IT IS NOW WIDELY ACKNOWLEDGED that post-1994 land reform policies and programmes have been a miserable disappointment. They have failed to deliver tenure security to those whose land rights are at risk. They have failed to provide meaningful restitution to black South Africans dispossessed of land over the past century. And they have failed to redistribute productive land to black farmers, on anything like a significant scale.
Furthermore, these failures have helped to generate a populist myth that expropriating land without compensation is the simple answer. This misleading notion has the potential to destabilise the economy as a whole, yielding no benefits while imposing very high costs on society at large.
Land reform on its own, without a structural transformation of the rural economy, has limited potential to effect fundamental social change. This article explores why this is so, and sketches the outline of a feasible programme of agrarian reform in South Africa. This was the road not taken after 1994, a pathway obscured by a dense foliage of ideological constructs that proclaim the eternal supremacy of the large-scale commercial farming model.
Land, labour, “natives”, agriculture
Historical context is key. Dispossession of land over three centuries stripped black people of the means to produce their own lives, forcing them to sell their labour to survive. Access to reduced pockets of land in the so-called “native reserves” supported the emerging migrant labour system. This allowed employers in the mining and manufacturing industries to hold wages at the level required to keep only a single (male) worker alive.
Family members back in the reserves produced enough from crops and livestock to reproduce themselves. In effect, small-scale agriculture subsidised industrialisation. State policies supported the logic of “cheap labour”. They installed a brutal system of passes and jails designed to prevent the families of workers from joining them in urban areas, which would have generated pressure to raise wages.
White farmers also benefited from agricultural policies that deliberately discriminated against market-oriented, small-scale black farmers. By the late 19th century black farmers had begun to supply cities and towns with much of their food (Bundy 1979). Many were more productive than the white farmers, hence the backlash. The Depression of the 1930s saw the emergence of a large population of “poor whites” drawn largely from failed farms. The state constructed an elaborate (and expensive) apparatus of support and subsidy for white farmers who remained on the land. This enabled them to eventually dominate local and export markets.
So South Africa’s successful capitalist accumulation pathway had three foundations: it addressed the “Labour Question” through the system of migrant labour; it addressed the “Native Question” through a combination of native reserves, passes and controls on urbanisation; and it addressed the “Land Question” through dispossession and discrimination.
What this formulation leaves out, however, is the “Agrarian Question” – the transition to a fully capitalist system of large-scale commercial farming, able to produce food at relatively low cost.
The chickens come home to roost
After 1948, the National Party embarked on a large-scale dispossession of blacks in support of its programme of extreme racial segregation. Millions of people were forced to relocate to designated areas, including the ethnically-defined enclaves named ‘homelands’, or Bantustans, as the reserves were renamed.
The “developmental state” of the apartheid era (and before) was effective in engineering economic development for whites, but by the 1970s this project had begun to fall apart. The increasingly rebellious black population required a large apparatus of repression to maintain order. The skills now required by workers in industry were undermined by inferior education. The collapse of the agricultural economy of the reserves meant that increasing numbers of black workers had to be accommodated in urban settlements, and subsidies to white farmers became a burden on the state.
A growing mass movement based in the townships (and some rural areas), plus the efforts of the (armed) liberation movements, led to pressure for democratic reform mounting throughout the 1980s. International condemnation of apartheid mounted and sanctions began to bite. Negotiations became inevitable.
The democratic transition
Sadly, the ANC-in-exile never developed much capacity for economic policy-making. In relation to agricultural policy, little thought (if any) had been given to the restructuring of a sector central to the evolutionary dynamics of South African capitalism. Questions of land rights were the main focus amongst rural activists in the transition period. Many NGOs had worked hard to help rural communities to resist forced removals in the 1980s. The law was a key weapon in such struggles. This generated a wealth of ideas on the design of new legal frameworks to secure the rights of the majority. These included vulnerable farmworkers, labour tenants, squatters in urban areas, and people in the reserves whose rights to land derived from customary law.
In addition, many of the victims of apartheid-era forced removals said that they wanted their land back, giving rise to the idea of a land restitution programme. The Reconstruction and Development Programme of 1994 had little to say about agriculture. It characterised land reform as “the central and driving force of a programme of rural development”, to “supply residential and productive land to the poorest section of the rural population and aspirant farmers” and “raise rural incomes and productivity”.
Nothing was said about large-scale capitalist agriculture and its structure.
Nor was anything said about the kinds and scale of farming systems that would be appropriate for the beneficiaries of land reform. At that point nearly half of the population still lived in rural areas. In the end, the vision of land reform embodied in the Bill of Rights centred on property rights rather than radical restructuring. Land redistribution was potentially the cutting edge of restructuring. But section 25.5 merely states that “the state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to foster conditions which enable citizens to gain access to land on an equitable basis”. The lack of political will is palpable.
White farmers must have been very relieved. Agrarian reform – a deliberate effort to restructure the rural economy – was off the agenda in democratic South Africa.
Why not agrarian reform?
Any programme of rural reform has to confront the “agrarian structure” built upon the foundations of centuries of dispossession and resultant rural poverty. By “agrarian structure” we mean the distribution of farmland, the nature and scale of farming systems, and markets for inputs and outputs.
Across the world, agrarian reform has usually involved the transfer of farmland from landlords to tenants (small-scale farmers who worked the land). Redistribution was followed by agricultural policies that supported such farmers. In East Asia after the Second World War and elsewhere, this was remarkably successful and helped build a solid foundation for industrialisation.
In Southern Africa, large-scale farming operations based on land dispossession, cheap black labour and state subsidies crowded out small-scale farming. So agrarian reform has to mean something different: the break-up of large-scale, increasingly capital-intensive, farms into smaller units. Could this be done without sacrificing efficiency and the output of cheap food? That is the million-dollar question.
Few South Africans have attempted to address this question in a serious and informed manner. In the 1990s the great majority of left-inclined economists seemed to think that large-scale agriculture was best left alone. This was despite their lack of knowledge of the specifics of agriculture or familiarity with debates on agrarian reform.
Agricultural economists should have some such knowledge, but in South Africa, their knowledge base has always been the large-scale sector. Their contributions to policy debates have generally been supportive of big farms. Given this bias amongst the “experts”, it is no surprise that the ANC government has always been ultra-cautious in its agricultural policies.
The most far-reaching agrarian policy put in place by the ANC government was the removal of agricultural subsidies and the deregulation of agricultural marketing. This was to eliminate state support for privileged white farmers and create a “level playing field”. Conventional economists of all stripes were strongly in favour. Ironically, this meant that the mechanisms that enabled white farmers to succeed were now no longer available to black farmers. This was “agrarian reform” alright – but of a decidedly reactionary kind.
Over the past three decades, the freeing up of market forces has led inexorably to very high levels of
concentration in the agricultural sector. In 2017, around 2,600 of the largest farming operations comprised only 6.5% of all commercial farms. But, according to Stats SA, they accounted for 67% of total income and 51.4% of employment. The great majority of privately owned farms contribute relatively little to food production, exports or employment.
Dominant commercial farming models undermine land reform
The continuing grip of the “large farm model” on the imagination of policymakers has had disastrous effects on land restitution and redistribution. Beneficiaries have not been allowed to subdivide large farms into smaller units; instead, they have been told to continue the farming systems of the previous owner. Predictably, large groups of people have struggled to manage complex and unfamiliar farming systems through collective decision-making.
Following the failure of many projects, redistribution policy has now shifted focus to individuals with access to capital (usually from a small business) leasing large farms from the state. This is a conservative version of land reform that abandons its pro-poor orientation and focuses instead on a few so-called “emergent” farmers.
Why we need agrarian reform
Although definitely not a panacea, agrarian reform remains key, given the urgent need to expand employment (and self- employment) opportunities in South Africa. Several estimates suggest that labour-intensive farming systems on an expanded land base could help generate as many as one million rural jobs – not the whole answer to unemployment, certainly, but a sizeable contribution.
The core issue to be confronted is the potential productivity of small-scale farmers who rely heavily (but not exclusively) on household labour. In an urbanising society, they must help feed large numbers of non-farmers, and they can also help sustain employment-intensive non-farm economies in rural areas. Here the international evidence is clear: in many societies, such farmers are highly productive and make essential contributions to national economies. Could this be the case in South Africa?
Furthermore, climate change creates an urgent need to reduce carbon emissions. In this context, policymakers are re-evaluating the importance of alternatives to industrial-style agriculture of the kind that dominates South African farming. Ecologically more appropriate farming systems are likely to include those practised by small-scale farmers. Climate funding at scale is likely to be available to help such farmers improve their adaptive capacity.
In South Africa, we already have around 200,000 market-oriented small-scale black farmers, comprising some 10% of rural households. Many are competitive in fresh vegetables, cattle, sheep and goat production, and they mostly supply large and lucrative informal markets. One key constraint is land, another is water for irrigation, and a third is inadequate veterinary services for livestock.
This population could easily be doubled over a decade or two as we begin to restructure the agricultural sector. A key focus should be facilitating entry into lucrative sub-sectors such as subtropical fruit. One million net new agricultural jobs by 2035 might well be an achievable goal.
How to do it
What policies would be required to make agrarian reform feasible? In brief:
- Over the next decade and a half, acquire the farms of the least productive 50% of commercial farmers for redistribution to market-oriented smallholder farmers. The longer-term goal should be to redistribute 75% of farms.
- In this period, declare highly productive and very large farming operations exempt from land reform, to enable them to continue to supply local and export markets.
- In return, require these farms, together with commodity associations, to render extension and marketing support to small-scale producers who begin to enter formal markets.
- Require local municipalities to provide support for informal agricultural markets in their plans for local economic development, including live animals for ritual slaughter.
- Improve efficiency in existing water supply systems as well as from redistribution of land with access to irrigation water. This is a prerequisite for expanding smallholder production of vegetables and fruit.
Create a robust system of certification for sustainably produced, low-carbon crop and livestock products and advertise it widely.
- Re-orient agricultural extension services towards small-scale producers by developing new curricula at training colleges.
Where is the political will?
One inevitable consequence of expanded investment in small-scale farming and its increasing presence in agricultural markets would be that there would be winners and losers. Some winners would no doubt over time join successful “emergent” commercial farmers in the ranks of the new black agricultural bourgeoisie. In a capitalist economy the dynamics of class-based inequality can be ameliorated to a degree but not entirely eliminated.
Nevertheless, a much broader social base for the agricultural sector would contribute substantially to employment creation, social justice and the ending of apartheid geography in rural areas.
It might also provide a solid basis for efforts to reduce carbon emissions from agriculture. The more serious problem is this: where will the political will come from to embark on substantive agrarian reform, designed to address South Africa’s forgotten “agrarian question”?
Ben Cousins is an Emeritus Professor at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape.