Changing political landscape in SA and prospects for agricultural transformation

A workman on a tractor in sugar-cane fields in the Umhlali area, North Coast, KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: Karen Sandison/Independent Newspapers

A workman on a tractor in sugar-cane fields in the Umhlali area, North Coast, KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: Karen Sandison/Independent Newspapers

Published Jun 10, 2024


By Thulasizwe Mkhabela

SOUTH Africa has just returned from the polls that will usher in the seventh administration, which also coincides with 30 years of democracy.

While no outright winner emerged from this election, which also spawned a plethora of new political parties – some of which punched above their weight in terms of the voters they managed to garner – there can be no doubt that South Africa, as a country, cannot afford to take the foot off the pedal in forging ahead with much-needed development.

The next administration of the government will be formed by coalitions and marriages of convenience and expedience by political parties that may even have irreconcilable doctrines and political views. However, one can only hope and pray that the nation's welfare will be the priority rather than jostling for political ascendency and posturing for the next election.

In South Africa, regardless of the political climate, some fundamental programmes and projects are almost sacrosanct and thus should not be sacrificed during the horse-trading that has ensued behind closed doors.

Agricultural transformation and protecting the sector is one such endeavour that should be pursued with fervent vigour in the country. Without embellishing the sector, agriculture has proven to be the saving grace and doyen of the South African economy when the rest of the economic sectors are in dire straits.

This is despite the meagre official contribution to gross domestic product of less than 3%, the agricultural sector is important to the South African economy and well-being. For example, in quarter three of 2023, South Africa’s agricultural products exports increased by 14%, in value terms (rand) from R64 billion in quarter three of 2022 to R72.9bn in quarter three of 2023.

This represents more than 10% of total South African export earnings, thus a significant contribution to foreign exchange earnings and a positive contribution to the trade balance.

Furthermore, the agricultural sector is one of the highest employers in the country, with more than 956 000 people. These examples buttress the importance of the sector to the South African economy.

Despite the importance of the agricultural sector and its development, the sector is still marked with duality and heavily skewed in favour of large-scale commercial farmers while leaving behind a plethora of black and smallholder farmers. This inequality highlights the urgency of transformation within the sector to achieve inclusivity and create a more egalitarian sector.

Thus, growth is a necessary but not sufficient condition in the sector. The seventh administration should build on the foundation laid for transforming the agricultural sector. Principal among the achievements is the promulgation of the Agriculture and Agroprocessing Masterplan (AAMP) as a social compact that is a blueprint for the sector’s theory of change and trajectory going forward.

Much ground has been covered in putting structures in place to implement the AAMP because the proof of any policy is its implementation. Orthodoxy without orthopraxy is just an aspiration.

The sector, led by the Department of Land Reform and Rural Development through the National Agricultural Marketing Council, is making strides in implementing the AAMP in a consultative and inclusive manner, thus building consensus and giving impetus toward transformation in the sector while growing it. This is in keeping with the sufficient consensus-seeking approach in which the plan was developed and the overarching spirit of the South African democracy.

South African policymakers should also deliberately target subsectors of agriculture that are the most untransformed and within substantive barriers to entry for new players to make the most meaningful changes in our society.

The input sector of agriculture in South Africa is highly concentrated and dominated by a few large, mainly multinational corporations, and exclusive by design.

One can cite the seed and fertiliser industries as such examples. These already impenetrable sectors are further made inaccessible to new entrants because of the archaic legislation and regulations that govern them, coupled with the prohibitive capital outlays required. This legislation was promulgated in the 1970s and 1980s and was never intended to be inclusive by design.

When all is said and done and whatever the coalitions are entered into to form the seventh administration and their permutations, agriculture should not be sacrificed at the altar of compromise.

There is too much at stake, and concerted efforts to transform the sector and make it inclusive and sustainable should continue unabated. It is in the broader interest of South Africa and its citizens to remain steadfastly committed to transforming the economy, including the agriculture sector, for posterity.

Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an honorary research fellow with the African Centre for Food Security and the University of KwaZulu-Natal and an independent agricultural researcher. He is also a director and Senior Researcher at Outcome Mapping.