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Impossible to tackle rural transformation and land reform separately in South Africa

16 February 2011

BASED on comments from presenters and the audience the key priorities emerging from the PLAAS public debate on rural transformation Back to the Plot! held on 31 January 2011 included:

  • land reform
  • service delivery in rural areas
  • experimenting with alternative modes of agricultural production, such as smallholder producers and organics
  • enabling access to food value chains for more producers, especially small producers
  • addressing the rising cost of farm inputs, including new technologies, fertiliser and petrol
  • addressing ecological matters.

The event was kindly supported by the High Commission of Canada and was packed to capacity, testimony to the political significance and importance of rural transformation for many South Africans. PLAAS Policy Dialogue Officer Obiozo Ukpabi opened the debate by highlighting the weaknesses of current media debates on rural transformation. She said the debate was an opportunity to put forward informed, researched positions on the priority areas for rural transformation.

Rural change has been taking place over a long stretch of time, PLAAS Director Andries Du Toit argued, yet these changes were in the interests of capital, not the poor and marginalised. He said that control over food value chains was held by supermarkets and large food-producing corporations. Therefore, in speaking about rural transformation, there are many questions about:

  • the quality and standard of rural livelihoods
  • food security
  • redress and reconciliation
  • climate change and other ecological factors.

Du Toit argued that

farmers are under increasing pressure from local circumstances, national policy and international competition; this was leading to massive job losses among farm workers. At the same time a lack of support for small holder agriculture and subsistence farmers means they have no way to gain entry into the food value chains — the bureaucracy involved in becoming an approved supplier to a supermarket, for example, is to complicated and costly for small farmers.

In addition the big brands in South Africa crowd out space for small traders in poor areas. Whereas in many other African countries local producers can sell to the local population in order to eke out an existence, in South Africa, local producers are forced to compete with large producers. And since issues surrounding rural transformation remain unresolved in South Africa, there is a lack of investment in farming — resulting in National food security being at risk.

Land access is problem for all uses, including housing, social services and farming; meanwhile the energy crisis, global warming and other ecological considerations make rural development extremely difficult. Optimism on organics is ideologically driven and we simply don’t know if it can generate as much food as industrial farming.

Devene Witbooi from the Right to Agrarian Reform for Food Sovereignty Campaign said farming in South Africa is race, gender and ecological disaster, and ‘to live in rural areas is to cry’. She spoke about how indigenous Khoisan still had not got their land back and restitution did not seem to be for them. Meanwhile, poverty worsens with farm workers being chased off ancestral land owned by commercial farmers, even though they were born and lived their whole lives on the land.

She went on to describe how along the West Coast, huge mineral resources are extracted, but people are not allowed on their land so they remain poor. Similarly, she described how Cape Nature rented land to multinationals like Monsanto so they can undertake GMO experiments, but when the poor ask for land, the government tells them none is available. The Campaign also critiqued goverment’s ‘participation process’, which for example, in Ludtzville involved the government speaking to people in English, which few in the area understand, then claiming there is no objection to their programmes.

Mazibuko Jara, an independent researcher and activist, showed how maps of South Africa today were barely different from apartheid map — tribal governance areas and poor areas map exactly to former homelands, so where people do have land it is the same land the apartheid government was prepared to give away, i.e. the poorest quality land. So, it is no good talking about rural development in terms of building services in these areas — this land was always unsuitable for sustaining the number of lives living their. And apart from the poor quality of the land in these areas, it is also overcrowded.

Jara pointed out that people in these areas are land hungry; to change the apartheid maps means we need to move people out of these tiny areas and create opportunities elsewhere, giving people access to better quality land for farming. Simply providing services in these areas will not change the apartheid maps and will not greatly improve rural livelihoods. Rural development needs to mean giving people access to land outside these former Bantustans. Yet, the lobby for sustainable agriculture does not underline need for land reform.

But even in the dominant model of capital intensive agricultural, Jara argued that structural problems affect sustainability. Since 1994 even white farmers in South Africa have gone bust due to the harsher global climate, the impact of globalised trade and tariff reduction, and the higher cost of inputs (the technology treadmill is expensive and creates high food prices and more monopolistic ownership of the food value chains; petrol and fertiliser prices are also much higher).

If those running capital intensive farms are hitting harder times, how can we expect small-scale farmers to cope?

In South Africa, land and food are increasingly coming to be owned by corporate enterprises who can more easily bear the risks of the variability of food growing. Jara pointed out that a recent global discussion conference on the agri-food system and food security, was sponsored by banks, chemical companies and food multi-nationals — all with a vested interest in the sector, so agriculture policy is driven by and in the interests of big business, not necessarily in the interests of the many poor farmers who rely on smallholdings for subsistence. So if sustainable agriculture is to succeed we need more inclusive and diversified agricultural and rural development models. This requires experimentation; it also means we need a proper critique of industrial agriculture and the neo-liberal WTO system that makes sustainable agriculture impossible.

Annelize Crosby from Agri-SA said much about farming and rural transformation is dictated by events outside South Africa, e.g. China and India, global warming and the WTO. Since 1994 many rural towns have deteriorated as big supermarkets move in, forcing local shops, traders, etc out of business.

With 65% urbanisation in South Africa, rural development is essential to feeding people.

She indicated that while we need experiments, they can go wrong and this could jeopardise food security. Therefore Agri-SA supports land reform, but insists that rural transformation must include service provision, skills transfer, and stimulating local economies with value adding business to reverse the trend of supermarket-isation.

From Agri-SA’s perspective, rural development and transformation have been neglected for decades in South Africa; if it really is a government and presidential priority, this should be reflected in the budget, with money not only allocated to farming but also to creating rural infrastructure for access to markets, storage and credit.

The audience highlighted that the ‘biophysical conditions of life are under threat due to methods of agricultural production, including land theft by Europeans in Africa’. Several audience members felt strongly that:

arguments about rural development and sustainability are a diversion from the key issue of land redistribution.

Since in 1948 land was access through repression and theft’ there was no reason not to just take the land back now. This section of the audience argued that the debate was ‘about racist control of stolen land, masquerading as science, while those who produce the food go hungry!’

They went on to warn that

people don’t plan to be angry, but if we don’t speedily manage the process it will come!

Even Agri-SA agreed that land reform was a core part of rural development, and that land reform should address rural poverty. Many also felt that the current capitalist modes of agricultural production were extremely damaging, as ‘capitalism creates concentration and marginalisation’ rather than sustainable livelihoods that are more than just jobs.

Since 1994 the former homeland areas have deteriorated even further, and Agri-SA spokesperson Annelize Crosby blamed some of this on the ‘supermarket-isation’ of local economies, leading to the collapse of small-scale local farmers and businesses. An further negative example of the impact of a business model of farming on food security was sited by an audience member from the Sustainability Institute, who said

87% of produce from Stellenbosch farms is exported, while 87% of credit is given to farm workers to buy food. Why are local farmers exporting so much produce when the workers who produce the food are starving?

So the current agricultural system was creating welfare states in rural parts of South Africa, where the only source of income are social grants and government created Economic Works Programmes. Apart from urgent land reform and redistribution, the audience argued for ‘comprehensive improved service delivery plans’ for rural areas, and ‘investment in teaching and instilling the value and importance of growing food in young people’.

The audience also objected to Annelize Crosby’s separation of the issue of household food security from the issue of national food security; they argued that national food security is meaningless when those who grow the food go hungry. Devene Witbooi insisted:

We don’t want Agri-SA handouts; we are the ones working the land, so it should be ours!

Prof Ben Cousins summarised and ended the debate, arguing that the ‘crisis will be resolved by organising people, not having debates … A vision for rural development will not come from Agri-SA or from academics, but from the people. The only solution is for those on the ground to realise their own self agency and pressure the state.’

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 March 2011 11:12 am

    This discussion was both timely and interesting.

    It occurs to me that situations are quite often arising when like-minded NGOs/institutions should be speaking with a united voice.

    Rather than having, each time, to caucus afresh, issue by issue, might it not be worthwhile to agree in advance as to which of us shares a common position in certain respects, and to agree further that we will add our names to joint statements to Government and to the media unless we specifically opt out of commenting on this or that issue?

    • Andries du Toit permalink
      4 March 2011 2:58 pm

      Hi Stephen

      PLAAS is a research organization and part of UWC; it does not ‘take positions’ organizationally and does not have a mandate from anyone to do so. The positions and opinions expressed on this blog and in our reports are the opinions of individuals; and while PLAAS researchers often have broadly similar values, they often disagree on significant manners. So I don’t think what you propose is going to be possible.


  2. 3 March 2011 1:19 pm

    Andries Du Toit’s PPT from the debate is now available at: and Annelize Crosby’s presentation on behalf of Agri-Sa is available at:


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