‘Let’s celebrate our farmers’ – Ramphele

Agricultural transformation in South Africa has been a dismal failure since 1994, according to Agang leader Dr Mamphela Ramphele.

‘Let’s celebrate our farmers’ - Ramphele
Dr Mamphela Ramphele
Photo: Michel Béga / the citizen

Farmer’s Weekly heard that you are involved in farming. Where and what do you farm?
My family has a model vegetable garden on a smallholding on my mother’s property in Uitkyk in Limpopo. This is to provide a model for a community (who struggle to make a living) to grow their own food. They do well enough to sell the produce. The model was set up by farmer Jim Parker, who trained two young men to run the project and sustain themselves.

READ:Land Bank pledges support for small farmers

Please explain Agang’s policy on the commercial and emerging sectors of SA agriculture.
I believe that South Africa underutilises its natural resources, of which land is a big item. Our land reform national programme has underperformed even by standards set by government itself. Not only did we not manage to restore land but, where land has been given back, we’ve failed to support communities and individual farmers to turn it into a productive resource. We need to review how well and intensively we use that land. An area of huge opportunity which South Africa has not leveraged is industrial cropping – bamboos, hemp, flax and so forth.

You can get high- value products. Even contaminated mining land can be used for this. Bamboo has an added benefit in that it can detoxify the land, making it usable for other crops. It can be used by the building industry and for paper. Economies of scale are becoming more important for farmers to produce food sustainably and profitably.

Where and how do small and emerging farmers fit in?
Economies of scale are important. But there are good examples in Israel showing that it is possible to farm intensively on a
small piece of land, using modern science and technology. South Africa is not using enough science and technology in farming, particularly in farming by smallholders without skills. This is where government should step in and be an enabler in agriculture.

What is the role that the SA agricultural sector can and should play in the context of the SADC countries?
Co-operation is key for regional development. However, we can learn a lot from transfrontier national parks. When there is no effective border security, you import problems such as poaching. You can’t simply have cross-border co-operation without paying attention to clean, competent government.

And in a national context?
There are many examples of excellence in agriculture. We have among the best farmers in the world and can celebrate that. But, there are some challenges. South Africa should move away from old-fashioned farming based on mono-cropping, with land lying idle for the rest of the year, and look at high value biofuels, fibres, bamboo, etc. Kenya’s booming flower exports to the Netherlands provide a good example of what can be achieved with farming high-value products.

Do you think enough progress has been made in terms of land reform and agricultural transformation since 1994?
Definitely not. The main reason for this is poor leadership and lack of political will. What South Africa needs is a creative land reform programme that addresses the multiple forms of dispossession that took place under apartheid. Inequality was structurally created and it needs structural remedies to undo it. We need to address the structural economic inequalities.
The “willing-buyer, willing-seller” model has not worked. It does not take sufficient account of the structural factors that undermine black people’s ability to obtain and use the land as they see fit.

Colonial and apartheid land laws went beyond dispossessing people of their land; they undermined the very livelihoods of black South Africans. They removed as possibilities many ways of using land, including land ownership, tenant farming, share-cropping and land use. They drove people into the migrant labour system, which involved low-skilled and low-wage labour.

What was the biggest mistake the ruling party made pertaining to emerging farmers?

Not understanding that land restitution as a political programme had to be accompanied by an enabling process to turn land into a productive resource. Newcomers need capital, skills and ongoing support to farm profitably.

What about commercial farmers?
There was no proper understanding of how to manage old-fashioned commercial farming, which is white male-dominated, and make it inclusive. There is a lot of mistrust on both sides and, in some cases, mismanagement of the process. Many farmers were paid off as part of the land restitution programme, and left. They are now farming profitably in Mozambique, among other countries, which is a loss to the country.

What is the biggest political challenge for commercial farmers?
They used to be pampered by successive National Party governments as part of patronage, exchange for their votes; they were protected. They also benefited from cushy loans. Some succeeded while some failed, which must have been a shock to the system.

If you were the minister of agriculture, which policy changes would you implement?
I would promote the intensive use of modern science and technology in farming and steer the industry towards more high-value products, while promoting food security. I would also take steps to increase the attractiveness of the sector to all South Africans.

The best- and worst- case scenarios for SA agriculture in the next 10 years?
The worst is that the sector remains as untransformed as it is, with the vast majority of the population excluded. It would also be tragic if land reform would have failed, making the land issue an ongoing, divisive issue. But we are better than that and South Africans yearn for change.

The best-case scenario would be to replace the present government with a clean, competent, government that pursues sound economic policies and builds a meritocratic public service. Should Agang SA win next year’s election, we will strive to provide exactly this. And as part of it, we will tackle the challenge of fundamentally transforming our economy, including agriculture, to make it more inclusive. South Africans of every persuasion need to feel they have a real stake in the country and its future.

Phone Agang SA’s head of communications Thabo Leshilo on 011 718 5044 or email
[email protected].

This article was originally published in the 18 October 2013 issue of Farmer’s Weekly.