11.07.2018

2018 Agbiz Congress - Land reform: what can the private sector contribute?

Current programmes of smallholder support from the private sector are built on shaky foundations. They are often based on problematic assumptions and normative ideas informed by the experience of a successful (white) and large-scale commercial farming sector in South Africa. A fundamental rethink is required, said Prof Ben Cousins, DST/NRF research chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape, at the 2018 Agbiz Congress.

Current programmes of smallholder support from the private sector are built on shaky foundations. They are often based on problematic assumptions and normative ideas informed by the experience of a successful (white) and large-scale commercial farming sector in South Africa. A fundamental rethink is required, said Prof Ben Cousins, DST/NRF research chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape, at the 2018 Agbiz Congress.

"The land reform debate offers opportunities for innovation and the testing of new approaches. Fundamental transformation is required, given the very high levels of poverty and inequality," Prof Cousins said.

He pointed out that policies on land issues and agricultural policies are disconnected. Land reform is premised on state intervention, while agricultural policies are premised on state withdrawal.

"Agriculture continues to be seen through the lens of a large-scale commercial model of viability, even when smallholders are said to be targeted. There is still inadequate post-settlement support with regard to credit, training, extension advice, transport and ploughing services, veterinarian services, access to input and access to produce markets," Prof Cousins said.

He also added that some private sector companies (like those in the sugar and forestry industries) and individual commercial farmers provide support to smallholders, including land reform beneficiaries. But this help is limited. "There are only a few examples of successful contract farming and there are many negative experiences. A few small farmers supply supermarkets with fresh produce, mostly not under a contract. In the absence of a wider set of procurement regulations and incentives, the practices and requirements of dominant market actors tend to exclude small-scale farmers."

Prof Cousins gave reasons for the disappointing land reform impacts:

Inappropriate planning models

  • Problematic assumptions underlie the design of land reform programmes, affecting their viability. 
  • Targeting is not sufficiently disaggregated. There are mainly one-size-fits-all plans and programmes.
  • The elite have captured land reform.
  • Key realities are ignored by land reform planning. 
  • There are few full-time farmers as many have to have multiple livelihoods.
  • There is a significant population of market-oriented smallholders. 
  • There is a large informal livestock economy in communal areas.

Weak institutions and poor leadership

  • There is a lack of capacity in government departments. 
  • There is a top-down, rather than participatory approach to local-level planning.
  • Land reform lacks an effective monitoring and evaluation system. There is little reliable data to guide policy.
  • There is inappropriate political leadership, focused on placating powerful political constituencies (e.g. the black middle class and traditional leaders).
  • There is poor coordination or alignment of land reform with agricultural and water reform policies.

No coherent vision of transformation

  • For rural land reform to succeed in improving income and livelihoods, resources other than land alone are needed.
  • Inputs (such as seed, fertiliser and chemicals), water for irrigation, farm tools and machinery, farm infrastructure (buildings, roads, fencing), transport, access to markets, finances, skills and technical knowledge are needed.
  • Redistributive land reform has the potential to alter the agrarian structure of class relations, and patterns of ownership and production for different value chains.
  • Agrarian reform involves a deliberate intervention aimed at more broadly transforming the agrarian structure and the rural economy.
  • This implies a vision of a feasible alternative structure that sets out to feed society and earn foreign exchange, but in ways that are just and equitable.
  • Land reform must have a clear class agenda and must address inequalities of race and gender.

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