Message from NSTF Executive Director
Land, food security and the broader picture
President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his first State of the Nation Address, on 16 February 2018:
* This year, we will take decisive action to realise the enormous economic potential of agriculture.
* We will accelerate our land redistribution programme not only to redress a grave historical injustice, but also to bring more producers into the agricultural sector and to make more land available for cultivation.
* We will pursue a comprehensive approach that makes effective use of all the mechanisms at our disposal.
* Guided by the resolutions of the 54th National Conference of the governing party, this approach will include the expropriation of land without compensation.
* We are determined that expropriation without compensation should be implemented in a way that increases agricultural production, improves food security and ensures that the land is returned to those from whom it was taken under colonialism and apartheid.
* Government will undertake a process of consultation to determine the modalities of the implementation of this resolution.
* We make a special call to financial institutions to be our partners in mobilising resources to accelerate the land redistribution programme as increased investment will be needed in this sector.
Official land expropriation hearings and wide public consultation: The phrase “expropriation of land without compensation” has been very controversial and much has been said and written about it. It is not always placed in the context of everything the President said in this regard. An opposition party is acting on it, deliberately misinterpreting ‘expropriation’ to mean theft by individuals, instead of seizure by the state following due processes. Official land expropriation hearings are being held and the appointed Parliamentary Constitutional Review Committee is currently consulting widely, to investigate whether the South Africa Constitution should be amended to allow for measures to expropriate land.
NSTF is an independent and non-partisan organisation: The NSTF is not a political body, and although I use these editorials to touch on political matters, I do so in my personal capacity. The organisation does not take sides in favour of one or another party. However, the NSTF holds wide-ranging discussion forums where there is engagement with government policy, by researchers and the broad science, engineering and technology community.
Discussing food security: In June 2016, there was an NSTF Discussion Forum on Pulses and Food Security. A number of salient points bear repeating – in response to the above political situation.
* Good reasons for SA’s tiny agricultural sector: South Africa has a tiny agricultural sector, representing only about 2.5% of GDP*. There are good reasons for this. The country has very limited arable land. In the proceedings of the NSTF Discussion Forum, it is summarised as follows: Overall, South African soil is not favourable for agriculture. Land with the highest agricultural potential equates to 12% of the area of the country (and much of that has been lost to mining) and suitable arable land equates to 22%, while the remaining 66% comprises marginal land. Ours is also a water scarce country, and water is even more important for agriculture than expansive areas of land
* Very few people want to farm: Another important reason for the relatively small part agriculture plays in SA’s economy is that very few people want to farm. Only 1.9% of households practice agriculture as their main source of income, while the majority of households (77.5%) practise agriculture as an extra source of food. In particular, few young people want to remain in the rural areas and devote their lives to farming. There is concern among agriculturalists and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries about this trend. There are attempts to encourage young people to take up various agriculture-related careers, and frequent complaints are heard that the youth is not interested, and that they prefer to be in the cities and have more ‘fashionable’ careers, for example in Information Technology. Agriculture is sometimes called the ‘stepchild’ because it’s image is so poor among the public and the youth. Some politicians are therefore quite disingenuous to demand that most of the land be redistributed to the previously-disadvantaged population. Not even everyone who submits a land claim does so because they or their family wish to farm the land. They want to be compensated for the injustices of the past and feel an emotional tie to the land of their ancestors – rightly so – but it does not mean they want to live in (or return to) a rural area and farm ther
* Farming requires great skill. The best farmers have had many years of experience, and some farmers (especially the young ones) first study agriculture to have a better chance of making a success. They then still need many years of experience, and preferably mentorship by more experienced farmers.
* A farmer is at the mercy of the weather, and with climate change trends, it is feared that farmers will struggle even more in future than before, to achieve a profitable harvest every year. Dr van Vuuren, Manager at the Crop Science Research Institute at the Agriculture Research Council, said at the discussion forum that for every 1°C increase in growing season temperature, wheat production decreases by 6%. Science and technology are required to address these problems experienced by farmers. More extension officers are needed, who can guide all farmers with advice on how to manage the latest developments in terms of climate (eg crops and cultivars that might be more successful under the new conditions), methods that have proved successful, sharing best practice for local conditions, new technologies, sources of information, et
* Agriculture is crucial to food security and South Africa’s people are not very food secure. Food inflation is higher than overall inflation, and most people spend the greater part of their income on food. The majority of the population in the former homelands are buying their food as opposed to growing it. 26.5% of children between one and three years of age are affected by stunting in growth as a result of malnutrition. The recent increase in VAT will exacerbate this situation. It is therefore essential that the government find solutions to the land issue that optimise food production – not just prevent further harm to food security.
* In the NSTF Discussion Forum, we also focused especially on the cultivation of pulses (dry beans). These have a high nutritional value and (like all legumes) fix nitrogen in the soil, thereby benefiting the other crops on the land where they are cultivated. South Africa doesn’t produce much of such crops and tends to import them from elsewhere. It would be beneficial to grow more of them here and export instead of import, while addressing malnutrition. The local market should also be developed. Indigenous pulses are a natural resource that have not been beneficiated – more research and development should be done on them and the resultant cultivars should be produced on a profitable scale.
These principles apply to agriculture more broadly: The reason I have gone into detail about the pulses discussion, is that these principles apply to agriculture more broadly. Crops, breeds of livestock, agricultural products, etc all need to be researched intensively by experts, and developed for efficient, profitable production and for the market. Farmers require knowledge and to stay up to date, more than ever before. They need to be even more adaptable than they have known to be (and we know they are some of the most adaptable people there are).
Agriculture requires business skills: The market for various agricultural products is of crucial importance. Farmers are at the mercy of market prices for their produce, which are as unpredictable as the weather. Only resilient, determined people survive in farming. Farmers have to understand how to market (advertise) their products, where to take their produce to get the best prices, find companies who want to buy their produce in bulk and be regular customers, etc. In short, agriculture requires business skills.
Agriculture requires efficient transport – good road infrastructure and an extended railway network with reliable service. This is currently deficient and a major hurdle for farmers in remote areas.
It is a huge task to ensure that social justice is done: On the other hand, the government is far behind with land restitution, for which there is adequate legislation, but it is a seemingly impossible task to process all land claims. The government has a huge task ahead of it, to ensure that social justice is done, and to be seen to be doing so. The Freedom Charter says: “The land shall be shared among those who work it.” Perhaps government should first empower those who do currently work the land, instead of giving land to those who do not know what to do with it? In other words, farm workers. Urban informal settlements are another priority – not for farming but for security of tenure.
*See the Economic Review of South African Agriculture, by Statistics and Economic Analysis, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (2017): “Despite its relatively small share of the total GDP, primary agriculture is an important sector in the South African economy. Agriculture remains a significant provider of employment, especially in the rural areas, and a major earner of foreign exchange… [Agriculture is also] an important engine of growth for the rest of the economy”