Time for an agriculture Green New Deal in South Africa

Land reform should focus on justice and social transformation, not on creating a new class of black commercial farm owners.

Photo by Megan Thomas on Unsplash

Strong farmer lobbies like Agriculture South Africa (AgriSA) have consistently argued over the years that if land is taken from white farmers and handed over to blacks, it could lead to food insecurity in the country. The threat of food insecurity is predicated on incorrect assumptions, for example: that all white-owned farms produce food for the markets (not true); that all transferred land must produce for the markets (not realistic); and that the government has enough time and resources to operate an orderly transfer of land to a group of people who are not just willing but also able to make successful businesses of their land (again, unrealistic).

As poverty levels rise in the COVID-19 era, and tensions grow in rural communities, it is time for an Agriculture Green New Deal (AGND) in South Africa. It is time for a great transformation, one that factors the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of the land question and not just market considerations. Such a transformation would prioritize the right to food, dignity, and degrowth so that people can believe in the national project again. Today, more than ever before, land reform must be given new impetus and treated with greater urgency.

Land is a very emotional subject in South Africa. A lot of it has to do with the colonial land dispossession that began with the arrival of Jan Van Riebeeck in what is now Cape Town in April 1652. However, the bigger damage was caused first by the Native Land Act of 1913, which transferred 87% of the territory’s land to whites, and later by the apartheid-era laws that dispossessed even more blacks and forced them into overcrowded homelands (Bantustans).

When the African National Congress (ANC) came to power in 1994, it identified land reform as a major priority to end 400 years of dispossession and apartheid geography. In 1997, the Department of Land Affairs published the White Paper on South African Land Policy, which developed land reform around three pillars: restitution (to seek redress for person or community dispossessed of property after June 19, 1913 as a result of past racially discriminatory laws or practices); tenure reform (for people or communities whose tenure of land was legally insecure as a result of past racially discriminatory laws or practices; and redistribution (to enable citizens to gain access to land on an equitable basis).

Two other key decisions were made around this time. The ANC government promised to transfer 30% of all arable land to blacks within 15 years. Furthermore, at the behest of the World Bank, it was also decided to acquire land on the principle of “willing buyer–willing seller” principle (in other words, on free market terms).

A slew of programs have been developed over the years to actualize the government’s decision of transferring land to blacks, the most important of which are the Settlement and Land Acquisition Grant (launched in 1995), the Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development (launched in 2001), and the Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy (launched in 2006). Concurrently with these programs, legislation (the Extension of Security of Tenure Act 62 of 1997, the Prevention of Illegal Occupation of Land Act of 1998, etc.) and court processes have helped to advance the restitution and tenure reform agenda.

However, at the time of writing, the government has achieved only 30% of its initial ambition of transferring 30% of agricultural land to blacks by 2015. An undercapitalized program, the willing buyer–willing seller approach means that land reform has advanced at a snail’s pace. Too often also, the government has let the private sector dictate debates about land, and yet, there cannot be any doubt about it: to paraphrase agrarian scholar Sam  Moyo, land reform is a key component of the agrarian transformation and the agrarian transformation is a key component of the socioeconomic transformation.

Three dimensions of the national question are putting greater urgency on the land question. The first is poverty. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the poverty, inequality, and unemployment crisis in the country. Recent data shows that half the country cannot afford to buy food on a regular basis. The second is the climate crisis. South Africa is a water-stressed country. Paradoxically, it is also the 12th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world (largely due to its coal power fleet) and the biggest exporter of agriculture commodities on the African continent. The large-scale commercial farms that dominate South African agriculture use up more than 60% of the country’s available water.

Current farming practices, which rely on frequently turning the earth—sometimes twice a year—for sowing purposes means that LSCF constantly release vast amounts of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. These practices certainly play a role in complicating the drought situation in the country. South Africa only recently emerged from one of the longest droughts in the country’s history. Parts of the country that rely heavily on agriculture, notably the Northern Cape and the Eastern Cape, have not yet recovered from this drought episode and dams there have sunk to their lowest levels ever. At the same time, it is important to note that within the framework of South Africa’s Nationally Determined Contributions to the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change, the country has to significantly reduce its CO2 emissions. Changing how the farming sector uses water must be a key part of that strategy.

The third is a troubling deterioration of race relations. Every election cycle, skilled populists use land-related talking points to drive a wedge between the races and South Africa to the brink. We saw this following the murder of young farm manager Brendin Horner when skirmishes between blacks and whites almost resulted in a shootout. Similar episodes played out again in the town of Piet Retief in late April 2021 when four white farmers appeared in the magistrate’s court following the murder of two job seekers.

An AGND in South Africa should focus on a number of key priorities. First, redistribution plot sizes should be kept small. In parallel, mix-use housing projects should be rolled out in urban areas to help erase apartheid geography. Land reform projects typically fail for a number of reasons, including the size of the project, a lack of resources, a lack of skills, and a lack of infrastructure. Clear answers have to be developed to address these issues in future projects.

Second, major dams and rain harvesting infrastructure should be developed around the country to provide water to new land owners. Greater investments in smallholder irrigation, including drip irrigation, should also become a priority area for both national and local governments. This infrastructure can go a long way in alleviating the water crisis in many parts of the country. More importantly, it keeps small farmers who practice agroecology and consume most of their harvests within the household in business.

Third, renewable power projects should be set up in rural South Africa to provide power for farm mechanization. This will help create a pool of prosumers (producers/consumers) and ensure that more of the power production revenue goes to rural homes rather than to speculators. The recent amendment to Schedule Two of the Electricity Regulation Act of 2006, authorizing South Africans to produce up to 100MW of electricity without an electricity regulator ( NERSA) license is an important enabler of this objective. In the not-so-distant future, rural farmers shall be able to wheel some of the electricity they produce through the national grid to customers. They shall also be able to generate some extra income by leasing their land to wind and solar energy companies.

This very short essay is by no means a complete blueprint for rolling out land reform in South Africa. Rather, its purpose is to highlight that the number one priority of land reform—beyond justice and equity considerations, of course—should really be about empowering people to own their own land and produce some of their own food, and here, major rural infrastructure within an AGND dynamic can help. The dream of creating a class of black large-scale commercial farms should be subordinated to this priority.

Further Reading