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We can get out of our current crisis: The nuts and bolts of an Agriculture Green New Deal in SA (Part Two)

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Dr Roland Ngam is programme manager for climate justice and socioecological transformation at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Southern Africa. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Going forward, human development has to be based on the following pillars: Sustainable economic and financial systems; healthy, nutritious food and clean water and energy; and healthy lives and wellbeing for all in safe cities and settlements. In short, an Agriculture Green New Deal.

This is Part Two in a two-part series. Part One can be read here.

A deep-democracy Agriculture Green New Deal in South Africa is long overdue. It is time to prioritise the economic, social and environmental dimensions of the land question.

A critique of prevailing economic conditions must lead us to the conclusion that land and agrarian reform must be predicated on the right to food, dignity and a clean, healthy environment… and it must be done speedily and in a different way.

Betting that outsourcing South Africa’s agriculture to a few thousand large-scale commercial farms can help the country achieve autarky neglects to factor in the fact that these farms are businesses that ship their commodities abroad or to supermarkets in the most affluent suburbs. The rest of the country cannot afford what they produce.

So what needs to happen to ensure that we take care of the rest of the country? The recently published Making Peace with Nature argues that, going forward, human development has to be based on the following pillars:

  • Sustainable economic and financial systems;
  • Healthy, nutritious food and clean water and energy; and
  • Healthy lives and wellbeing for all in safe cities and settlements.

This, neatly summarised, is the path that South Africa must also follow. Interestingly, the ideas captured above all appear in the recommendations section of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Land Reform Panel final report, i.e. transformed cities, transformed agriculture that prioritises not just large-scale commercial farms but small ones as well, equity and accountability, democratic control of resources, etc.

Ramaphosa’s Land Reform Panel final report calls for “structural change to transform household and commercial food production and deepen diversity in the agro-food system”.

This, in many ways, is a call for an Agriculture Green New Deal in South Africa.

A degrowth, deep-democracy Agriculture Green New Deal should be based on the idea of regenerative economies based on commons, cooperation, caring and social wellbeing. Trickle-down economics and its attendant inequalities simply make that impossible. People should invest their time in personal growth and wellbeing that enriches communities rather than GDP growth that only serves to enrich those who control the forces of production.

Within a democracy Agriculture Green New Deal, people will produce food first to meet their own needs before they think about markets. They will not necessarily need to meet all their needs from the land that they receive. As I mentioned in the first part of this essay, to expect land reform beneficiaries to meet all their needs from the land is quite simply an unrealistic and ultimately self-defeating objective. Most white farm owners do not earn all their living from their land. They have an assortment of other activities that generate income: property, wedding venue hire, hiking trails, art, photography, part-time work, etc. Many of them are also absentee landlords.

A degrowth, deep-democracy Agriculture Green New Deal should recognise that the earth is not just a force of production to be plundered and exploited around the clock, but rather the foundation of nature and nurture. It needs to be given time to rest and heal so that it can produce rich, nutritive food. Metabolic rift should not deprive it of the by-products (waste, etc) of the food that it gives us, which it needs back for regeneration.

A deep-democracy Agriculture Green New Deal will recognise that all South Africans need to have a place that they can call home. This lodestar, this compass if you will, shall be the inspiration that guides their path and unites them with their fellow community members. It shall be their ancestral home, where they all gather on special occasions and invest in for the happiness and prosperity of future generations.

Yes, land reform should not be only about agriculture, but also about homes and creating prosperous, harmonious communities. The first iteration of land reform within the Reconstruction and Development policy agenda awarded land for agriculture as well as for houses. It was only after 2000 that policy shifts were made to focus only on agriculture and this has helped to prolong apartheid geography in rural areas. It is time to revert to the initial agenda.

In terms of practical steps, there is already a lot of infrastructure in place to enable an Agriculture Green New Deal. South Africa, for example, is number 10 in the world in terms of tarred roads. That is a major achievement that the ANC government should be proud of. It should also leverage that success and extend it to other infrastructure: bulk water supply, broadband, electricity, etc. Furthermore, the following also has to happen:

  1. At least 80% of land and agrarian reform should target smallholders and only 20% should go to medium- and large-scale commercial farmers;
  2. The national government should identify all immediately available farmland as well as donations from churches, business, the private sector, etc, and subdivide it into plots. Plot sizes should be capped and new plots titled as soon as possible to give property owners the ability to raise money for their projects. In a previous opinion, I have argued that new farm plots should be as small as 20 hectares. Former president Jacob Zuma had the One Farmer One Hectare programme. I say One Farmer, 20 Hectares. Someone else may decide for a slightly bigger plot size, but for me, it is preferable to go small. large-scale commercial farms require a lot of investments and labour and it will take an incredible length of time to create a thriving business on every single farm if only this type of agriculture is to be prioritised;
  3. Speed is just as important for this process, so immediately land is made available, it should be titled and handed over to a beneficiary;
  4. Starter packs should be given to help land reform beneficiaries build a house on their plot and start a project;
  5. Permaculture should be strengthened and encouraged as the default land-management philosophy. With this type of agriculture, people can grow dozens of different things on the same plot. The earth is always covered, and so it is a net carbon sink. Permaculture will save water while feeding the nation and help the country meet its voluntary emissions reduction targets;
  6. Provincial governments should create agrihubs (one-stop shops) in all districts. These hubs should have, among other things, government office support (to deal with any administrative issues), mechanisation facilities (a warehouse where people in the neighbourhood can borrow tractors, harvesters, borers, etc), financial offices (for loans, money transfer), an extension office, a permanent training centre (to provide short practical courses to those who need them) and marketing liaison (to manage forwards and backwards marketing support);
  7. Equity must be a constant priority. More should be done to ensure that women, young people and people living with disabilities are placed at the front of the queue whenever projects are made available;
  8. Community markets should be built where smallholders who produce enough for the markets can sell their produce. These markets should have transportation to move goods speedily and storage facilities to store what is not sold in optimal conditions. Farmers should also be able to create community seed banks and exchange seeds freely;
  9. The private sector must go beyond reactive criticism and play an active role in land reform. Major corporations and unions need to step in and help build resilient communities. It is not just about AgriBEE. They should be doing more to train people, set up housing schemes, avail land for immediate transfer, and so on. There are small examples of where major corporations and unions have helped settle farmers on land (such as in the sugar cane production basin in KwaZulu-Natal) but this needs to be generalised; and
  10. Urban housing projects should adopt a more integrated approach that combines offices and living spaces within the same area. All communities must have access to parks, playgrounds and, where possible, common gardens. In the Netherlands for example, cities often have common gardens where people can apply for a small patch and grow salads, spinach and so on. Cape Town’s Philippi Horticultural Area is also an initiative that should be generalised across urban areas in the country.

Ideally, accelerated land reform should be based on a comprehensive, long-term approach. Bits and pieces of legislation should not be implemented every time a new president is elected. For example, the Zuma administration introduced the position of Land-Valuer General to expedite land valuations following the adoption of the Property Valuation Act in 2014. Seven years later, Ramaphosa created a Land Reform Agency to further expedite the process. All these steps should be implemented at the same time.

An Agriculture Green New Deal can completely reshape the South African landscape and give it clean food, cleaner air and thriving, resilient communities. We must believe that this is possible – and then make it happen.

When Deng Xiaoping started laying the groundwork for China’s modern economy in 1978, he told a gathering of the Chinese Communist Party that “we need large numbers of pathbreakers who dare to think, explore new ways and generate new ideas… otherwise, we won’t be able to rid our country of poverty and backwardness or to catch up with – still less surpass – the advanced countries.”

China’s GDP at the time was just $149-billion. Its real per capita GDP was worse than the Republic of Chad’s (which stood at $1.1-billion at the time). Forty-three years later, the Chinese economy is worth a staggering $14-trillion. Chad has a GDP of $11-billion today. It is ranked 187th out of 189 countries in the 2019 Human Development Index. One country had a plan, the other did not.

How did Deng’s dream become reality? A simple plan: 1) Copy the best; and 2) Pursue goals with dogged determination.

South Africa has a head start on China. Its economy is more than double where China started its modern project from more than 43 years ago. It is time to engineer a great agricultural transformation here. It is time for an Agriculture Green New Deal. DM

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All Comments 4

  • Words, and more words. Over use of the word democracy.
    To achieve even a very small part of this requires management and support from the powers that be. Based on the Estina track record I am not holding my breath.
    Nice vision however, keep dreaming.

  • The previous government had a running system to support agriculture. In every town there was the coop who provided seeds and implements and this was paid for at the end of the growing season by sending the crops to the coop for sale. There was a program of advising farmers running at the same time.

    • But that whole system was propped up by agricultural control boards, price control and farmers getting easy credit through the co-ops. It wasn’t ever sustainable and simply kept consumer prices high and farmers in debt. It also led to unnecessary expenditure to get tax deductions.

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