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What is a ‘smallholder’? or Who should be the primary target of redistributive land reform?

2 February 2010

Who should be the primary beneficiaries of redistributive land reform in South Africa, and how will land redistribution contribute to the reduction of rural poverty? Fifteen years after the transition to democracy, these remain controversial and contested questions. At least at the level of rhetoric, the primary beneficiaries of land reform are once again, as in 1994/95, being identified as the rural poor and small-scale farmers, or smallholders, rather than emerging commercial farmers. But what exactly is a ‘smallholder’?

I see the term as problematic. It tends to obscure inequalities and significant class-based differences within the large population of households engaged in agricultural production on a relatively small scale. Much usage suggests that smallholders form a relatively homogeneous group. This fails to distinguish between producers for whom:

  • farming constitutes only a partial contribution to the income needed to maintain themselves at their current standard of living, while also providing for their children’s future (i.e. what is termed their ‘social reproduction’)
  • farming meets most of their social reproduction requirements
  • farming produces a significant surplus over and above their reproduction needs, allowing profits to be reinvested and, for some, capital accumulation in agriculture to begin (i.e. what is termed ‘expanded reproduction’).

The term ‘smallholder’ tends to foreclose on analysis of the causal processes through which inequalities emerge within populations of small farmers, and draws attention away from internal tensions within households (often gender-based) over the use of land, labour and capital. It can also misdirect the formulation of land and agrarian reform policies aimed at addressing structural inequality.

Sheep farmer (Source: Edward Ruiz/iAfrika Photos)

I argue in a recent PLAAS Working Paper that a class-analytic perspective on small-scale farming is essential for understanding the differentiated character and diverse trajectories of small-scale agriculture within capitalism. The key concepts in this perspective are that of ‘petty commodity production’ and ‘accumulation from below’. I propose that land and agrarian reform should aim to support a broadly-based process of accumulation from below, in which successful small-scale farmers begin to supply domestic (and some export) markets for food. This should be combined with supporting supplementary food production on small plots and fields by large numbers of rural (and peri-urban) households in order to enhance their food security and reduce income poverty.

I propose the following typology for different kinds of small-scale agricultural producers (see Table 1). The key variables in this typology are the degree to which agriculture contributes to social reproduction or expanded reproduction, and the degree to which hired labour is used in the agricultural production process. These are the key indicators of class relations in agriculture.

Table 1. Proposed class-analytic typology of small-scale agricultural producers in South Africa

Class category Criteria
Supplementary food producers, Work small plots or gardens, do not have access to wage income, and rely on additional forms of income such as a social grant, craftwork or petty trading for their simple reproduction
Allotment holding wage workers Work small plots or gardens but are primarily dependent on wages for their simple reproduction
Worker-peasants Farm on a substantial scale but are also engaged in wage labour, and combine these in their simple reproduction
Petty commodity producers Are able to reproduce themselves from farming alone (or with only minor additional forms of income)
Small-scale capitalist farmers Rely substantially on hired labour and can begin to engage in expanded reproduction and capital accumulation
Capitalists whose main income is not from farming Farm on a small-scale but their main source of income is another business.

In a class-analytic perspective, BEE-type land reform, which government policies focused strongly on during the Mbeki era, can be seen as a peculiar form of ‘accumulation from above’. Here a highly inegalitarian agrarian structure is left largely intact, and only the racial identity of large scale capitalist farmers alters. Accumulation ‘from below’, in contrast, implies that the inherited agrarian structure is radically reconfigured so that much larger numbers of people begin to participate in the agricultural sector and benefit substantially from such participation. However, it also suggests that ultimately these new producers must be able to produce as much as (if not more than) large scale commercial farmers, replacing them in supplying local, national and international markets. Beyond the household food security of small-scale producers and the rural poor is the critical issue of how agriculture can contribute to the economic development of society as a whole, support a growing urban population, and help reduce structural unemployment.

It seems to me that only some small-scale, family-based farmers are ever likely to meet this productivity challenge, in part because high potential land is so scarce in South Africa. In addition, inequalities in land access, livestock holdings and sources of finance within rural populations suggest that class differentiation already exists to some degree. And successful petty commodity producers and wealthier worker-peasants will be better placed to benefit from agrarian reform interventions than those for whom food production is only a minor supplement to their livelihoods.

Successful accumulation from below, then, would involve a class of productive small-scale capitalist farmers emerging from within a larger population of petty commodity producers, worker-peasants, allotment-holding wage workers and supplementary food producers. All these categories are legitimate beneficiaries of land and agrarian reform policies aimed at poverty reduction. But only those able to fully utilize the productive potential of the scarce land and water resources of the country, and engage in significant on-farm investment, are likely to be able to replace those productive large-scale commercial farmers whose land is acquired though land reform, and compete effectively with those that remain. ‘Accumulators from below’ are potentially a much larger group than existing large-scale farmers, perhaps four to five times as large, but even so they would clearly constitute a minority of the rural population as a whole.

One concrete example might be a large-scale horticultural support programme aimed at increasing the output of fresh garden produce, for household use, sale on local markets, sale to small town supermarkets, and to sale to niche markets in larger town and cities. Key components of such a programme could include the promotion of water harvesting and small-scale irrigation schemes, subsidized fencing and irrigation infrastructure, improved access to inputs, training and extension support, the establishment of a fresh produce market information agency, and co-operative marketing to niche markets. All the class categories in my suggested typology could benefit from such a programme to a degree.

Land and agrarian reform also involves difficult trade-offs, however, which should be openly acknowledged and confronted. These arise from the fact that productive land, irrigation water, and government funds and capacities are all in scarce supply in South Africa. Only about 10% of land in South Africa is potentially arable, and of that only around 11 % of this has irrigation potential. The generally limited agricultural potential of land in South Africa means that hard choices have to be made about who should benefit from the redistribution of high potential land and irrigation water. Given their potential to be efficient users of such resources, small-scale (black) capitalist farmers, as well as the more successful petty commodity producers and worker-peasants (rather than those supplementing their food supply) are the most likely candidates.

This argument is likely to be politically contentious. Does it constitute an abandonment of the rural poor? I don’t think so. The Working Paper outlines the policy options that could see the rural poor benefiting in significant ways from land and agrarian reform, without the illusion that these will be sufficient to eliminate rural poverty. My key argument is that processes of rural differentiation need to be taken seriously, and should result in differentiated policies.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 August 2010 10:56 am

    Focusing on the “accumulators from below” as outlined in Ben Cousins’ typology for different kinds of small-scale agricultural producers, policy and legislation would at last most probably arrive at a comprehensive set of feasible measures that could facilitate the process of simultaneously untangling and solving the wrongs of colonialism and apartheid and putting food-production on a more reliable footing at long-term. If agriculture were to “contribute to the economic development of society as a whole, support a growing urban population, and help reduce structural unemployment” (Cousin), we have to regroup, redefine and re-affirm that sector of our society that has to acquire more and better access to the 10% of land capable of providing us with food today and tomorrow: “Capitalists whose main income is not from farming“ undoubtedly cannot be the primary beneficiaries of such measures!
    Land ownership, land reform and perspectives >>

  2. Paul S. Landau permalink
    9 March 2010 7:09 pm

    Personally I see Ben Cousins’ intervention here as a viable one: give the land to those who can actually profit and compete with others by generating income from it. In a sense this is the complementary position to one suggested by Ben Khumalo Seegelken, and the one I advanced several months ago in a comment on Target II, — which boiled down to this: massive allocation of viable land with marketing boards and no external oversight — kind of the 1980s Bop idea, in a sense, but with full political national rights in addition. Allowing that such an idea is implausible or unworkable, given the scarcity of land and the existing real estate market, the alternative had better be to foresee commodity production and the creation of class divisions on the land, as Cousins does. Cousins is in a sense saying, “let’s start that process from the bottom up, rather than turning the land over to existing agribusinesses,” but he recognizes that class formation cannot be stopped. So, the question is, how much consolidation of capital, how much consolidation of resources like water access, and eventually land, will be “permitted” to transpire?

  3. 16 February 2010 1:10 pm

    Replacing the current approach with initiatives focussing on the primary needs of the rural poor necessitates doing away with concepts derived from colonial systems of yesteryears: A “small holder” in pre-colonial terms would constitute the smaller portion of a larger and more complex structure, would have as a matter of necessity access to the basics of life and would to some extent actively participate in trade and commerce as consumer and producer within a larger economic and political set-up. Exactly that would today be the key to the post-colonial and post-apartheid South Africa the Constitution intends: Back to the roots!

  4. Retha permalink
    3 February 2010 10:43 pm

    What really interests me in this whole land question is the redistribution of what was formerly known as tribal land. Between the White Mfolozi and Ulundi I have seen in the last 2 decades an increase in people and houses but NO increase in produce. Is this land therefor still not available to private individuals (of any group) and if so why not? KZN is part of the potential 10% arable land of SA and if we do not use this land to feed ourselves and the rest of Africa the result will be scary!

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