy, either rural, or increasingly importantly, urban.

The neo-liberal policy paradigms inherent in GEAR, IPAP, ASGISA and the rest of the well-intentioned but acronym filled WEF-friendly jargon have stymied both land and agricultural reform over the first two decades of our democratic dispensation. Our economic obsession with remaining “investor friendly” has seen agricultural policy fixated on a large-scale, industrial farming model, which includes genetically modified crops and energy and chemical intensive inputs. All those have done is maintain the status quo.

On the other hand smallholder and subsistence farmers remain largely neglected or patronised. If and when assistance has been given, it has been fixated on misplaced attempts to leapfrog farmers into the industrial model, usually without suitable support. When inevitable failures occur, everyone except policymakers are blamed.

The government has recently become more sensitised to the critical role that small scale farmers play in ensuring food security, especially given our relationship with BRICS partners, who generally nurture their small farmer sector far more holistically.

Recent Brazilian research emphasises this reality: four out of five farms there are small, largely family run enterprises. They provide nearly 40% of total agricultural production, including most food consumed in both rural and urban areas. This all comes from less than one quarter of the total cultivated area. Similar patterns exist in India and China, which also have focused on linking small scale farmers to markets, as well as on the feminisation of agricultural production.

In 2003, the African Union resolved that governments should direct 10% of budget toward agriculture. South Africa still lags far behind the rest of the continent, disbursing less than one percent of the budget toward improving agricultural production. Our policy remains controlled by males, while women are central to smallholder production.

Where smallholder farmers have been assisted, insufficient marketing assistance has been given. If marketing assistance has been provided, for instance when government institutions purchase outputs, payment is often delayed.

Minister Zokwana has the unenviable task of fitting this jigsaw together. As a primary industry agriculture is indirectly responsible for around a quarter of GDP, through food production and downstream processing. All of the parts of this puzzle - land reform, smallholder farming, food security and production – need to be holistically re-evaluated.

The minister is fortunate that extensive research has been undertaken in this field by various focus groups over the past few decades. The Programme for Land and Agrarian Reform (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape, the African Centre for the Cities at the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University’s Sustainability Institute are just a few institutions which have re-examined the agricultural paradigm.

Agricultural policies and actions over the past 20 years have failed to fundamentally reform the sector. We are in an almost identical situation regarding food security and land tenure as we were in 1994.

Radical intervention holds both high risks and opportunities. We need two things: a national summit of agricultural reform, and coming out of this, a White Paper on how we are to meet these competing requirements while improving access to land and food for our people. It is time for the minister to cast aside the poisoned chalice and start anew, rather than continue to perpetuate the mistakes of the distant and recent past.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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