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Welcome to Insight: Agriculture

​Author: Ben Cousins and Michael Aliber  

Date: 31 Jan 2013 



 Unworkable land reform project designs offer inappropriate farming models to rural dwellers

South African land reform beneficiaries have been at the mercy of unworkable project designs, largely irrelevant to their livelihood possibilities, aspirations and abilities. Where South African land reform recipients have achieved modest improvements, it is largely because they abandoned or amended official project plans.

Capital-intensive large scale commercial farming is often inappropriate in land reform contexts, when you consider that one of the main objectives of land reform is to address unemployment and landlessness. Over the last several decades, the trend towards larger, more capital-intensive farms has led to dramatic job losses (e.g. in Limpopo, farmworkers made up only 4% of the total workforce in the province by 2007). From the perspective of how South Africans make their livelihoods, commercial agriculture has become increasingly marginal, while participation in largely ‘subsistence’ and smallholder agriculture in the ex-Bantustans remains widespread, even in dryer areas. The authors of the Reconstruction and Development Programme of 1994 were quite clear: land reform should seek to alter the structure of the agricultural sector in favour of small-scale farming.

This is why it is so strange that post-1994, farming models promoted through land reform still rely on the ‘expert knowledge’ that treat large scale commercial farming as the default option, And while land reform is in the thr​all of the large scale commercial farming model, it is also then the lens through which the ‘failure’ of South African land reform is viewed — even though beneficiaries are active on 40% of land reform projects, (albeit with dramatically reduced number of beneficiaries involved as compared to those designated as beneficiaries at project initiation).

Despite uneven post-settlement support for land beneficiaries (input supply, extension, training, credit, infrastructure development, marketing, etc), beneficiaries are involved in diverse activities, including: household supplementary food production on small plots; entrepreneurial small-scale crop or livestock farming for the market and personal use; commercial farming of crops and livestock; and households benefiting from group-based agricultural enterprises, joint ventures or strategic partnerships (though these latter approaches are probably over-subscribed).

Furthermore, many land reform projects that initially partially collapsed have either been rescued and recovered in their initial form, have been rescued with a small core of beneficiaries, or have been resurrected by an investor/lessee. In addition to agriculture, other forms of land use produce a benefit stream, such as securing low-cost settlement in a good location, and natural resource harvesting from the commons.

Relying on the large-scale commercial model has meant inappropriate business plans are imposed on land reform beneficiaries in South Africa. And even when land reform beneficiaries are able to ‘farm productively’ on large scale commercial farms, the poverty reduction benefits are minimal or non-existent.

On the other hand, smallholder farming on subdivided commercial farms has the potential to support large numbers of rural producers, and such small-scale agriculture combined with other livelihood sources can benefit many of the rural poor.

Policies premised on the assumption that only large-scale commercial farming is ‘real agriculture’, and that land reform projects must be based on some version of this model in order to be ‘viable’, are part of the problem, and often contribute directly to project failure.

Land and agrarian reform is clearly not the sole solution to rural poverty — complementary measures aimed at creating jobs and other kinds of livelihood options are needed as well. But we need to re-think our approach to land reform if it is to make more than a marginal contribution to poverty reduction in South Africa.

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