A future for farming in SA

Working for Farmer’s Weekly, I am often asked whether I think there is a future for farming in South Africa.

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My short answer is that there simply has to be because without agriculture, South Africa has no future. But the reality of the situation is far more complex and uncertain.

For starters, our government has painted itself into a corner by pursuing two vastly conflicting priorities: land reform and food security. South Africa will never have enough money to settle all restitution claims by paying market-related prices for land; equally, there is no clear and proven plan to ensure that productive agricultural land transferred to land reform beneficiaries remains productive.

But perhaps most concerning of all is the degree of powerlessness that many farmers experience in their ability to determine the course of their lives and businesses. The future, it may seem, is not in their hands. What a terrifying thought! And this applies to all farmers, black and white commercial farmers, smallholder farmers, and even people aspiring to one day become farmers.

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Here is a government that tells you that you have stolen the land you have spent your entire life toiling on (and in many instances are still paying for). It says you can have land to realise your dream of becoming a farmer but then takes years and years to deliver on this promise. It gives you access to land, but cleverly manipulates policy in such a way that that land will never actually belong to you. It even wants to dictate how much land you are allowed to own.

With a government like this, it is understandable that SA farmers might feel they have no hand in determining their fate.
To my mind, the best remedy for this situation is to beat government at its own game. The farming sector must drive transformation in agriculture as if its future depended on it, because it almost certainly does. Farmers have to find a way to make land reform work where government is failing.

I often recall a conversation I had about two years ago with a Zimbabwean farmer who had been driven off of his land at the height of the Mugabe regime’s violent land grabs. He pointed out the many similarities between the politics of land in Zimbabwe and South Africa and said that if nothing changed South Africa could quite easily become the next Zimbabwe.

But he said South African farmers still had an opportunity to fight this, as well as to react constructively to the very real need for redress by their fellow South Africans deprived of the right or opportunity to own land.

To come back to my answer to the question: yes, there is a future for farming in South Africa, and even though it might not always seem that way, that future is still, for now, in the hands of farmers.