WHITE FARMERS WERE ONE OF the mainstays of the apartheid ruling bloc. They received substantial state support and protection over many decades. Farmers were organised into cooperatives with monopoly control over specific commodities. They supplied to single-channel Marketing Boards, controlled by producers and government. They provided price guarantees backed by the state.
The agrarian structure was split. On the one hand, well-supported, white, large-scale commercial agriculture. On the other hand, neglected small-scale black farming in the Bantustans, mostly producing below subsistence. Over time, tensions emerged within the apartheid social bloc, including between white farmers and urban financial and business elites. As the national economy industrialised, the social weight of farmers declined. Primary agriculture’s share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) declined from over 11% in the 1960s to under 5% by the end of apartheid.
The main corporations in the food system, in the latter stages of apartheid, were mostly diversified conglomerates: Anglo-American, Sanlam and Liberty Life all had extensive food and agricultural interests. The food system was characterised by vertical integration: the cooperative and Board structure facilitated strong interlinkages between production, processing and distribution. Deregulation was the order of the day in the transition to democracy. Globally, agriculture was introduced into trade negotiations in the 1980s, culminating in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Agreement on Agriculture in 1995. Internal issues in South Africa also shaped restructuring. These included struggles between different farming interests.
On the one hand, more marginal commercial farmers relied on state protection to sustain themselves. On the other hand, export-oriented producers objected to government export restrictions and called for opening of markets to competition. As the apartheid economy entered into an “organic crisis” in the 1980s, the massive farmer subsidy and support programmes became fiscally unsustainable. The apartheid government and white producers also sought to escape any potential future control by a black majority government.
These processes resulted in the corporatization and eventual privatization of the cooperatives and the removal of the single-channel monopoly marketing system, food price controls, and farmer price guarantees. This set the scene for changes in the food system following the end of formal apartheid.
Changes since 1994
Continuity characterised agricultural policy in the transition from formal apartheid: the ANC favoured large-scale commercial farming over smallholder farming. They supported “modernisation” of the agricultural economy. This was based on the exit of “inefficient” farmers unable to sustain themselves in the context of market competition, and the development of a commercial black farming class. The impacts of agricultural deregulation and liberalisation were not evenly distributed within commercial agriculture. There was a concentrated core of agro-industrial producers and processors, and there was also a decaying periphery of individual producers. Commercial farm units have declined to around 40,000 from a historical peak of 117,000. The 2007 Census of Agriculture indicated that 57% of commercial farmers had an annual gross income of R500,000 or less; a core of fewer than 250 units accounted for one-third of total income from agriculture.
Labour (basic conditions, minimum wages) and tenure legislation was extended to farm workers for the first time, but systems of production were changing. Commercial farmers responded through increasing mechanisation and reducing their workforces. There was a wave of evictions (the vast majority illegal) and workers were moved off farms to circumvent legislation. This resulted in a further decline in employment from a peak of 1.6 million to around 750,000 at present.
A core of higher skilled workers has been consolidated, with a wider periphery of poorly paid casual and precarious labour. They live in informal rural and peri-urban settlements and are forced to diversify their economic activities in order to survive. Women have experienced the brunt of these processes, as they have never had tenure security on farms, and their employment and housing have been tied to that of male relatives.
Black farmers have also experienced uneven benefits since apartheid. There has been a slow emergence of black commercial farmers, with fewer than 200,000 out of over two and a half million food producers. Commercialising black farmers is heavily dependent on integration into corporate value chains, where they have little negotiating power.
The land reform programme initially targeted redistribution of 30% of land in the first 5 years after apartheid. It has been a failure. Currently, less than 10% of land has been redistributed through this programme, and most of these farms are failing, as a result of fragmented or non-existent support. The state has opted for a “black industrialist” approach, investing heavily in a small number of black farmers, hoping to turn them into large-scale commercial farmers. This leaves the majority of mainly homestead and smallholder farmers without proper support.
New technologies have played a role in restructuring commercial agriculture. The introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the late 1990s resulted in massive yield increases in maize and soya. Maize has increased as a share of overall value of agricultural production, from 12% in 1998/99 to 16% in 2021/22, with a phenomenal increase in value from R5.4 billion to R63.8 billion over this period. Soya’s share of total agricultural value has grown from 0.5% to 4.7% over the same period. Maize and soya are both core ingredients of animal feed, and this expansion has consolidated the grain-livestock complex at the heart of South African agriculture. Despite the successes, it is not clear that GM technology can sustain this growth indefinitely. There is rising pest and disease resistance, and growing environmental damage, especially from the use of toxic pesticides.
More recently, technologies based on digitalisation are being used. An example is precision agriculture which gathers detailed on-farm data and generates algorithm-driven production advice. Data and farm management companies determine what is produced and when, and this contributes to farmer deskilling.
Restructuring in the food system
Deregulation and liberalisation removed the regulations and controls that strengthened the hand of commercial farmers in relation to food manufacturers and retailers. Power in value chains shifted downstream to retailers and manufacturers, who are able to dictate terms and conditions, including what is produced and how. This coincides with the production and sale of unhealthy, ultra-processed products. These are based on refined carbohydrates (maize, wheat, sugar) that are cheap to produce and generate the greatest profit for retailers and manufacturers.
Meanwhile, corporate restructuring went hand in hand with financialisation. The past two decades have witnessed the rise of ownership by financial institutions throughout the food system, with asset managers and pension funds leading the way.
Corporatisation and privatisation of cooperatives and their assets resulted in the consolidation of ownership and control, especially in grain storage, fruit packing, and massive animal feedlots. A few very large corporations, either multinationals or local companies now mostly with majority foreign ownership, dominate food manufacturing, retail, and fast food chains.
The outcomes of this dominant system have not been positive. They include loss of employment and livelihoods, entrenchment of inherited patterns of ownership and control, marginalisation of millions involved in the food system, and a very slow pace of redistribution. More than a quarter of the population experiences regular hunger. Malnutrition is rife. This is strongly fuelled by the rise of ultra-processed products.
Per capita consumption of key agricultural products is stagnant at best over the past 30 years and consumption of plant proteins has declined. The food system has failed to respond effectively to the constitutional right to food for all.
Environmental issues have become mainstream in commercial agriculture, in particular climate change impacts. There is excessive water use: commercial irrigation uses more than 60% of total water in South Africa. There is land degradation and biodiversity loss as a result of heavy machinery use, as well as agri-chemical pollution and growing resistance to chemical controls.
South African commercial farmers have responded through environmental initiatives. These include water use efficiency, conservation agriculture to reduce agro-chemical use, and regenerative agriculture to improve soil health. Farmers are also diversifying in response to the multiple pressures on production, for example by moving into game farming, tourism, part-time farming, and other economic sectors such as construction and transport services.
Alternatives are needed. Entry points are the rapid redistribution of resources including land and water, the right to food, and agroecology. We need to place the right to food at the centre of the objectives of the food system. The system should be judged and adapted according to its ability to produce and allocate healthy, nutritious and culturally appropriate food to every person, every day, to meet their needs, regardless of their ability to pay. This means decommodifying food, and insisting on its use value rather than as a conduit to profit. Agroecology is an approach to food systems that incorporates these elements. It brings social and economic justice elements together with environmentally sustainable production practices.
Stephen Greenberg is a researcher at the African Centre for Biodiversity, working at the intersections of food systems transitions, agroecology, climate change, and biodiversity.