News | Southern Africa - Socio-ecological Transformation - Green New Deal - Food Sovereignty - Climate Justice It’s Time for an Agriculture Green New Deal in South Africa

Three decades after Apartheid, only a green transformation can ensure wellbeing and prosperity for all



Roland Ngam,

Philipina Ndamane holds up some of the vegetables she has grown in the Abalama Bezehkaya garden in Guguletu, Cape Town, South Africa on 9 June 2009.   CC BY 2.0, Photo: Flickr/USAID

It is time for an Agriculture Green New Deal (AGND) in South Africa. It is time for a great transformation, one that factors in the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of the land question and not just market considerations.

Roland Ngam works as a Programme Manager of Climate Justice at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Office in Johannesburg, where he coordinates the climate blog ClimateJusticeCentral.

Almost three decades into the democratic dispensation, South Africa is still confronted with multiples crises on different fronts: deepening inequalities, rising unemployment, worsening rural poverty, deteriorating race relations, water crises, multi-year droughts, and a persistent fossil capitalism problem.

There is also a very clear movement away from the social contract, characterized by corruption, “tenderpreneurship” (the fight for government tenders by connected entrepreneurs and politicians), attacks on state institutions, and emergent apathy. The growing number of potholes and uncollected rubbish in our communities are visible monuments of this slow inner decay.

Fewer and fewer people believe that “South Africa is alive with possibility” as former President Thabo Mbeki’s TV advert once proclaimed.

Stalled Land Reform

It is an aberration that three decades into the democratic dispensation, South Africa is still defined by apartheid geography. It is everywhere. It is the first thing that foreign visitors notice when they arrive in the country. The sight of hundreds of thousands of shacks sitting right next to leafy suburbs is both jarring and inescapable. It is always painful to watch people shift uneasily and contort themselves as they try to offer a cogent explanation for this persistent nightmare.

It is not hard to find poverty in South Africa either. It is pervasive, staring back at you in raw, inescapable, accusing fashion. In every city, every small town, every dorp (small town/village), people mill around with exhausted, forlorn-looking faces, unmoored, pushing trolleys of empty plastic bottles to recycling plants, begging for piece work or a few coins to purchase their next meal.

That should not be happening in a country with a combined GDP of 351 billion US dollars.

Land and agrarian reform were once touted as key answers to the country’s economic problems. They have unfortunately become political footballs over time. An overly cautious and undercapitalized approach means that the ANC government still has not done enough to advance the ambition of distributing 30 percent of fertile agricultural land to black owners — a target that was initially set to be achieved by 1999, and then 2001, and then 2015 ... the goalposts keep shifting.

Yet there cannot be any doubt about it: land reform is a key component of the agrarian transformation, and the agrarian transformation is a key component of the socioeconomic transformation.

Too often, the government has let the private sector dictate debates around these issues.

Shortly after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced during the State of the Nation Address that he was about to set up a land reform agency to help speed up land reform, Agri-SA deployed its favourite scare tactic, warning the government that any expropriation of land without compensation would have serious consequences on GDP.

The Banking Association of South Africa’s Bongiwe Kunene added that “If we have insecure property rights and policy uncertainty, the result of that will be retarding investments and economic development, which is critical to tackling employment, poverty and inequality”.

The hermeneutics of land reform, hijacked as it is by agriculture lobbies and World Bank experts who threaten food insecurity Armageddon at every turn, has only helped to perpetuate an untenable poverty and inequality situation. It has also accelerated ecological collapse, with temperatures in Southern Africa rising faster than anywhere else on the planet. The country’s economy continues to rely on coal mining and large-scale commercial farms which themselves are powered by the utility company Eskom, which singlehandedly accounts for 45 percent of all CO2 and methane gas emissions on the African continent.

An Explosive Hunger, Poverty, and Unemployment Situation

The threat of food insecurity is predicated on wrong assumptions, e.g. that all white-owned farms produce food for supermarkets and export markets (not true); that all transferred lands must produce for the markets (not realistic); and that the government has enough time and resources to operate an orderly transfer of land to a group of people who are not just willing but also able to make successful businesses of their land (again, unrealistic).

These assumptions ignore the hunger crisis, whereby, if allowed to continue, there will come a time when high fences, barbed wire, and fancy security companies will not be enough to hold a nation of hungry people back. It also ignores the country’s 35 percent unemployment situation.

When former President Jacob Zuma was sentenced to 15 months in jail on contempt of court charges in June 2021, his supporters were able to weaponize large mobs and send them into the streets because the country’s poverty and hunger levels are untenable.

During the first COVID-19 hard lockdown, the world watched in shock as South Africa’s hunger and thirst problems were laid bare by local and international media. Roving TV helicopter crews showed footage after footage of queues wrapped around office blocks, stadia, and open veldts for miles as people queued for food parcels.

Again, when the government announced a 350-rand (23 US dollars!) unemployment grant, five million people sent in applications. Many government leaders were shocked to discover what NGOs have been saying for years, namely that the average South African has no savings and cannot go for three days without working to earn some form of income.

Here’s the thing — we are talking about 50 percent of the country here. That’s right, almost half the country cannot eat two proper meals a day! Another percentage, the precariat, is overworked, underpaid, and trapped in a permanent violent fear of the unknown, fear of losing their jobs or — God forbid — if a child falls sick, someone dies, or there is an unforeseen bill.

Former President Thabo Mbeki writes in his seminal “Two Economies” speech that: “We are interested that together, as South Africans, we adopt the necessary steps that will eradicate poverty in our country as quickly as possible and in all its manifestations, to end the dehumanisation of millions of our people, which inevitably results from the terrible deprivation to which so many, both black and white, are victim.”

This dream has been deferred for too long and something radical must be done to very quickly actualize the long-deferred promise of better livelihoods for all.

Time to Re-Envision Land and Agriculture in South Africa

Roughly 50 percent of South Africans regularly cannot afford the food that is sold on supermarket stands (Spar, Checkers, Pick ‘n’ Pay, etc.) and, therefore, dramatically shifting how agriculture is done in the country will transform South Africa without negatively impacting food value chains.

Expropriation without compensation is certainly not the answer. At the same time, land reform must be accelerated for the good of the country. Delays in transformation are causing unrest — and different communities have started arming and weaponizing their pathos.

We saw this in the sleepy Free State town of Senekal in central South Africa following the brutal murder of farm manager Brendin “Choppie” Horner by stock thieves.

Before Horner’s murder, KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala spent time putting out fires in Normandien (a suburb of Newcastle) where explosive tensions had flared up in the community following the murder of farm owners Glen and Vida Rafferty. Members of the black community were anxious about a growing number of evictions. They needed clarity, they needed their own properties.

On 12 April 2021, thousands of people and several political parties protested outside the Piet Retief Magistrates’ Court where four white farm owners accused of murdering two black seasonal workers had appeared in court. The scenes were repeated on 19 April 2021 when the murder accused appeared again for their bail hearing.

Senekal could have gone up in flames after Brendin Horner’s murder. South Africa burned for one week following former President Jacob Zuma’s arrest. Who knows where the violence will go next?

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated vulnerabilities and set people against each other. Rural poverty is a clear and present national emergency. Any politician with strong oratory skills can use it to their advantage. Arguments are often presented in simplistic sophistry. All they need to do to whip crowds into a frenzy is point to a farm or mine and say that “the white man still owns everything in this country” or that “foreigners are taking all the jobs in this country”. Repeat those statements many times over and they become the truth.

Joel Netshitenzhe’s blistering op-ed in the Daily Maverick, that outed the so-called Radical Economic Transformation faction of the ANC ahead of the 2022 elective conference, showed that this familiar playbook shall once again occupy a prominent place at the upcoming event. Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu has already fired the opening salvo by saying that South Africa’s constitution is blocking radical economic transformation.

Black owners of large-scale commercial farms (LSCF) are also under attack. The Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) admitted in early 2021 that there were clear issues of corruption within her department following evictions of black farmers in Gert Sibande.

The Climate Dimension

At the same time, while we talk about land and agrarian change, we cannot forget that the world around us is changing dramatically due to anthropogenic action. We see ecological collapse everywhere. South Africa is the 13th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, largely due to its coal power fleet. Agriculture, forestry, and other land use (AFOLU) is the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the country, after the utility company ESKOM.

The LSCF that dominate South African agriculture use up more than 60 percent of the country’s available water. Current AFOLU practices — which rely on constantly turning the earth, sometimes twice a year, to sow crops — mean that LSCF keep releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere. These LSCF must manage water and CO2 better, and it is a good thing that the biggest farmers’ associations have started those conversations. However, more still needs to be done by the agriculture sector in particular and the country in general.

Transformation is needed to ditch fossil capitalism and unlock the economy’s potential for millions more people. It is becoming increasingly clear that South Africa can no longer postpone the just transition debate. The country’s drought episodes are getting longer and more communities are dealing with water challenges.

Small policy shifts are not enough; only radical, transformative ideas that fundamentally shift the way the country operates can unlock a greater distribution of wealth for all citizens and shake the country back into an exciting forward trajectory.

It is time to ditch the GDP growth obsession and let the people have land! It is time to prioritize the right to food, dignity, and degrowth strategies within land and agrarian reform programmes. It is time to prioritize urgent solutions that will make people believe in the national project again.

The Agriculture Green New Deal must become the new national mantra.

By the way, land reform cannot be abandoned to government alone, as if we do not all suffer the consequences of poverty, inequality, unemployment, and ecological collapse. The government should open up this process to the private sector and all must play their part. The same way that it took a multi-stakeholder coalition to defeat apartheid, so too must a multi-stakeholder coalition rise up to defeat poverty in South Africa.

Laying the Foundations of a Green Economy that Delivers for All

A “deep democracy” approach such as the Agriculture Green New Deal (AGND) in South Africa is long overdue. A critique of prevailing economic conditions must lead us to the conclusion that land and agrarian reform must be predicated on the right to food, dignity, and a clean, healthy environment — and it must be enacted swiftly and differently.

Betting that outsourcing South Africa’s agriculture to a few thousand large-scale commercial farms (LSCF) can help the country achieve autarky neglects to factor in the obvious reality that LSCF are businesses that ship their commodities abroad or to supermarkets in the most affluent suburbs. The rest of the country cannot afford what they produce and is too hungry to wait any longer.

So what needs to happen to ensure that we take care of the rest of the country? The recently published Making Peace with Nature document argues that, going forward, human development has to be based on the following pillars:

  • Sustainable economic and financial systems.
  • Healthy, nutritious food and clean water and energy.
  • Healthy lives and wellbeing for all in safe cities and settlements.

This, neatly summarized, is the path that South Africa must also follow. Interestingly, the ideas captured above all appear in the recommendations section of President Ramaphosa’s Land Reform Panel final report, i.e. transformed cities, transformed agriculture that prioritizes not just LSCF but small farms as well, equity and accountability, democratic control of resources, etc.

President Ramaphosa’s Land Reform Panel final report calls for “structural change to transform household and commercial food production and deepen diversity in the agro-food system”.

This, in many ways, is a call for an AGND in South Africa!

A degrowth, deep democracy AGND should necessarily be based on the idea of regenerative economies built on commons, cooperation, caring, and social wellbeing. Trickle-down casino economics and its attendant inequalities simply make that impossible. People should invest their time in personal growth and wellbeing that enriches communities rather than GDP growth that only serves to enrich those who control capital.

Within a democratic AGND, people will produce food first to meet their own needs before they think about selling anything to supermarkets and factories. They will not necessarily need to meet all their needs from the land that they receive. As I mentioned before in the first part of this essay, to expect land reform beneficiaries to meet all their needs from the land is quite simply an unrealistic and ultimately self-defeating objective. Most white farm owners do not earn all their living from their land. They have an assortment of other activities that generate income: property, wedding venue hire, hiking trails, art, photography, part-time work, etc. Many of them are also absentee landlords.

A degrowth, deep democracy AGND should recognize that the earth is not just a force of production to be plundered and exploited around the clock but rather the foundation of nature and nurture. It needs to be given time to rest and heal so that it can produce rich, nutritive food. Metabolic rift should not deprive it of the by-products (waste, etc.) of the food that it gives us, which it needs back for regeneration.

A deep democracy AGND will recognize that all South Africans need to have a place that they can call home. This lodestar, this compass if you will, shall be the inspiration that guides their path and unites them with their fellow community members. It shall be their ancestral home, where they all gather on special occasions, and that they invest in for the happiness and prosperity of future generations. Yes, land reform should not be only about agriculture, but also about homes and prosperous, united communities. The first iteration of land reform within the Reconstruction and Development Programme awarded land for agriculture as well as for houses. It was only after 2000 that policy shifts were made to focus solely on agriculture, and this has helped to prolong apartheid geography in rural areas. It is time to revert to the initial agenda.

By the way, I must add here that framing this essay under the concept of an Agriculture Green New Deal does not mean in any way that it should be appropriated and ring-fenced to this one sector alone. Rather, it is a Green New Deal agenda that is deliberately skewed towards agriculture and rural economies, including peri-urban settlements. It is predicated on the reality that the 1913 Land Act, related acts and policies, and later the Apartheid regime have defined who does well and who starves in South Africa for more than a century. For a very long time, agriculture represented more than 60 percent of the country’s GDP and everything — including bank finance, roads, power, schools, ports, etc. — were built to help this sector thrive. Reforming land and agriculture is therefore a precondition to improving the entire South African economy today.

The Nuts and Bolts of an Agriculture Green New Deal

In terms of practical steps, there is already a lot of infrastructure in place to enable an AGND. South Africa for example is number ten in the world in terms of tarred roads. That is a major achievement that the ANC government should be proud of. It must leverage that success and extend it to other infrastructure: bulk water supply, broadband, electricity, etc.

Furthermore, the following also has to happen:

Firstly, at least 80 percent of land and agrarian reform should target smallholders and only 20 percent should go to medium- and large-scale commercial farmers. For this purpose, the national government should identify all immediately-available farmland as well as donations from churches, businesses, the private sector etc., and subdivide it into plots. Plot sizes should be capped and new plots titled as soon as possible in order to give property owners the ability to raise money for their projects.

In a previous op-ed, I have argued that new farm plots should be as small as 20 hectares. Former President Zuma had the “One Household, One Hectare” programme. I recommend One Farmer, Twenty Hectares. Someone else may decide for a slightly bigger plot size, but for me, it is preferable to go small. LSCF require a lot of investments and labour and it will take an incredible length of time to create a thriving business on every single farm if only this type of agriculture is to be prioritized.

Equity must be a constant priority. More should be done to ensure that women, youth, and people living with disabilities are placed at the front of the queue whenever projects are made available.

Secondly, speed is just as important for this process, so as soon as land is made available, it should be titled and handed over to a beneficiary. The government must move very quickly on this. Starter packs should be given to help land reform beneficiaries build a house on their plot and start a project immediately. Politicians often like to say that if you give poor people money, they will waste it on booze and expensive nonsense. The experience with the 350-rand unemployment insurance shows that most people are spending their money on food and other important items. One woman who has been trending on social media for a while now even saved enough money to build her mother a house and another one started a pizza business!

Thirdly, major public infrastructure work should be done to refurbish or build roads, build bridges, install power lines, water catchments, schools, hospitals, and other amenities within communities. In all communities where power is supplied, the government should ensure that it is green power. Green power should also be deployed to power irrigation and farm mechanization units.

Provincial governments should create agrihubs (one-stop shops) in all districts. These hubs should have among other things government office support (to deal with any administrative issues) mechanization facilities (a warehouse where people in the neighbourhood can borrow tractors, harvesters, borers, etc.), financial offices (for loans, money transfer), extension offices, permanent training centres (to provide short practical courses to those who need them), and marketing liaison (to manage forward and backwards marketing support).

In peri-urban and urban areas, housing projects should adopt a more integrated approach that combines offices and living spaces within the same area. All communities must have access to parks, playgrounds, and — where possible — common gardens. In the Netherlands for example, cities often have common gardens where people can apply for a small patch and grow salads, spinach, and so on. The Philippi Horticultural Area is also an initiative that should be generalized across urban areas in the country.

Fourthly, permaculture should be strengthened and encouraged as the default land management philosophy. With this type of agriculture, people can grow dozens of different things on the same plot. The earth is always covered, and so it is a net carbon sink. Permaculture will save water while feeding the nation and help the country meet its voluntary emissions reduction targets. To catalyse this practice, the government has to retrain extension officers and hire many more of them.

Community markets should be built where smallholders who produce enough for the markets can sell their produce. These markets should have transportation to move goods speedily and storage facilities to store what is not sold in optimal conditions. Farmers should also be able to create community seed banks and exchange seeds freely.

Finally, the private sector must go beyond reactive criticism and play a proactive role in land reform. Major corporations and unions need to step in and help build resilient communities. It is not just about AgriBEE. They should be doing more to train people, set up housing schemes, make land available for immediate transfer, and so on. There are a few examples of instances where major corporations and unions have helped settle farmers on land (e.g. in the sugarcane production basin in KwaZulu-Natal) but this needs to be generalized.

Ideally, accelerated land reform should be based on a comprehensive, long-term approach. Bits and pieces of legislation should not be implemented every time a new president is elected. For example, the Zuma administration introduced the position of Land Valuer General to expedite land valuations following the adoption of the Property Valuation Act in 2014. Seven years later, President Ramaphosa created a Land Reform Agency, to further expedite the process. All these steps should be happening at the same time.

Wellbeing and Prosperity Are Human Rights

An AGND will completely reshape the South African landscape and give it clean food, cleaner air, and thriving, resilient communities. We must believe that this is possible — and then make it happen.

When Deng Xiaoping started laying the groundwork for China’s modern economy in 1978, he told a gathering of the Chinese Communist Party that “we need large numbers of pathbreakers who dare to think, explore new ways and generate new ideas … otherwise, we won’t be able to rid our country of poverty and backwardness or to catch up with — still less surpass — the advanced countries.”

China’s GDP at the time was just 149 billion US dollars. Its real per capita GDP was worse than the Republic of Chad’s (which stood at 1.1 billion at the time). 43 years later, the Chinese economy is worth a staggering 14 trillion dollars. Chad has a GDP of 11 billion dollars today and is ranked 187th out of 189 countries in the 2019 Human Development Index.

If we are to compare the respective trajectories of China and South Africa, one country had a plan, the other did not. One took the fight against poverty seriously, the other did not. How did Deng’s dream become reality? A clear plan, buy-in from all citizens, and dogged determination. All stable and prosperous countries require a large comfortable middle to remain stable and prosperous. A society that is characterized by an oasis of plenty sitting in a sea of misery cannot stand. South Africa has a head-start on China. Its economy is more than double where China started its modern project from over 43 years ago.

President Ramaphosa has said that South Africa needs a new social contract. We can start by drawing inspiration from the Freedom Charter adopted by the Congress of the People in 1955:

Restrictions of land ownership on a racial basis shall be ended, and all the land re-divided amongst those who work it, to banish famine and land hunger;

The state shall help the peasants with implements, seed, tractors and dams to save the soil and assist the tillers;

Freedom of movement shall be guaranteed to all who work on the land;

All shall have the right to occupy land wherever they choose;

People shall not be robbed of their cattle, and forced labour and farm prisons shall be abolished.

It is time to engineer a great agricultural transformation and finally deliver on the Freedom Charter’s promise of wellbeing for all. It is time for an AGND.