Maverick Citizen


The future of urban agriculture in Johannesburg and the role of Bertrams Farm

The future of urban agriculture in Johannesburg and the role of Bertrams Farm
Young people from the Bertrams, Johannesburg community work the land at the inner-city farm run by Refiloe Molefe. (Photo: Denvor de Wee)

There is no comprehensive and systematic process to plan for urban agriculture in Johannesburg. Bertrams Farm may be valuable for a comprehensive approach to urban agriculture and it needs to be conserved as a farm, but we have to depersonalise the issue.

Mark Heywood has come to the defence of Bertrams Farm in Johannesburg and Refiloe Molefe’s tenure at this farm. I know Refiloe, and consider her a personal friend. I am also known to others who are engaged in this debate, being a kind of activist myself for urban agriculture.

Urban agriculture can feed cities if at least 30% of city lands are devoted to farming. In South Africa, Nkosi City may become such a place. Urban agriculture can produce food for cities (and can only produce “enough” food if “enough land” is available. It is a magic bullet only in exceptional circumstances) but also brings significant other benefits, from job creation (once again depending on the amount of land and technology available), to water and landscape management and education.

However, for urban agriculture to feed cities, we need to change our agricultural paradigm. First of all, urban agriculture implies food is locally traded, invoking new retail and logistics models and local trade patterns. This is at odds with our fresh produce markets and the control over rural production of commodities by commodity organisations. Urban agriculture will radically decentralise production and reorganise farmers geographically to serve particular cities. It will also endanger supermarkets and retail, which are heavily invested in logistics and distribution systems to bring food from rural areas to cities.

Promoting urban agriculture implies conserving every inch of available land for food production, and infrastructure and housing need to be densified so we can make more land available for farming within city limits. In this sense, bulldozing the Bertrams Farm would be regressive, as it is important to protect this 0.9ha of farmed land (the 2ha reported on in Heywood’s article includes the cricket ground next door) as it can shorten food miles and lower barriers to access to food for inner-city residents. The 0.9ha, generously fed by City of Johannesburg parks’ fertile grass clippings, could produce significant quantities of food, as the articles demonstrate.

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The development of urban agriculture thus implies the development of new economic systems and institutions that could create a sustainable urban food system. These could move towards a form of self-sufficiency which may be unattainable currently with the stark divide between urban and rural areas. However, designing a city that feeds itself is designing an institution wherein actors need to act to create food self-sufficiency.

Such an institution needs to clearly reflect the principles of not only justice, but of food security and to achieve all of this, has to create a net benefit or value to society. This may be in the form of profit or other benefits. However, food trade through markets has to be very free, to boost the widespread circulation of food. This is the cornerstone of food security.

This often fails and that is why we have food relief. We have not yet cracked the food security equation and in the absence of widespread personal food production and food relief, we can only achieve it through increases in income. This roundabout way to achieve it is the source of the difficulties and inability of society to guarantee the right to food. It is a responsibility so diffuse throughout society that we struggle to see how to achieve it. This explains why we often think food gardens can achieve food security, while it would really be the size of the garden and its productivity that we need to note.

In light of the above, we need to be very careful in choosing sides in the debate about Bertrams Farm. In such a debate we may easily be bluffed about stories of organic soils, the evil state or other technical matters. However, this debate may well determine how we will in the future deal with urban agriculture in Johannesburg.

As this is a public facility, access and the use of it must be fair. The contract between the present owner and the CoJ needs to be transparently discussed. The city, as a part of the state, would have to use the lease or contract in such a way as to improve the position of those most marginalised, instead of benefiting a privileged few. The location of the land may suggest it should be used for food production, but it is not clear who should use it.

The cricket ground next door should also be discussed here, as this could double production and beneficiaries. We can see the importance of dealing with this programme in the most defendable way, as it will set a precedent for further action, and quite a bit of information needs to be made available on how we should deal with this piece of land.

The state would be compelled to deal with access to this land formally. It will not serve any purpose to keep access informal and underdetermined in the name of “food security”. The land in question is only 0.9ha in extent and the food security effects are limited.

From research, we know that access to land for urban agriculture in Johannesburg is often governed by informal arrangements, although formal provision is made in the by-laws to lease land for farming in this city. This informality of tenure may lie at the heart of the debate about this piece of land, and clearly the City of Johannesburg, through various administrations, has been sitting on its hands.

This specific by-law could give rise to a larger urban agricultural programme so many people can benefit. Greater opportunities to engage in such leases could stimulate food production much more than this one farm would do. This could give economic security to urban farmers occupying publicly available and open lands, like those in the backyards of clinics and schools. Clarity here can make a big difference.

Informal arrangements may be deeply conservative and reinforce the deeper injustices — outside the urban areas — of the South African food system as they also hold the potential to delink food production from the conventional farming system and create a sustainable urban agriculture. We need to design the systems for urban agriculture to achieve the social benefits we need.

There is no comprehensive and systematic process to plan for urban agriculture in Johannesburg. The Eikenhof Farm is not in the city limits, but has lots of good soils, has access to water, sits among highly productive farms and is certainly open to regenerative production.

The Siyakhana Garden a few miles down the road from Bertrams and the Bezuidenhout Valley Park itself may serve urban agriculture even better and should be part of the broader planning process for urban agriculture. We also have rooftop farms in the city growing hydroponic vegetables. These are all fragmented and disconnected. The path to market is also unexplored, and this is a very different picture than we may expect.

Bertrams Farm may be valuable for such a comprehensive approach to urban agriculture in Johannesburg. It needs to be conserved as a farm, but we have to depersonalise the issue. This debate should revolve around the best use of public lands (and there is a lot of open land available for this) for a comprehensive urban agricultural programme, with provision for individual entrepreneurs (like Ms Molefe) who are able to thrive (as she is clearly doing).

Nevertheless, the outlines of such an urban agricultural programme deal with the engagement of stakeholders and not the productivity of a single farmer. Urban agriculture can bring significant benefits to South Africa, but this would depend on all stakeholders to change their behaviour and rearrange the market, input and distribution patterns of urban agricultural production.

This is a deeply democratic process with immediate economic impacts. This process should benefit broad constituencies of urban farmers whose needs are still unexplored in a nascent sustainable urban food system.

The question is, will we offer Bertrams Farm the chance to achieve this, or will we burn it on the altar of change and progress? DM

Dr Naudé Malan is senior lecturer in development studies at the University of Johannesburg and convener of iZindaba Zokudla, which aims to create opportunities for urban agriculture in a sustainable food system in Soweto.


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