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There’s a huge amount wrong with SA’s new land reform plan

Focusing on small-scale farmers is the most practical way to create jobs, increase incomes and enhance livelihoods.
Image: Shutterstock

The South African government recently announced a plan to allocate 700,000 hectares of state land to black farmers. Exactly how many farms and beneficiaries this will involve is unclear.

But there’s a huge amount wrong with the idea.

First, it reproduces the core weaknesses of post-apartheid land and agricultural policies, which do little to reduce unemployment or enhance rural livelihoods.

Public response has been mostly positive in character. But land researchers on the left of the political spectrum are asking searching questions about the origins of this land. Also about the status of its current occupiers, and whether the procedures announced provide sufficient safeguards against the process being captured by elites.

From the right, the Institute of Race Relations think-tank asked why property rights on the allocated farms will continue to take the form of leases, rather than private title. It also asked how beneficiaries will secure bank loans without collateral.

The policy announcement does have some positive aspects. If achieved, the redistribution of 700,000ha in one year would indeed represent an acceleration of land reform. The minister also acknowledged that the administration of state land had been deficient to date, and admitted that corruption was a problem. This is refreshingly frank talk from a department that has mostly been in denial about these problems.

But below the radar of public debate are other aspects of this initiative which are highly problematic. These include crippling assumptions in relation to farming systems and scale.

I argue that these reproduce the core weaknesses of post-apartheid state land and agricultural policy, which have done little to reduce unemployment or enhance the livelihoods of the rural poor.

Key features

The state will allocate farmland to successful applicants who must show evidence of farming experience or a willingness to learn. Allocations will be biased in favour of women, young people and the disabled. A compulsory training programme will focus on “entry level” knowledge, record keeping and financial management.

Rent will be paid to the state at rates aligned with local land values, and an option to purchase will be offered after 30 years. Beneficiaries must maintain state-owned infrastructure on farms, and regular inspections will take place. Investments in infrastructure must be recorded, valued and reported.

Given that some (unspecified) proportion of these farms is already occupied and used, a land enquiry process will investigate how such occupation came about. It will also look at whether the land is being used “in accordance with the agricultural practices of the area”, and whether occupiers can become beneficiaries.

Worrying silences

There’s a lot of detail that’s worryingly missing. For example, official statements neglect to specify how and when this land came to be acquired by the state, and how it has been managed to date.

Secondly, it is positive that weaknesses in land administration are acknowledged, but no details have been offered. It is also not at all clear that the root causes of the failures of the Pro-Active Land Acquisition policy to date are being addressed. These include the absence of area-based planning, inadequate and poorly targeted financial support and a lack of effective extension advice. And the allocation procedures seem similar to those adopted during the presidency of Jacob Zuma, when corruption was rife and elites were favoured.

Nor are the criteria to be used in assessing the performance and productivity of beneficiaries specified, mirroring the lack of clarity on exactly how the suitability of applicants will be assessed.

The lack of clarity speaks to a much deeper problem – the adherence to a particular paradigm of agriculture that I don’t believe is suited to what’s needed in South Africa in the 21st century.

The wrong model

The model of “farming” that underlies government’s policies for land and agricultural reform is one of modern, high-tech, large-scale commercial production of agricultural commodities by skilled business managers, in which economies of scale are paramount.

This largely unexamined choice has consequences. From within the paradigm, it is “common sense” that land reform beneficiaries should be “business-oriented”, with the potential to succeed in a highly competitive South African agricultural sector. Lip service is paid to the need to provide land to smallholder and “semi-commercial” farmers. But, in practice, the hegemonic model sidelines farmers operating small-scale farming systems, often successfully, despite inadequate support in a hostile economic environment.

Small-scale farming systems in South Africa tend to be labour- rather than capital intensive, and have potential to create jobs on a significant scale.

They tend to focus on high-value horticultural crops, such as fresh vegetables, rather than mechanised dryland cropping systems in which economies of scale are pervasive. They also focus on extensive livestock production, including small stock such as sheep and goats.

Land reform’s current focus on promoting black, “emerging” commercial farmers means that relatively few people – likely to be either middle class already or aspiring entrepreneurs – gain access to a small number of medium-scale farms. Problems with this include high rates of failure, partly due to over-gearing of the new farm enterprises and crippling debt. This is partly due to lack of appropriate planning and support.

These issues need to be understood in the context of a changing agrarian structure. A 2017 census of commercial farming revealed that 67% of income in South African agriculture is earned by only 2,610 farms, 6.5% of the total. They have annual turnover of over R22.5 million (about US$1.3 million) and employ 51% of all workers. Farms earning around R1 million annually or below number 25,000, or 62% of the total, but earn only 2% of total income.

It would seem that black land reform beneficiaries on under-capitalised medium-scale farms are being set up to join the ranks of these marginal commercial producers. Why?

Aspirant black commercial farmers should benefit from land redistribution. But a narrow focus on only this category of beneficiary is likely to end in tears. And the potential of redistribution to create a large number of new jobs is being missed. In the context of massive and growing unemployment, a middle class land reform agenda is an affront to the transformative promise of post-apartheid democracy.

Detailed recommendations on an alternative approach are available. A recent study for the Treasury Department provided detailed empirical evidence of the potential for employment growth through land redistribution aimed primarily at smallholders and small-scale commercial black farmers. It has received little attention from policymakers, including those managing the development of government’s draft Agricultural Master Plan.

Urgent need to rethink land redistribution

The social and economic crisis that has followed the COVID-19 pandemic is already shaking the foundations of South Africa’s democracy. Questions of unequal land ownership, always profoundly political, are unlikely to fade away.

Unless addressed, they will contribute to further dissatisfaction with the status quo, creating fertile ground for authoritarian forms of populism.

It is urgent that land policies provide real opportunities to create jobs, increase the incomes of the poor and enhance livelihoods. A focus on small-scale farmers is the most practical way to do so. But once again, the Agriculture Minister and her department appear to have their heads in the sand.The Conversation

Ben Cousins, Emeritus Professor, Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, University of the Western Cape

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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Like hounds chasing a car…no clue what to do with it when they corral it!

The ANC is whats wrong with all reforms

They are clueless when it comes to Governing what was once the jewel of Africa, reducing it to junk through their unabated policy of BEE coupled with wholesale theft and greed

The seem to think that retribution builds a nation?


But Oh!! – isn’t that what the ANC is famous for ???

Sorry for you but small scale farmers are not sustainable.

I have farmed for 45 years, started small and HAD to grow to survive.

How do we expect a terrorist organisation to plan land distribution???

Correct. Subsistence farming on poor soil is only romantic to out of touch, pinko academics who’ve never farmed in their entire life.

The biggest constraint on farming is water. The author has lots to say about extensive grain farming, but that is dependent on rainfall. Small scale high value crops need lots of water, and that infrastructure needs to be in place, on an aquifer that will provide enough water sustainably.

I doubt that the author the good professor has ever even grown a potatoes.

Small farms can “survive” in a non brittle climate, ie no frost and abundant rain and good soil. Good soil needs to be fertilized something the average emerging farmer does not do.

small farms do not feed nations. That is the point of farming. Car factories do not make cars for the employees, they build for the nation.

In my district the output of farms given to emerging farmers dropped by 95%, the livestock agents who used to market the stock from those properties will testify to that.

Another ANC success story waiting to unfold.

If I understand you correctly, you favour a large number of small-scale farms over a smaller number of medium-scale farms. Therefore everybody should just go and farm with 3 chickens and a goat on 1 hectare. I think the days of subsistence farming are long gone and that is not going to feed our population explosion and the millions coming through our non-existent borders.

Yaa. Large number of small farmers is what pre-colonial tribes did. Worked well to a point.

Famine is what kept the population at a constant optimum.

Go to Lesotho and witness subsistence farming

Who feeds their nation?

Their entire survival and existence depends on SA

The rest of the time the Basotho just wonders in the mountain with his straw hat and blanket herding along 3 goats, 2 chickens and a cow ( which he invariably borrowed from his SA neighbour across the Caledon)

No worries, the masses fervently believe that “food” comes from Checkers!

When you are obsessed with ‘race’ you cannot think straight on any matter. South Africa will only have a chance of success once this obsession fades but not in our lifetimes.

It does not matter what your political viewpoints are, in the end, after all is said and done, the land will always belong to those who serve the consumer best.

In a free society, consumers, and not politicians, determine who owns land. It is a fallacy that a politician can “empower” people by circumventing the market system through which consumers use economic realities to determine ownership of land. This is a very costly mistake. It is costly in wasted time, money and opportunities. These beneficiaries will earn a better, more sustainable living as employees on a commercial farm.

The consumer is the king, the ruler, who appoints landowners according to their competitiveness and work ethics. Food prices are determined in a highly competitive process in the world market. These poor new squatters that are called farmers are set up for failure. The odds are against them. The consumers want the cheapest food of the highest quality, and they do not care who produced it. If a commercial farmer can produce the best product at the best price, the consumer will support him financially to the point where that farmer owns all the land he can manage. The consumer will use the market system to take the land from the inefficient farmer and hand it over to the efficient farmer because the one destroys value while the next adds value.

Let the consumers decide who should own land. They have a vested interest to make the best decisions. It is after all their lives that are on the line.

“Allocations will be biased in favour of women, young people and the disabled.”

They are aware that farming is a physical activity, and most farmers I know weigh 100kg or more and have hands like hams. Young people are too impatient for farming, which takes many seasons to get things right.

A market for 4X4 wheelchairs?

Turning farms into deserts.

Quite so, a drive through the now completely denuded tribal trust lands littered with free roaming goats and plastic bags, tells all about the “our people’s” agrarian and husbandry “skills”.

Ben Cousins holds a DPhil. in applied social science from the University of Zimbabwe (1997). He was in exile for 19 years, working in agricultural training and extension in Swaziland and Zimbabwe, and undertaking research on communal grazing, livestock production and rural class formation in Zimbabwe.

With all that he seems to have learnt very little and applied even less if I look at Zim’s agricultural production since it went back to the small scale farming he seems to favour. I will bet that most of “Swaziland’s” (Eswatini) agricultural production comes from large scale ventures owned by big corporates and the local royalty. Little impact from Cousins there. His application of a broad brush approach regardless of where the farms are situated seems to imply he knows very little about actual practical farming; maybe goats only.

I have a suggestion for him; peg out a few hundred square metres in the Richtersveld or Karroo; live off it for a year then report back.

Ben Cousins, Ian Scoones (at U Sussex in the UK) and Philip Hanlon (and a bunch of others) all think alike, know each other, attend the same conferences and promote similar ideas. They like to come up with “New Findings” ie new, highly selective, data-sparse cherry-picked stories to support their views (far-left radical ideologies). Get rid of the larger-scale successful commercial farms. Exploit conservation areas. Ian Scoones strongly promoted (and still does) the increases in agricultural production in Zimbabwe with Mugabe’s land grabs and wrote books about it – but sits mostly in comfort in the UK.

Ben Cousins had post-grads at PLAAS (in 2003 and onwards) showing how production in Zim increased and promoted the same approach here. Ben Cousins self-cites his data-free “analyses” and says things like “it could work”. Read his writings with a very large pinch of salt.

So how did that work out in Zimbabwe?..phht!

A good article. We need black small scale farmers as well as black commercial farmers.

However, what about the land in the traditional areas that are under utilized or even lying fallow? Why is that not used for small scale, where suitable, as well as commercial farming?

The land is available and costs nothing.

TOO MANY BROKEN TRACTORS….that’s what’s wrong with it!

The real question is, what should a small scale farmer earn out of his land? Is it minimum wage? Is it the average salary of a government employee (as some academic articles suggest)? or is a “million bucks” a year?

If you just take the average profitability of farming enterprises and you reverse engineer to get to the applicable Turnover, you will very soon find that small scale farming is stupid idea.

When looking at the “million bucks” a year side you will also realize that you need a solid business to get to that number. Input costs for Maize are between R11,000 and R15,000 per hectare nowadays. Tractors and equipment are running into millions.

With all that said, Landbank cannot finance commercial farmers today with their risk profile, how on earth are they going to finance small scale farmers with limited skill, a lease agreement and nothing else…

That’s why u and me the tax payer is gonna have to fund it.
Remember once all this is done and dusted every South African still stuck here is gonna have to become a small scale farmer….. Inorder to put some food on the table for thier family.
Let that sink in.

End of comments.





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