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After the Bell: SA needn’t be a country of two agricultures nor an endless battle for equality

After the Bell: SA needn’t be a country of two agricultures nor an endless battle for equality
An aerial view of women rolling up the covers before harvesting spinach at Costa farm in Klippoortje, on 9 August 2023. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

South Africa is the most unequal country in the world, and this is reflected in glaring agricultural disparities. 

In his new book A Country of Two Agricultures, Wandile Sihlobo, Chief Economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa (Agbiz), dissects this dilemma and offers some sensible solutions to narrow the chasm between the haves and have-nots in the countryside. 

To wit, on one hand, South African agriculture is defined by mostly subsistence farming, notably in the former homelands where tenure is insecure and infrastructure has been lacking. This is the lot of the vast majority of black people who live off the land. 

On the other hand, it is South Africa’s vibrant and mostly white-owned commercial agricultural sector. It is capital-intensive and increasingly high-tech, raising the bar to entry while providing South Africa with much-needed food security and export earnings.   

Take the example of maize. According to Sihlobo, in the second half of the 1990s, South African commercial maize plantings averaged. 3.7 million hectares (ha) per season producing average annual harvests of 9.5 million tonnes — about 2.5 tonnes per ha. 

From 2010 to 2020, the average area planted was 2.5 million ha and 12.6 million tonnes was reaped on average, representing a doubling of yields to 5.0 tonnes per ha. 

This has been driven by advances such as precision farming, which utilises GPS technology, conservation farming methods and GMOs. 

By contrast, Sihlobo notes that in the former Transkei, there is hardly a silo to be seen, not to mention operational dipping systems for livestock farmers or functioning road networks to bring inputs to the land and products to the market. 

“My motivation in writing this book was to understand why the agricultural sector is still marked by inequalities three decades after the onset of democracy,” Sihlobo writes. 

Government inaction

One key reason why this state of affairs exists has been persistent government failures to address the issue, which in turn has been red meat for populists in the EFF and the ANC’s “radical economic transformation” wing who want to follow Zimbabwe’s road to land reform ruin. 

Sihlobo is far more critical of the government on this front than he was in his previous book “Finding Common Ground: Land, Equity & Agriculture”. Like many South Africans, he seems to be losing patience with the failing state that the ANC has presided over. 

“… senior government officials often seem unbothered about implementing critical agricultural investment,” Sihlobo writes. 

He and colleagues have “… sat in many meetings, forums and policy discussions in which the need to expand irrigation agriculture to support export growth and jobs, in line with the National Development Plan, was mentioned. Still, most discussions did not lead to meaningful implementation. This failure or delay to implement policies and programmes is not due to limited options, but rather to a lack of political will.” 

There are also the tangled webs of bureaucracy. Sihlobo recounts a project to raise an inlet canal to a dam in the Western Cape which required input and cooperation from 17 organs of state in various spheres of government. As a result, it took a decade (!) to complete a relatively simple project. Other projects are left to rot like produce left in the field. 

“The current government has … missed or delayed opportunities to invest in agriculture, which would have supported the commercialisation of black farmers and contributed to much-needed agricultural employment in South Africa,” Sihlobo notes. 

He sees three main reasons behind this malaise: limited government capacity (cadre deployment springs to mind), the misallocation of funds, and “the general misalignment of incentives between the government and the private sector”.

And it is not just a case of state failure.

Private sector and land reform

“I have blamed the government a lot,” Sihlobo writes,” but the private sector has its fair share of blame. There have not been wide-scale joint-venture programmes for land reform that demonstrate … the private sector’s willingness to contribute to successful land reform. Moreover, black farmers often complain about being sidelined by established value chain players.”

While his assessments of what has gone wrong are often withering, Sihlobo is not despondent. The subtitle of his book is: “The Disparities, The Challenges, The Solutions.” 

For example, the former homelands are South Africa’s next frontiers for agricultural growth. Sihlobo calls for investment in these areas from both the private and public sectors in infrastructure such as grain silos, dipping tanks and sheep-shearing sheds.

This is surely low-hanging fruit and the private sector is already leading the way. This correspondent last year visited sheep-shearing sheds in the former Transkei provided by diversified metals producer Sibanye-Stillwater as part of its social development initiatives in the old “labour-sending areas”. For small-scale farmers, it was a game changer.

Sihlobo notes that even if land rights were to be bolstered in the former homelands, their agricultural potential would remain stunted by the lack of infrastructure and investment. 

Making better use of — and in many cases actually releasing — land purchased by the state from private farmers for redistribution would also be a good start. By Sihlobo’s estimates, about 20% of land that was white-owned in 1994 has been transferred to the state. 

“… progress made should be acknowledged, and the land the government has acquired should be released to the correctly and fairly identified beneficiaries,” he notes. 

In Sihlobo’s view, improving municipal service delivery as well as upgrading roads, rail and ports would also pay huge dividends for farmers big and small, black and white. 

In this regard, agriculture is emblematic of the constraints to growth and prosperity for the South African economy more widely. 

Good investing. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    You know, subsistence farming can NEVER compete with scale commercial farming simply because of that – SCALE. You can economically and profitably plough, irrigate, fertilise and harvest a 1,000 ha farm with GPS based machinery, but with an ox and an old cart you cannot make 5 ha work beyond providing for your own household. It’s very simple, and Sihlobo did not need to research and write a book about it. As soon as this government breaks the control of rural chiefs, you will be able to have small towns and villages that densify and make more efficient service delivery of water, electricity and sanitation, and you give farmers the ability to get bigger and gain SCALE. In that way, you will help black people commercialise their farming and grow. Anything else just won’t work.

  • Ben Harper says:

    Yawn, the same victimhood rhetoric trotted out again. Is SA REALLY the most unequal country in the world or is it merely anc/bee/eff/ anti-everything nonsense that gets trotted out when making excuses for their failures

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