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MAVERICK CITIZEN INTERVIEW

Growing the country: How the farming sector can ‘inch’ SA’s economy out of the doldrums

Agricultural economist Wandile Sihlobo. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Agricultural economist Wandile Sihlobo believes the farming sector could provide ‘that extra inch of employment; that extra inch of growth’ in the post-Covid economy, if only its opportunities could be spread around more equitably. The trick is to stop thinking that land is a zero-sum game of taking from one to give to another. Sihlobo’s insightful collection of articles appeared in a book titled ‘Finding Common Ground: Land, Equity & Agriculture’, earlier in 2020. Maverick Citizen interviewed him.

Some of the most emotive issues on the South African socio-political landscape are crime, land and race. These come together spectacularly in the area of agriculture. What lies at the heart of these things?

This one area of the economy really has sparked huge emotion in recent years. What’s different now to, say, the period between 2002 and 2007, is that more people are out of work now. Agriculture is an area that holds economic hope, yet certain types of people find themselves excluded from the sector.

The reality is that the share of black people’s produce in commercial agriculture in South Africa is only between 5% and 10%. 

When the majority of the population has so little participation, it obviously causes discomfort. This gives political groups a chance to exploit people’s frustrations. 

When we say that there needs to be transformation in agriculture, people hear it as “we are cutting from a single loaf of bread and moving the slices from this table to that table”. That’s wrong. The loaf needs to get bigger – and it can. 

Until black people’s contribution to agriculture increases, these conversations will remain fraught.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that land reform has progressed. Black people no longer hold the 9% that everyone talks about, but roughly between 17% and 21%. 

It’s difficult for people to accept those numbers because they’re not getting any richer. 

How is it black people own more land, but there’s no significant economic improvement in their lives? But there’s something behind that: how is that land being handled? Are we making sure that the land that is being transferred is actually economically productive?

In short, it’s economic anxiety that is causing so much tension and it’s the reason land is such an emotional thing. 

Yes, there’s a historical perspective, but that history was the same under Nelson Mandela; the same under Thabo Mbeki. The economic squeeze is what’s making this worse now.

Crime is a huge concern in agriculture (farm murders, stock theft which has recently been covered in The Economist magazine, and so on). Still, there is crime across South Africa. 

There is a femicide issue right alongside the rural crime issue, and various statistics across communities show it’s a problem for everyone. 

Economic anxiety and a lack of hope might underpin some of this crime. 

Every sub-sector of the economy must offer a way to uplift people’s living standards and give them a chance to engage productively. If people were busy, and if economic opportunities improved, some of these tensions would die down.

Until that happens, we will continue to see political opportunists playing on all of our anxieties and we will end up with an even more polarised society.  

What are the biggest threats to agriculture in South Africa? Is it crime? Slow land reform? Climate change?

Climate change is a big threat, but safety is a more immediate one which, with the right effort, could be controlled to some extent. 

I feel positive that there is now finally an engagement from government with the problem. The president has acknowledged crime is an issue. The problem isn’t limited to rural communities, though.

A relatively slow progress on land reform could prove a threat in the long run because it continues to mean less participation by some of our citizens, and that goes together with the issue of economic insecurity. 

Again, this doesn’t mean the progress has been painfully slow at 9%, as some always say. Indications are that progress has been much greater, as previously mentioned. 

The point here is that we could do better, and most importantly ensure that farms are transferred to the right beneficiaries who will productively utilise the land. 

This means that there needs to be a move also on ensuring that tradable long-term leases are a norm so that people can access capital to keep the farms productive.

You make the point in your book that the government has proven itself to be very good at one aspect of the land reform, in that it has acquired a lot of land for redistribution, but it has been less efficient at moving it on to people who can make use of it. In around 2006, something changed and instead of people becoming title-deed holders, they were only given tenure. It feels as though land reform has been stuck for 25 years. Do you have any hope that we are going to become unstuck?

Land reform has not been as slow as folks usually say. The figure most often quoted is that government has only procured 9% of the land, but our statistics, from the University of Stellenbosch, show 21%. 

And others, like AgriSA, had numbers a few percentage points higher than ours. Of that 21%, the government acquired about 18%. The rest was acquired by black people buying land directly from sellers.

So there has been a shift in land ownership, but government has failed to give people full ownership of that land so that they can make whatever business decisions best suit them, and use the land as collateral to get money for investment in farming. 

And that contributes to this popular South African narrative that “these black guys get land, but they don’t know how to farm”.

The background is that these farmers often get these non-tradable long-term leases, but there is no follow-through support for them. As an example, if one gets access to a farm that used to be capitalised by R10-million to get production on stream, and suddenly there is no line of credit, obviously you will fail to farm effectively.

There is a land reform fund for instance, that might be one way of ensuring there is money. But my personal preference is for people to get title deeds. Then they won’t only rely on government for hand-outs and loans… they actually have the ability to tap into private capital.

There is a change. There is openness to new ideas. 

And as that conversation continues, partly through the masterplans being developed but also through other policy forums, I would say that we are in a much better space now when it comes to talking about agriculture and land reform than we were a while ago. 

There is progress not just on the side of the state, but also in the private sector, which is getting involved in the debates. The level of engagement now compared to a decade ago is noticeable.

What was happening a decade ago? Did the issue of land reform stall because it got tangled up in those corruption years, or was it just too hard to do?

It was a combination of things. Many people will say it was primarily corruption among government officials. But I think there was also a lack of appreciation in the early years of democracy for the quality of the instruments put in place for land reform.

We had a framework for how we could implement land reform in an efficient way – ensuring that title deeds are transferred, reducing state involvement in certain areas – but it wasn’t followed as closely as everyone hoped it would be.

I do think that those failures – the dissatisfaction, the politics that emerged – forced everyone, including the Economic Freedom Front (EFF), to ask, “What is going on with the land issue?” It forced us into discussion. We’ve finally had to confront these issues.

There are two issues here: the restorative justice question, but also the economic growth objective. We can’t sacrifice economic conditions for the restorative justice question. We have to move on both fronts. 

People need hope, they want jobs, they want their living standards improved. People undervalue the importance of the economic conditions and focus more on a restorative justice narrative. We need more balance.

Another factor is that South Africa is different now to decades ago. We are more integrated in the global economy and our agricultural sector and property markets are much more highly capitalised. Times have changed.

The issue of food has become such a socio-political high-focus area because of Covid, lockdown and people’s inability to access food. Has this pandemic changed anything on the agricultural agenda either nationally or internationally?

What Covid did for agriculture is that it has increased people’s appreciation for what it does, not least because the sector was classified as an essential service worldwide.

The South African food and agriculture sector showed huge resilience. We didn’t have situations in South Africa where certain provinces ran out of food.

Yes, there were people who were unable to access food, and even today that is still true. They are living in very difficult conditions, but that’s largely because people are out of work. It’s not that food has become more expensive. 

Food price inflation in South Africa stayed at 4.4% for nine months of this year and while it will exceed that by the end of the year, food prices are rising at a relatively slow pace. But people are out of work. They have no money. 

So personal access to food is difficult, but the sector remained stable. 

Which goes back to the question of how we involve as many people as possible in the economic activities of the country in order for them to be able to obtain food. And those that don’t have access to economic activities, but have access to land, how can we make sure that they are supported to produce food?

I was on the phone with the Solidarity Fund just before you called. They’ve put aside R100-million to provide support for people who provide produce at a small scale and they will be rolling that out soon. 

They’re largely targeting people in tough conditions: small subsistence farmers who should be able to feed themselves.

This gesture by the Solidarity Fund is just one example of recognising the importance of agriculture for household food consumption.

On a broader level, I think that Covid did something else too. Everyone is looking around wondering which sectors might provide opportunities for people in the near term, and agriculture is able to do a bit of that.

That, and the question of stable food availability across the country has also brought the agricultural sector into high focus this year.

This would account for the increased focus in the media on food gardening, subsistence farming and communal gardening, not only for the purpose of growing food, but as a gesture of self-sufficiency and civic action. Many of the people doing this are women and young people. Is it pie-in-the-sky or is it a realisable idea for people to pursue the ability to feed themselves to some degree on their own, whether they live in a flat in the middle of Johannesburg or on a plot in the Northern Cape?

It’s good for people to be involved in gardening wherever it is possible for them to be, but I don’t think we’d ever get into a situation where everyone could produce for themselves. Partly because you have to dedicate your time.

In the urban areas, if people are able to produce vegetables in whatever small piece of land they can get, they should do that, and young children also, so that they are taught that food doesn’t come from a supermarket, but from the earth.

There have been no criteria for the beneficiaries of land reform since 1994, and I strongly believe that young people and women should be prioritised. 

Studies have shown that most of the people benefiting from land reform are rich, black, older men. Things are already starting to change. I see more women farmers, black and white, at agricultural shows than I did in, say, 2012. But progress is slow. 

There needs to be a deliberate bias towards younger people and women if this is a sector we are serious about. 

Agriculture is a lively and exciting area to be in, especially with new technologies coming in. And it’s not just about actual farming. There are many opportunities, like in agri-processing, services within the sector, information and knowledge-related work.

And when it comes to actual farming, do you mean opportunities in big commercial farming, or only in smaller enterprises?

We really must make sure that there is a commercialisation of black farmers in this country. Until that happens, you won’t deal with the fractiousness in the sector. 

There has always been this dualism where largely white commercial farmers are producing foods that go to supermarkets or the export market, while largely black farmers do the smallholder farming thing. 

Where conditions permit, there has to be commercialisation of black farmers. And where the conditions aren’t ideal for that, there has to be support for medium and small-scale farming. So I’m not suggesting we engineer the entire sector to be all about industrial farming.

The key point to emphasise is that when dialogues are taking place about agricultural transformation, we are talking about growing the pie. 

It’s not a zero-sum game where you are taking something away from someone and giving it to someone else. It’s about how we use the resources we have in a responsible way by making sure that as many people as possible are part of this sector. 

Only once there is a fair representation, will the sector become stable. DM/MC

Wandile Sihlobo’s book, Finding Common Ground: Land, Equity and Agriculture, is published by Picador Africa.

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  • Thanks for this great interview with some-one in the agricultural sector who actually knows what he is talking about. And to Wandile, keep up the good work. If it weren’t for the abusive power of political parties, we could appoint you Minister of Agriculture & Land Reform and the future would be very bright.