Presidential panel’s land reform report is a missed opportunity

2019-08-28 22:40

The important question to ask, after the release of the report of the Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture, is whether it offers a vision and recommendations that can address the land issue in South Africa.

Perhaps the most revealing statement is the authors’ acknowledgment that: “The panel is not agreed on what the vision should be for transformative agrarian reform”.

Agrarian reform is the wider economic and social reform of rural society and agriculture, and land reform is one important part of it.

There is abundant and long-standing evidence that successful land reforms – those that improve production and the lives of rural people – are part of wider programmes of agrarian and rural change.

These include ensuring access to appropriate technology, support services, market access for smaller-scale farmers and interventions beyond agriculture, such as improving rural healthcare and education services.

The few mentions of agrarian reform in the document are a narrow interpretation that does not address much-needed social changes or the wider agriculture and food system.

The report gives an overview of land conquest and dispossession up to 1913 but says nothing of the apartheid era land dispossession.

It’s also silent about the destruction of black farming and how a wide range of interventions were made to support and ensure the success of white farmers using large-scale and high external input agriculture.

There are no recommendations on how that sector should be changed.

The report does not mention how the failure to link post-apartheid land reforms to wider agrarian changes has been one of the main impediments to success for new farmers, not least because new and smaller-scale farmers have had to contend with market conditions orientated to large producers.

Inequality is not just in land holding, but in every other part of the agri-food sector – from processing to retailing.

For example, just three companies own 73% of the maize storage capacity in the country, with the foreign-owned Afgri being the largest of these.

The failure of many land reform beneficiaries to succeed in agriculture is not so much due to government’s failure to deliver effective support as the report emphasises.

It is about the unjust structure of the agri-food system that makes it very difficult for most farmers to succeed even if they have skills and support.

This approach leaves the core of largely white-owned commercial farming in place and pushes that model of agriculture onto new farmers.

There are, for example, proposals for “agribusinesses, specifically the input suppliers” involvement in “training and mentoring new farmers”.

This would clearly only promote farming that uses these companies’ inputs and the continuation of the same model of farming that is only working for a small minority now.

Likewise, the proposals for public-private partnerships and the “voluntary contribution” – in exchange for incentives – of land by commercial farmers and other land owners, will enable them to set the pace and nature of reforms.

The report claims that the “the large-scale commercial farming sector … has been a high performing sector in the past 20 years, even though all programmes and policies that provided it with special benefits, have been abolished”.

This is misleading.

First, protections for that model remain in place, including legislation like the Subdivision of Agricultural Land Act of 1970.

Second, there is a lock-in as the scale of traders, processors and retailers and their long-standing relations with particular large farmers remain in place and favour the larger farmers.

Third, the long history of support for that model of agriculture put these farms in the privileged position to take advantage of market opportunities that arose with economic liberalisation.

Probably more important though, is the question of what is meant by “high performing” and who benefits?

Yes, some large farms and agribusinesses are profiting, in particular from increased exports of high value crops, but many other commercial farmers have gone out of business or are struggling to survive.

The space for new smaller-scale farmers to succeed is almost nonexistent.

Workers bear the brunt of increased pressure for profits in a globalised market, with only a very small minority of workers having reasonable working and living conditions.

The majority face casualisation and poverty wages that leave even the hard working unable to buy a balanced diet for themselves and their families.

The discussion on farming models only addresses the forms of ownership and the scale of farm.

They completely ignore the important differences in actual models of production that, regardless of ownership and scale, can range from the agroecological family farms selling in local markets to high external input operations that are totally dependent on corporate supply chains and global markets.

The assessment of the success of models also focused only on farm-level viability, with no attention to the really important questions of which models work better for the society and the environment in the context of serious challenges of poverty and inequality along with the climate crisis and ecological destruction.

The report should be acted on, especially the calls for support to smallholder farmers, extension services and programmes to promote agroecology, and for the president to sign into law the Subdivision of Agricultural Land Act 64 of 1998.

It would repeal the existing law and make it easier for new farmers to access small pieces of agricultural land.

The lack of agreement on what kind of agriculture and food sector is needed in part reflects a lack of imagination about a different future, but is also because the issue is highly contested and those who profit from and have power in the current system are committed to preserving and extending it to their benefit.

Wegerif is a post-doctoral fellow at the Human Economy Programme, Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship, University of Pretoria

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October 13 2019