Opinionista Lumko Mtimde 11 September 2020

How to rekindle rural development and push back rising poverty in SA

Prioritising rural development, creating jobs and reducing over-urbanisation to help combat poverty in a post Covid-19 universe.

On 9 September, South Africa’s battling economy received a “shot in the arm’’ – it was reported that business confidence had rebounded in the third quarter from its worst slump, building on the eased Covid-19 restrictions. Admittedly, more needs to be done to revive and rev up the economy.

We are required to implement fundamental macroeconomic reforms to protect the economy from vulnerable shifts in market sentiment. A credible fiscal consolidation plan to ease investors’ concerns over debt sustainability has been teased out. This, on the back of the fact that all sectors recorded a rise in confidence readings, particularly in the retail, vehicle and wholesale trade sectors. This boost was supported by a vibrant agricultural sector and a further recovery in international trade, which drove the increase in wholesale confidence.

The extreme 51% contraction in the gross domestic product (GDP) in the second quarter would have effects in the third quarter. But, these developments pointed to a much-improved outcome where the GDP could recover some lost ground, possibly increasing by an annualised rate of 20 to 25% in the third quarter.

Thus, by all accounts, economic activity is expected to continue to pick up each month this year on the previous month, and indeed each quarter on the previous from the second quarter, with the green shoots strengthening into more robust economic activity in 2021 as household finances gradually strengthen.

This leads me to ask the question of whether we could engage in the “battle of ideas’’. We clearly require multiple layers of aggressive interventions, collective wisdom and private sector participation. A key lever identified has been an infrastructure-led investment drive pivoted on localisation, mass employment and a public works programme. It should also include improving skills, education and capacity building; encouraging software engineers and the ICT sector to design local digital solutions to resolve our deep-seated structural challenges.

But, I want to focus more prodigiously on rural development. Rural areas are economically valuable and we must maximise their potential without undermining people’s traditional leadership ways, social and cultural rights and expressions of identity and belonging.

Rural development is the process of improving the quality of life and economic well-being of people living in rural areas, often relatively isolated and sparsely populated areas; traditionally centred on the exploitation of land-intensive natural resources such as agriculture and forestry. The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR), now called the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, on its website, reflects that progress in urban areas stands in contrast to the often extreme levels of poverty that many South Africans in the rural areas endure. Most departments define rural areas as “the sparsely populated areas in which people farm or depend on natural resources. Besides, they include the large settlements in the former homelands, created by the apartheid removals, which depend for their survival on migratory labour and remittances.” (Rural Development Framework of 1997).

The DRDLR further notes that social deprivation and underdevelopment continue to haunt too many rural areas. For nearly half a century, the heartless apartheid regime viewed the inhabitants of black rural areas simply as labour reserves, unworthy of development efforts, whereas the post-1994 development paradigm was premised on the assumption that urban development would inevitably cascade to the rural periphery. Consequently, for years rural South Africa saw very little development. This eventually subjected social systems and economic and infrastructural developments to enormous strain as many moved from rural areas to cities, seeking a better future.

It is therefore widely accepted that our cities have benefited greatly from projects that developed and improved infrastructure and social services. This focus placed these areas under the increasing strain of over-urbanisation. DRDLR notes that the development paradigm of the past 26 years, with its emphasis on urban development, in the expectation that this medicine would also heal ailing rural areas, did not do so, and did not produce the economic impact our socio-engineers had envisaged. Much of the commentary on the tragic statistics has underscored the poor performance of urban job creation efforts and our education system. 

SA’s onslaught on fighting Covid-19, guided by experts and engagement consultations with stakeholders, has received unreserved support for President Cyril Ramaphosa’s decisive leadership, including by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Yet, it too required all of us, as citizens, to make even greater sacrifices so that our country may survive this crisis and so that tens of thousands of lives may be saved. 

The experience of Covid-19 showed that poor and rural areas are hardest hit. Therefore, our post Covid-19 Economic Stimulus and Recovery Plan must have regard to these realities – it is our biggest opportunity to drive towards the constitutional imperative to redress and balance the imbalances of the past. This stated developmental trajectory must be our strategic focus to fight the historical challenges and to heighten the fight against the triple challenge of poverty, unemployment and inequality. 

SA will need to review its rural reform policy, with an eye to boosting productive land use among the rural poor, if it is to push back rising poverty levels. It is time for a seismic shift and change; we need to develop a sustainable farming model with an army of farmers that provides food security. Let us learn from successful farming and rural models in other countries like China, Vietnam and Cuba. 

Today, China is considered the locus classicus of rural developmental progress. Historic changes have been made in China’s agriculture and rural areas, and the rural population has enjoyed the greatest tangible benefits. This is considered the golden era for the development of agriculture, rural areas and the rural population in China. The smooth development of agriculture and rural areas has laid a solid foundation for efforts to overcome various risks, provided strong support for the steady and robust growth of China’s economy, and made a significant contribution to upholding social stability and harmony in the country. These hard-won achievements are the result of dedicated work in agriculture and rural areas.

In Vietnam, the National Target Program on new rural development aims to improve the economy and living standards of Vietnam’s rural areas. A developed infrastructure will ensure a long-term and sustainable growth to meet the requirements of industrialisation and modernisation in line with the national master plan. It is agreed that the environment should be kept clean while the knowledge of local people needs to be improved and cultural character must be preserved and upheld. The political competence and quality of officials at the grassroots level should also be strengthened. These are part of the fundamental characters of a new rural focus in Vietnam, which started a while back already.

Let’s learn from countries like Cuba, using an agro-ecological farming, organic agriculture, green economy approach to help boost climate resilience in agriculture through considerations of conversation practices, sustainable farming contributing to landscape-scale resilience and innovation (www.edf.org).

SA entered the Covid-19 pandemic with 29% unemployment, more than 40% living in poverty and the highest rate of inequality in the world. The balancing act of managing Covid-19 while also sustaining livelihoods and overall human welfare was especially challenging in the context of our extreme inequality, unemployment and poverty. The past decade strained the economy, veering into recession territory. Almost half the population live below the poverty line, and about 25% fall below the food poverty line. Unemployment rose from a low of 23% in 2008 to 29% in 2019.  Half the workforce earns less than R4,600 per month, which means even middle-class families live on a precipice.  

The conditions that existed before the onset of Covid-19 have effectively worsened. Solutions must now be found to cross the bridge and get out on the other end, ready to chart a way forward, in a post Covid-19 universe. Most critically, a crisis should be prevented from causing permanent damage to people and businesses through job losses and avoidable closures. 

SA’s onslaught on fighting Covid-19, guided by experts and engagement consultations with stakeholders, has received unreserved support for President Cyril Ramaphosa’s decisive leadership, including by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Yet, it too required all of us, as citizens, to make even greater sacrifices so that our country may survive this crisis and so that tens of thousands of lives may be saved. 

Ramaphosa continued to affirm the centrality of the Constitution and the fundamental rights it encapsulates in our democratic order. The president asserted that “As we navigate these turbulent waters, our Constitution is our most important guide and our most valued protection. Our robust democracy provides the strength and the resilience we need to overcome this deep crisis.” The Constitution commits SA to an open, accountable and responsive government. 

The president has unreservedly acknowledged the right of citizens and civil society organisations to challenge the government over the lockdown and its regulations, a point that was underscored by Fabricius J, when he elucidated the provisions of the enforcement of rights, as per section 38 of the Bill of Rights, in the Constitution. As commander-in-chief, Ramaphosa has a contract with SA citizens, leading the nation through these turbulent times.

Critical, in this regard, is infrastructure – the “flywheel’’ to drive economic growth and a renewed emphasis on localisation, procurement and state-owned companies and the determination that it should proactively support youth employment, black industrialists and related developmental objectives. Thus, infrastructure remains a lever through which industrial development and economic growth can be ignited, implemented and sustained.

The government has led and continues to communicate in simple terms using inclusive language, ensuring alignment between rhetoric and action, deploying more soft power than hard power, and practising transparency. In times of crisis, nations look up to the central figure of authority for guidance rather than listening to many discordant voices. The government’s actions need to continue to be class conscious and serve the wider national interest, including the rural areas.

More than 40% of our population comes from the rural areas. The poor and rural communities have been among the worst affected by the rising poverty levels and will again bear the brunt of the consequences and fall-out of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our spatial planning system, if any existed before 1994, used apartheid designed methods and approaches to influence the distribution of people and activities in spaces of various scales, ethnic groups and racial groups. In 2013, the ANC government enacted the Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act, which provides for the inclusive, developmental, equitable and efficient spatial planning at the different spheres of government and to provide a framework for the monitoring, coordination and review of the spatial planning and land use management system. 

The onset of Covid-19 presents to us the use of digital technology and an opportunity and basis of a new spatial planning system guided by the principles of equality in our constitution. They encompass norms aimed at achieving sustainability, equality, efficiency, fairness, good governance and land use management. 

Our government has committed to an infrastructure-led growth strategy to get SA to effectively address its lagging economic woes and all the related economic and related growth challenges. To this end, ANC conference resolutions aimed at radically transforming the lives of all our people for the better; to “lift the tide and raise all boats’’ to transform the resolutions into catalytic programmes to make meaningful and lasting difference to people’s existence have now been fully embraced and been embarked upon.

Critical, in this regard, is infrastructure – the “flywheel’’ to drive economic growth and a renewed emphasis on localisation, procurement and state-owned companies and the determination that it should proactively support youth employment, black industrialists and related developmental objectives. Thus, infrastructure remains a lever through which industrial development and economic growth can be ignited, implemented and sustained.

The biggest challenge facing rural areas is poor or lack of access to socioeconomic infrastructure. This includes dangerous roads, roads that regularly damage people’s cars and increase their maintenance costs, often resulting in death and destruction. In summary, poor infrastructure and institutional support for meeting minimum or basic human needs have continued to obtain. This now requires a new approach. We have to think and act differently with regards to the provisioning of decent shelter, food security, water and sanitation. Also, the rural poor are still suffering from access to electricity, social facilities and amenities and decent logistics systems. All these affect their ability to attract small, sustainable enterprises and industries, artisanal and other technical skills, entrepreneurs, rural-urban linkages, local markets and credit facilities. This adds unnecessary pressures on the country’s health, economic and social budgets. It leads to added unforeseen consequential problems.

The Covid-19 crisis can assist in facilitating a fast-tracked approach to the digital economy and an opportunity to ensure we accord the necessary investment towards achieving vibrant, equitable, sustainable rural communities and therefore food security. Several interventions since 1994 were rolled out, some successful and some not. These included the Integrated Sustainable Rural Development Programme, the Comprehensive Rural Development Programme, the National Rural Youth Services Corps (NARYSEC), Agri-Parks, One Household One Hectare, Community Development Workers and the Expanded Public Works Programme. Additionally, we embarked on the intensification and building of post offices, clinics, telecommunication infrastructure, broadcasting services, broadband and connectivity of schools, clinics, libraries, digitising schools and the Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative. All of this culminated in the National Development Plan (NDP), in 2012.

We now need to review our approach, as guided by the 25 years of government performance. In this regard, it would be prescient that we are guided by the new District Development Model (DDM), with a comprehensive digitally accessible “one country, one plan’’ approach while ensuring measurable impact. 

We must improve the roads (example: why not tar rural roads and end up improving roads every year?), as this will enable travelling and economic activities. We also need to roll out broadband through the country to enable ease of understanding our needs, use new technologies, satellite technologies, big data, artificial intelligence, cattle watch, robotics innovation to develop drones, autonomous tractors, robotic harvesters, automatic watering, and seeding robots, etc to fast-track rural development. 

We are now 26 years into our democracy, and we should have a world-class databank portal, at the press of a button, of the whole of our country including knowing the number of homesteads per ward, the assets (including agricultural ) each household has, and we should adopt deep mechanisation. We must invest in and discover the latest agriculture technology to help our youth manage small-scale farming at their households more efficiently and effectively. We need to encourage and empower the youth to come with creative and innovative ideas, as these are more important in modern agriculture than ever before. 

Ramaphosa has stated unequivocally that to do so, we must boldly chart a new economic policy course. The short-term impact of Covid-19 on growth, employment and poverty must be lessened, the recovery period must be short-lived, and, over the next 10 years, the size of the economy must almost double (from R3.15-trillion to R6.18-trillion), the unemployment rate must be reduced by almost 70% (from 39% to 12%), the poverty rate by almost 50% (from 43% to 23%), and inequality by 22% (from 71% to 55%). 

Our agricultural schools, TVETS, etc should be resourced to explore and upskill our agricultural extension officers, empower them with smartphones to capture data and resolve farmers’ challenges on the spot and to encourage indoor vertical farming, (growing produce stacked one above another in a closed and controlled environment) which can increase crop yields, overcome limited land area, and even reduce farming’s impact on the environment by cutting down on the distance travelled in the supply chain. Let us investigate the utilisation of environmentally-friendly techniques to help feed our nation with an ageing farmer population, declining farmland and a changing climate. 

In a post Covid-19 universe, we need to explore the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) to create home-grown innovation to resolve our agriculture challenges, improve our lives and facilitate commerce. Smart farming can add value to the land reform interventions and when redistribution of land is done, our youths will only then be empowered with high-tech greenhouse farm automation, a technology that makes farms more efficient and automates the crop or livestock production cycle. 

The DDM adds another layer of opportunity for “business unusual’’ and to shake up the edifice. Research by the HSRC and others (PLAAS) suggests poverty levels can be pushed back significantly, if policies are put in place (and implemented) that focus on rural development and food security, creating viable pathways to prosperity for the rural poor. 

As a nation, we are going to be confronted with widespread hunger as a challenge that we must address. Some people tend to confuse hunger with poverty. Hunger is as a result of abject poverty. This is a stage where people go to bed without food, and have no idea where they will find something to eat the next day. The Social Relief of Distress fund of R350 and food parcels have short legs and cannot be provided to all and sundry indefinitely. One of the interventions to deal with widespread hunger is food gardens, which used to drive and pushed the campaign for “One House One Garden’’. 

We have people, particularly in rural areas, who have nothing but land. We can exploit this Covid-19 period by intensifying community food gardens projects and campaigns. I imagine, if such a project could pick up in November/December, we would need to start making preparations now. Agriculture is a low hanging fruit, but it needs time. You don’t plant when you need to harvest. Food gardens can be part of the armoury of additional relief strategies, community and home food gardens as a sustainable intervention, particularly for rural areas and townships.

ICT facilitates social integration and cryptocurrency will fast- track the vision of leaders like Kwame Nkrumah and Grow Africa. Regional collaboration and integration created by the Africa Continental Free Trade Area will expand and create a single African market for homegrown solutions and grow the economy. 

Applications (Apps) designs by software engineers must be developed by Africans. Currently, they yield only about 2%. We need to reskill, review, fix and adjust our education system to change the current situation. Data is the new oil that will grease progress, thus, we need to collect our data and be in control of commercialising that data. We must invest and use data to generate problem-appropriate solutions. Of course, we need innovations in the development of infrastructure, the production and supply of electricity and improved water and sanitation.

This is the time to look at how our ICT SMMEs, through shared value, can be partners with agricultural schools and focus on developing business solutions promoting innovative solutions, addressing social problems and smart farming. This includes a strategy with the NYDA, a school curriculum review and other creative ways of encouraging rural youth towards job opportunities and entrepreneur opportunities in their areas, as a deliberate intervention against leaving them exposed to drugs and crime. 

We were hit by this pandemic at a time when the country was already in the midst of an economic crisis. Returning to the pre-coronavirus economic recession is not a desirable option, therefore our current policy challenges go beyond short-term Covid-19 mitigation measures. Our policy measures have been geared to respond to the immediate Covid-19 crisis, while also addressing the country’s long-standing economic stagnation with high rates of poverty and inequality. 

Ramaphosa has stated unequivocally that to do so, we must boldly chart a new economic policy course. The short-term impact of Covid-19 on growth, employment and poverty must be lessened, the recovery period must be short-lived, and, over the next 10 years, the size of the economy must almost double (from R3.15-trillion to R6.18-trillion), the unemployment rate must be reduced by almost 70% (from 39% to 12%), the poverty rate by almost 50% (from 43% to 23%), and inequality by 22% (from 71% to 55%). 

We all need to understand that this virus is still a deep and urgent threat. It is merciless and unrelenting. As the economy is opening up, notably, we must have a long-term view of redressing SA challenges, in particular rural development, and use the opportunity for the better. Let’s make rural development and agriculture fun, cool and interesting through the use of new technologies. Banks and other private partners are offering relatively little assistance to poor rural communities seeking to improve their spaces, land and its value. Even when families feel potential opportunities existed, literally on their doorsteps, they lack the means and support to grasp them. We need to rekindle rural development in SA and develop a single and inclusive rural development programme. DM

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All Comments 5

  • Old hat. Small wonder same old, same old spouts from the presidency. Even without the massive potential these so-called-new-ideas have for ANC pillaging the state coffers, these unequivocal ambitions are not new. Even so, why should they have any more traction than those spouted for the last 25 years? Let’s face it the ANC has pillaged the state RAW. With the best will in the world, there’s nothing left for rural populations. You talk about investing in current infrastructure – what infrastructure is left; invest with what funds.

  • I stopped reading about a third into the story, when I realised that this puff-piece is nothing more than hot air. Scrolling down to the writers credentials confirmed this. I started reading the piece because I am of the firm belief that it is indeed imperative that our rural areas are uplifted, empowered, developed and provided with some serious incentives. The latter should be the state’s only role. No more ideology, especially not ANC ideology, should interfere with this endeavor. They (the ANC) have done enough – not to save the platteland, but to utterly ruin it. Of course apartheid is also to blame, but every day, every month, every year, the affect of apartheid lessens, while the ANC government’s policies increases this ruination. Ideology will save nothing, only investment will. Where will this money come from? The State??

  • I absolutely understand the tragedy that apartheid itself and post apartheid policy has wreaked in rural areas. But, in a country where a large percentage of the land is marginal and in a world where urbanization is happening, why would we encourage infrastructure in rural areas. Aside from arguing where the funding is coming from – a huge if, start funding a basic income and funding development of urban infrastructure so that people can afford to move and live in the cities with dignity and decency. Cities are good investments as each investment serves many more people and they limit human impact on the environment. We should certainly farm where this makes sense but for the rest, we should be looking at imaginative ways to exploit our unique countryside. The whole “land” concept may have made sense 100 years ago but today, we can not accommodate all the people that want land and it makes no sense environmentally, financially or commercially.

  • My goodness one has to have more stamina than I do to read to the end of this diatribe. It is all old hat, words, words and more words that try to obfuscate the need for action, practically ANY action except theft from the public purse. Rest assured there is no chance of this author DOING anything to change the status quo.

  • A very good place to start would be to grant property rights to the 18m South Africans who currently live in feudal conditions under the rule of hereditary chiefs. It didn’t work in pre-colonial times or at any time since.

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