Land is not enough

Bob has been a farmer for 30 years. If he was a lawyer, he’d be a senior partner, with a corner office and a regular tee time. When he retired he would be replaced by a younger, educated, experienced, and probably black individual. Succession for Bob, like so much in the commercial agriculture industry today, is far less certain.

In the past 16 years, South Africa has failed to invest in the kind of skills needed to transform the agribusiness industry and keep South Africa the leader it should be in this field. As a result, this industry, so crucial to feeding the 60 per cent of South Africans living in urban centres, is not only politically untransformed but it is beginning to stagnate relative to the advancement, investment and innovation taking place in other countries.

The problem seems to relate in part to the bizarre and unfounded belief that farming is both easy (anyone can do it) and a great poverty alleviation and/or get-rich-quick scheme. Groups of people, with – at most – a little experience of small farming, are given large commercial farm, a few tractors and perhaps some seed or cattle and expected to produce.

land, no matter what heart-felt attachments we may have to it, is simply one input in the high-risk, capital-intensive business of commercial farming.

The results have, unsurprisingly, been uninspiring. The Department of Rural Development is now running for cover, desperately proposing various options such as nationalising land, land-price commissions and limits on the amount of land any one person can own. Other critics are demanding that these so-called ’emerging farmers’ are protected from market forces.

None of which addresses the fundamental problem: land, no matter what heart-felt attachments we may have to it, is simply one input in the high-risk, capital-intensive business of commercial farming. Transferring land is useful when the government does it to circumvent financial-institution jitters about partnering with designated emerging farmers or when the issue is purely ownership and productivity irrelevant. It is more problematic when what the government is really doing is dumping poor people on farms in the expectation that they will somehow turn overnight, with no further investment, into successful, rich, competitive agribusiness professionals. Worse still, when it is clear that black ownership will not automatically translate (without a whole lot of other inputs) into black success, the department fails to propose the obvious business solution: that new land owners/land-owning groups hire managers to run their businesses.

The transformation of the South African agribusiness industry will not be easy nor will it happen overnight, but it begins with serious investment in the skills and training of young black professionals so that they can become the shining lights of a thriving, innovative sector. Until farming is taken seriously as a professional business enterprise with land as one of many input costs, land reform in South Africa will continue to be a dismal failure.