The Agrarian Question and Patterns of Accumulation In the South African Countryside


In this article Angela Conway* looks at how capital accumulation has been changing in the countryside and the organisations that have emmerged recently to challenge it.

Patterns of ownership and accumulation in the South African countryside remain largely unchanged since the 1994 elections.

The divide between the rich and the poor, between the have and the have-nots continues and has widened. The effects of neoliberalism are as apparent as in other sectors of the economy: the accumulation of wealth in the countryside for some is intrinsically linked to the impoverishment and exploitation of others. The once vibrant, rural sector is dissipated, leaving rural communities and households largely dependent on state social grants.

Historical context

The history of agriculture in South Africa resulted in a stark dualism with fertile land, resources and infrastructure owned and used by a small minority of white commercial farmers with the dispossession and destruction of agricultural livelihoods amongst rural black people. Agriculture promoted the capitalist model along racially skewed lines, concentrating land, resources and capital into large, consolidated, white owned units to the exclusion of small-scale black producers. The result was the depletion of natural resources, the de-agrarianisation of black producers and skewed patterns of land ownership, with 89% of the land owned by 13% of the population.

The agricultural sector, characterised as it was by inefficient methods of production and reliance on state subsidies, was badly affected by the recession of the 1970s. The growing need of producers to source markets led to a shift towards export orientated production. The government responded by moving towards a more liberalised market, providing incentives and subsidies aimed at supporting farmers and agri-business which were profitable and export orientated.

A number of white farmers did not survive but the larger commercial farmers and agri-businesses were able to adapt, bolstered by generous subsidies, which gave them the space to adapt to the deregulated agricultural context. Financial liberalisation and the loss in value of the land in the 1980s caused pressure on the state’s budget, resulting in the withdrawal of subsidies to the agricultural boards and the inability of the Land Bank to continue to subsidise preferential interest rates to the farmers. The favourable conditions which commercial farmers had enjoyed diminished.

Land reform context

When it came into power the ANC government did little to challenge the neo-liberal context of agricultural, continuing to emphasise and promote commercial, export orientated agriculture. Its model for land reform was to deracialise agriculture by replacing white commercial farmers with black ones, rather than promote small-scale agriculture and production of food for local consumption. Ironically, the ANC adopted the majority of the recommendations made by the World Bank, except the recommendation to up-scale support to small- scale agricultural producers. The idea of peasants producing food on the land in an ecological manner was not appealing to the new regime!

The land reform policies implemented since 1994 demonstrate this commitment to export orientated agricultural production and to the promotion of a black commercial farming class. The business plans which inform the transfer of land focus on high input, export orientated production in line with the objectives of the land reform policies. For instance the Pro-active Land Acquisition Strategy (PLAS) states as its objectives:

  • The redistribution of 5 million hectares of white owned land to 10 000 new farmers.
  • Increase black ownership in agribusiness by 10%.
  • Increase agricultural production by 10-15%.
  • Increase agricultural trade by 10-15% of the new farmers.

Farms that are earmarked for this programme are high productive, capital-intensive enterprises. To acquire land, farm workers and dwellers must become farmers.

Land redistribution is linked to the notion of property, and the profitable use of the land, resulting in the commodification of land, labour and ultimately food.

Market based land reform

Market based land reform and the mismatch between the price of land and the land grant have forced beneficiaries to form large groups to afford the price of land. The commercial model promoted does not accommodate large numbers of land users, resulting in the failure of the farms to fulfil the expectations of the state and to address the needs of the new owners. It is usually an elite few (predominately men) who profit from the transferred land while the majority are left with conflict and unable to realise any benefits. Market based land reform and the willing buyer / willing seller principle has also resulted in the failure of land reform to redistribute land and to meet the goals set by the state. The goal of 30% redistribution of land within the first 10 years continues to be pushed back, with the new goal set at 2014. In reality, a mere 5% of agricultural land has been redistributed.

The extension support provided by the Department of Agriculture, operating on a heavily cut budget, also promotes commercial forms of production which are expensive, often water hungry and which deplete the natural resources. The models promoted in the poorest regions like the Eastern Cape and which receive state funding are based on the same so-called Green Revolution models promoted in Asia(with the backing of the Bill Gates Foundation). These models, aimed at shifting producers from subsistence production to higher yields, do not result in greater food security. Rather, they feed the global market while destroying indigenous methods of production and autonomy in collection of seed by promoting GMO seed, fertilizers and poisons, completely ignoring the evidence that food sovereignty is inextricably tied to traditional and ecological agricultural models. While the yield may initially improve, farmers note that the destruction of traditional methods of mixed planting and use of local seed leaves them vulnerable to natural shocks. The end result is that farmers are dependent on large agri-business such as Montsanto, locked into a cycle of dependency on seeds they have to then continually purchase, along with specific chemical fertilisers.

Another controversial system promoted within land reform projects is the planting of bio fuels. Bio fuels are promoted as providing markets for small-scale producers. Thus land which could and was used to produce food is converted into monoculture production of bio fuels, providing energy for machines, not people, again emphasising and reinforcing the commercial, productivist focus of the ANC government.

The focus within land reform has been on capital-intensive methods of production which rely on expensive equipment and infrastructure and fossil fuels. This infrastructure is largely financed by debt. Where grants are acquired in the form of the Comprehensive Agricultural Support Programme (CASP) the emphasis is on tractors, irrigation systems, etc. CASP grants are allocated through a tender system. The result is that grants are secured for infrastructure such as fencing but in order to be awarded the tender to erect the fencing companies have to meet stringent requirements and to be registered. So, for example, the Sewefontein farm, with 75 beneficiaries in dire need of income, secures a CASP grant for R750 000 for fencing of boundaries. They are not registered so a white owned company is awarded the tender to erect the boundaries. The bosses of this company bring in all their own labour, whom they pay a minimum and live in terrible conditions, while the bosses take the profits. The Sewefontein owners watch while others make profits and earn wages to erect fencing on their own farm with a grant awarded to them!

Local markets have not been promoted, leaving resource-poor farmers competing with well-established commercial farmers and agro-business for access to markets. The high costs of transport, the inability to fill quotas and the often isolated nature of the farms results in failure of farmers to sell their products on the open markets.

The latest proposed policy is the Comprehensive Rural Development Programme which splits agriculture from rural development. This proposes 2 ministries, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and the Ministry of Rural Development and Land Reform. It is difficult at this stage to say what the implications of this split are. It seems to have the potential to maintain agriculture as the domain of white commercial farmers and rural development as the terrain of land reform. However, it may provide opportunities for promotion of  small-scale production.

Effects on food security

Food prices rose by 15.7% between April 2007 and April 2008. In particular, basic foodstuffs, the staple diet of the poor, including cooking oil, potatoes and maize products, have risen in price. With the high cost of transportation built into the price of food the rural areas have struggled to feed their households. At the same time there has been a consolidation of farms, with a reduction in farming units from 124000 in 1994 to just 46 000 in 2007, suggesting that the agricultural sector secured some of the profits in the rise in food prices.

Restructuring of state assets and cost recovery

Since 1994 a number of large parastatals have been privatised, with devastating effects on the rural poor. The restructuring of the forestry sector resulted in major job losses and insecure tenure for former forestry workers. The majority of these workers reside in small, rural settlements that used to be all-male compounds where workers were housed to be on a 24-hour fire watch guard. Over the years families have moved in, communities have formed and rural lifestyles have taken root. Within the restructuring process plantations have been put out to tender and businesses have secured long term (70 – 90 year) leases, with the indigenous forests transferred to SANParks, despite legislation aimed at “community forestry”. The new bosses, being “in the business of trees and profits not people”, have cut the workforce and are loath to take responsibility for the settlements. The local municipalities, forced to generate their own income and operate as profit generating businesses, favour relocation into urban townships where the cost of service provision is more affordable. So entire settlements which were once sustainable are threatened with relocation into townships. The mainly elderly pensioners who could not afford the rental imposed by the new managers and who have relocated have found themselves significantly impoverished, dependent on electricity for all their energy needs, unable to grow food or keep the chickens and livestock they had before.

Another sector negatively affected by restructuring and cost recovery are the Transnet settlements. These are former Transnet workers who were housed in small rural settlements around the train stations, settlements with large brick houses, access to basic services and where people have established their lives. With the privatisation of Transnet entire villages have found themselves retrenched and living in insecure tenure. Again the new bosses are “in the business of transport not people” and can give extensive figures of how expensive it is for them to maintain the settlements and the debts they are accruing. Even where the municipalities express willingness to take responsibility for the provision of services the Provincial Departments withhold resources for upgrading, deeming the settlements “unviable”, based on the cost of traditional service provision. In the interim people continue to pay house rental but no one takes responsibility for maintenance of the infrastructure. People continue to live with the bucket system while their homes become more and more dilapidated.

In both these examples it is particularly the women who have been excluded. Where unions were involved in negotiations it was only with the male workers, despite the fact that women’s lives and future are intricately affected. As the forestry and Transnet settlements have become better organised at both a settlement and regional level it is the women who have led the mobilisation strategies and who are the most committed to securing a future for their families

Movements in the Countryside

Agriculture and food production must be aimed at meeting local needs and feeding local people. Production has to be brought closer to local consumption. Producing for an export orientated market generates profits for a few, mainly large agro-businesses, excluding small-scale producers and resulting in food insecurity. Only agrarian movements can challenge the patterns of accumulation in the countryside.

In response to the commodification of food and the rising food prices international movements and campaigns are emerging. An example is the Food Sovereignty Campaign, which is mobilising farmers globally. The concept of food sovereignty was developed by La Via Campesina, a global peasant movement, and introduced into the public debate during the Word Food Summit, held in Rome, Italy, during 1996, as an alternative framework for food and agriculture.

Farmers and small-scale producers in South Africa are beginning to mobilize around food sovereignty. These farmers are calling for the right to control the means of production (land, water and seed), the right to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food and support for local markets and ecological methods of food production. Organisations of farmers in the Western, Southern and Eastern Cape have committed themselves to mobilizing for food sovereignty, resulting in a number of mass actions over the past 6 months and a growing shift towards agro-ecological methods of production.

Emergent farmers, forestry dwellers and residents of Transnet settlements are increasingly organized into regional forums or associations. Improved levels of organization have resulted in a growing awareness around the need for agrarian transformation and demands for service delivery.Farm workers and dwellers are increasingly organized and aware of their rights through farm committees, unions and regional and national networks.

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