South Africa: R17.3bn agriculture, land reform budget must also benefit people in rural areas | Land Portal

Ido Lekota is a former Sowetan political editor. 

Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development Minister Thoko Didiza tabled a R17, 3 billion budget in the past week to help support food security in the country.

Didiza said the money will be distributed through a range of programmes, including the commercialisation of black farmers through land development support.

"If you look at the R17.3bn of our budget, the majority of that is transferred to provinces dealing with food security," she said.

"The comprehensive agriculture programme is where we give critical infrastructure for farmers in order for them to farm productively.”

Didiza went further to say the multi-billion budget is aimed at making the agricultural sector more inclusive by bringing previously-excluded groups into the fold.

Allocating such a massive budget is indeed a major development towards delivering the much-needed economic recovery in the country. Even more so in a country where it is estimated that 9.34 million people (16% of the population analysed) are facing high levels of acute food insecurity.

Having said so, it is important that we unpack the extent to which this initiative is actually geared towards achieving its objectives. To this end we could start by looking at the notion that the budget allocation is aimed at making the agricultural sector more inclusive.

This is important given the prevailing situation where, for example, the majority of communities in the rural areas are not benefiting equitably from the agricultural sector as they are supposed to.

This is obviously in contradiction with the definition of an inclusive sector as one “wherein the distribution of the benefits, or outputs, of the sector is equitably distributed across the population”.

This definition includes what is specifically referred to as horizontal equity, where there are no systematic differences in the distribution of those benefits related to population characteristics such as age, sex, income, place of residence or ethnicity.

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In fact, constitutionally speaking, the country’s land reform programme was supposed to, among other things, achieve some horizontal equity by ensuring that the impoverished get to own and work the land, thereby achieving food security.

But as the record shows, the land reform programme is in disarray, with the vulnerable majority rural communities being prone to impediments such as tenure insecurities. This goes against what Minister Didiza has outlined as her department’s objective – because, as research has shown, tenure insecurity does contribute to social exclusion and undermines people’s ability to invest in agricultural production, resulting in food insecurity.

Another major impediment in attaining the envisaged inclusive agricultural sector is the inequitable manner in which the elite have come to benefit from land reform at the expense of the poor.

For example, a recent study by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (Plaas) has revealed what the institute refers to as “elite capture” of the land reform programme, whereby state resources originally intended for the impoverished have been effectively redirected to the better-off.

Pro-poor precepts of land reform have increasingly been abandoned in favour of redistributing land to those who have already proved that they have the resources to achieve commercial success in their farming ventures, the study showed.

“Public resources have been targeted at those who can afford to engage in the conventional practice of large-scale farming and the bias has been changed to pursue commercial success instead of land redistribution.”

At a recent webinar to mark Plaas’ 25th anniversary, its founder, Ben Cousins, warned that land reform has become the preserve of the well-off, with 44% of beneficiaries being urban-based “business individuals, taxi or transport operators, former state bureaucrats and local politicians, with access to material resources, knowledge and information”.

This situation will surely lead to the continued exclusion of the many men and women in the rural areas who have the potential to work the land allocated to them and therefore fend off the scourge of food insecurity that many rural communities continue to face.

What this means is that for Didiza's multi-billion effort – to make the agricultural sector more inclusive – to succeed, she must go back to basics and drive the kind of land reform that is driven by a commitment to horizontal equity.

Failure to do so will lead to this massive investment turning into another misuse of public funds in the name of a government committed to people-centred sustainable development.

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