Tasks for a Rural Development Ministry

By Stephen Greenberg · 23 May 2009

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Picture: Sideshow_NYC
Picture: Sideshow_NYC

The new appointments to the 'economic cluster' have dominated media discussion of the Zuma Cabinet. Receiving far less coverage is the restructuring of the 'rural' ministries of agriculture, land and forestry. The Ministry of Agriculture and Land Affairs has been split, and forestry has been separated from water affairs and joined to agriculture. The Department of Land Affairs (DLA) has become a newly-formed Ministry of Rural Development and Land Reform. Given the stress the ANC has placed on rural development and land reform, what are we to make of these changes?

The splitting of agriculture and land into two separate ministries makes sense from the point of view that together they are too much for one minister to oversee. Constitutionally, land is a national competency while agriculture is a provincial competency. The practical consequence of this was that the two departments operated out of separate offices and had separate planning processes, even once the national Department of Land Affairs (DLA) had devolved some land functions to provincial offices. However, there is a danger of widening this gap even further by splitting the departments into two ministries.

The new Agriculture Minister, Tina Joemat-Petersson, and her Deputy, Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder, are oriented to commercial farming. Given the emphasis on large scale and export production, it remains to be seen whether they will provide alternative types of support - for example, for smaller scale, non-market production - on land reform farms, or whether the splitting of the Ministries will result in Agriculture serving the interests of large-scale commercial agriculture (including selected land reform farms), with support to the remainder of less 'viable' land reform farms (from a market-oriented point of view) being left to an under-resourced Rural Development and Land Reform Ministry.

While the overall land affairs budget has increased significantly in the current Medium Term expenditure Framework, the proportion of this that goes to current expenditure has been declining for some years. This means existing capacity constraints and vacancies will get worse, at a time when government wants to increase spending. This has to be remedied in the short term. Building internal capacity is a relatively short-term expense but with long-term benefits.

The creation of the Ministry of Rural Development and Land Reform indicates an emphasis on land reform in future rural development strategies. This is a positive recognition that thoroughgoing land reform is a prerequisite for the realisation of rural development. The elevation of land affairs from a department to a ministry is also a positive sign that it could be given greater priority.

Government’s current land reform policy is to transfer 30% of agricultural land to black ownership by 2014. It is highly unlikely that this target will be changed in the next five years, especially given the difficulties experienced in transferring just 5% in the past 15 years. The emphasis will thus be on speeding up the pace of land transfer. Placing rural development together with land reform in the same Ministry presumably is recognition of the failure of the land reform programme to provide appropriate support to beneficiaries once land has been transferred.

Ensuring meaningful land reform, and providing intensive support to beneficiaries - not only for productive use of the land, but also the extension of services and housing on the transferred land - is an important piece of the puzzle. But rural development is more than that. What about the millions of people who live in the former homelands and bantustans, who will not be beneficiaries of the land reform programme? We would be stretching the definition too far to consider Communal Land Rights Act (CLARA) to be a type of land reform. The Act essentially places control of communal land in the hands of traditional authorities, ostensibly on behalf of the people living there. And what about a comprehensive plan for the social, economic and political transformation of the rural areas? Land reform is an essential part of this, but it is not the whole of it.

To be effective, a rural development ministry, with or without land reform attached, would need to be situated in the Presidency. The primary role for a rural development ministry should be to develop a transformation plan for the rural areas consolidating processes and plans emerging from the existing IDP system. There is a tendency to define ‘rural’ as the communal areas. But a rural plan must incorporate commercial farming, communal areas and rural towns and settlements as an integrated system. This requires high level authority to shape the activities and plans of line departments, integrate and co-ordinate them together with local government, and ensure implementation. There is no way the Ministry of Rural Development and Land Reform, as a junior Ministry, will have this authority in its current location.

But ultimately it really is quite hard to see how shuffling the deckchairs is going to lead to a thoroughgoing focus on rural development that draws the mass of the population into active planning and implementation of their own ideas, supported by public resources. 

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

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Smart Alec
22 May


You say that shuffling the deck-chairs won't make a difference - but you also want to shuffle them your own way, which is to put rural development into the Presidency. You can't have it both ways. And this inclination on all sides to position key issues within the Presidency or premier's offices is well-meaning, but side-steps the really hard work that is needed to make all ministries & departments important, functional and relevant. Putting it in the centre is the same as 'here's my big stick' - it may work for whatever you just moved there, but all the other issues left outside will still be in ministries and departments, will still need support and capacity, etc.

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25 May

Re: Deck-chairs

I agree with you about the tendency to squash everything into the Presidency as the centre of power, which not only overloads the Presidency but also reproduces it as a concentrated centre of power. It is not so much an issue of WANTING to put rural development in the Presidency, as it is about acknowledging that a co-ordinating ministry, which is essentially what the rural development ministry should be about - needs to have the political and administrative authority to structure the relationships between the line ministries if it is to be effective.

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