In his new book on inequality, Capital and Ideology, French economist Thomas Piketty asserts that a land reform programme in South Africa has been “absent”. That will raise eyebrows in ANC policy circles but, 26 years after the party came to power, its efforts at land reform have widely been regarded as an epic failure. You know you have a problem when one of the most prominent leftist intellectuals on the planet believes you have been doing nothing.
Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa, and Daily Maverick’s Richard Poplak explored some issues surrounding South African land reform and the related issue of food security in a DM webinar, “Seeding the Great Divide”, on Friday 15 May, sponsored by Adenauer-Stiftung. Sihlobo is author of the book Finding Common Ground: Land, Equity and Agriculture.
Poplak kicked things off by asking: “Are we going to starve to death? What is the reality of the food security situation in this country right now?” There have been numerous reports of mounting hunger as the economy melts down and people lose incomes in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown measures taken to contain it.
Sihlobo replied that “at a national level, we are not going to starve to death as a country. We are actually in a space where we can sell off food to outside countries. We are having proper harvests … But obviously we know that there are millions of South Africans that go to bed hungry every evening and that has a lot to do with the households and the insecurity challenge. And the roots of that are more from a macroeconomic perspective” — rather than the availability of food. The hunger stems from poverty, which is growing because of the pandemic and its impact on economic activity.
Getting to the meat of the matter, Poplak noted that, on the emotive topic of land: “A nice place to start is to come to terms with who owns what. And the truth of it is that in this country we are not entirely sure. We don’t have a land registry … We are kind of in the dark, off the bat.”
Sihlobo agreed that this was a major challenge.
“Every number depends on who you are speaking to. If you were to talk to myself and some of our colleagues we will give you certain numbers. But then if you talk to Agri SA, they have done their own numbers, you talk to the South African authorities and they will give you their numbers.”
In the advisory report to President Cyril Ramaphosa on land, which Sihlobo was part of, the necessity of a proper land audit was flagged.
“Right now, we are shooting in the dark. We don’t really know how much progress we are making,” Sihlobo said.
One of the listeners asked Sihlobo pointedly what his position was on the vexed issue of expropriation without compensation, or EWC. Sihlobo is strongly of the view that is not “a desired thing for agriculture”.
Poplak noted that, desirable or not, EWC had its “raw and emotive” political uses. Asking Sihlobo to don a red overall, he asked him how EWC might work. Sihlobo did not rise to the fly. As far as he is concerned, EWC is a fish that is best left in the water.
“You are coming out of Covid-19. You need to get growth in the economy. You need to get jobs … And if you look at the structure of South African agriculture, it is highly capital intensive.” So growth will rely on investment and EWC is a radioactive investment policy.
“Land reform on its own has to happen but the issue is about which instruments do you need. And the instrument of EWC is not a desired one,” he said. Finish and klaar.
On that note, the example of Zimbabwe cropped up. Of course Zimbabwe embarked on a programme of radical land reform two decades ago which coincided with a wave of political terror launched by the Zanu-PF party under the late Robert Mugabe.
“Some people celebrate the fact that now there are more black people owning small farms and being able to produce tobacco and some of the other things. But if you look at the broader scheme of things, there hasn’t been progress. It’s been a dismal failure,” Sihlobo said, noting the country’s successive failures to grow enough maize to feed itself. “It leaves nothing to be desired.”
Sihlobo is a staunch defender of commercial agriculture and the role it plays in the economy and for the food security that it provides and sees land reform taking root largely, but not exclusively, in that context, with meaningful government support for emerging farmers. That has been notably absent to date, a point that is well-chronicled in his book.
There is a lot of food for thought on an issue that cuts to the heart of South Africa’s many divides. DM
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