Small-scale farmers should be at the centre of land reform in South Africa

Cousins argues that great growth is possible if small-scale farmers are taken seriously. Photo by Mzi Velapi

Ben Cousins argues that the land redistribution should benefit small-scale farmers.

University of the Western Cape, Bellville, Cape Town, South Africa

The article was originally published on The Conversation.

Smallholder farming has been neglected over the past 23 years of South Africa’s attempt to redistribute land taken away from black people during the apartheid era. Not one farm acquired for redistribution has been officially sub-divided, despite there being no legal barriers to doing so.

Instead the country has overemphasised redistribution of large commercial farms as single operations. This severely limits the number of people who can benefit from land reform, not only in terms of ownership but also job creation and poverty reduction.

A review is in order as the country contemplates improving its painfully slow land reform programme.

Some estimates suggest that one million new jobs can be created in agriculture, and a large proportion of those must be in labour intensive enterprises in communal areas and land reform contexts. I have long argued that this ideal will be best served if small-scale, or smallholder black farmers become key beneficiaries of redistributive land reform in rural South Africa.

But authorities must be alive to the fact that smaller-scale commercial farmers face different constraints and opportunities from those of large-scale, commercial farmers. It’s critically important that planning and post-settlement support are appropriate to their needs and objectives.

I asked Rauri Alcock of the Mdukatshani Rural Development Programme about the problems facing small-scale farmers in the areas it covers. Mdukatshani is an organisation based in the KwaZulu-Natal province that specialises in supporting small-scale farmers. It was formed in the 1970s.

What kinds of production do small-scale farmers and land reform beneficiaries in the Msinga and Weenen districts engage in?

Small-scale farmers in this part of the world focus on dryland crops, fresh produce and livestock – cattle, goats and homestead poultry, mostly indigenous breeds. Rainfall is low and droughts are common. But smallholder irrigation schemes are a key source of cash income for many households. Grazing is communal.

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What problems do these farmers experience?

Key problems are limited access to tractors and implements for cultivation, and cash for the purchase of fertilisers and chemicals. In Msinga, land reform beneficiaries tend to ask neighbouring white farmers to help out with tractors and implements.

What about access to markets for produce?

Farmers on irrigation schemes sell produce to informal traders, many with their own trucks. Green maize, tomatoes and cabbage are their most lucrative crops, and are sold in surrounding towns. On one land reform farm I know, farmers have sold groundnuts at a good price to local traders and consumers. Targeting the right market niche is key.

Could small-scale farmers negotiate contracts with supermarkets, as many commercial farmers do?

This might work for some, perhaps for specialist crops such as garlic. For many crops, the degree of coordination required between many individuals operating on a small scale to produce high quality of crops, in the quantities required and on a regular basis, is very demanding.

When it comes to livestock production, what problems do small-scale livestock owners in KwaZulu-Natal experience?

Access to water is a key constraint. Walking long distances to water points reduces the productivity of animals since energy is expended that could be used for growth. Large areas of the province are not being grazed because there’s a shortage of small dams. Creating more water points would improve efficiency, but government does not provide much assistance in maintaining these dams.

This problem is exacerbated by a farming system in which animals are kraaled: animals must return to the homestead every night. But KwaZulu-Natal experiences much higher levels of stock theft. The kraal also plays a significant role in social and cultural life in the province’s rural communities, as it is the site of different ceremonies in which members of the household communicate with the ancestors.

Is the fact that livestock share access to communal grazing a constraint?

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It is not clear that creating exclusive grazing areas would necessarily be a solution. Determining the maximum number of animals that an area of grazing can sustainably support, known as its “carrying capacity”, is difficult when rainfall is uncertain and droughts are common. In trying to support small-scale farmers, we must take the farming and livelihood system as a whole into account. But few planners and extension staff are currently able to do so.

Is lack of markets for livestock a serious constraint?

No, there are active local markets for both cattle and goats, particularly for ceremonial uses. But sales can be increased through organising auctions and sales points, which in our case has seen rapidly increasing prices as outsiders arrive to bid for animals.

The major constraint on livestock production is not the market, but productivity, and problems of nutrition and disease. We have seen significant improvements in our goat project through providing feeding areas in the kraal that only mothers and their kids can gain access to, with blocks of supplementary feed provided in these areas. Local youth earn money for themselves by making feed blocks for sale to farmers.

Is government doing enough to help smallholder farmers on land reform projects and in communal areas?

No, not nearly enough. The so-called “mentorship” of smallholders by commercial farmers has largely failed, perhaps because the farming systems each uses are so different. A few individuals or land reform projects are successful, perhaps because the people involved already had the right skills.

But there are some hopeful signs. The department of agriculture in KwaZulu-Natal has now realised, for example, that goats are potentially a growth industry, and are looking for ways to redesign and expand their support programmes. There may even be potential for exports to places like the Middle East.


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