by Chris Waldburger

Cyril Ramaphosa: President farmer?

The pressure is now on Ramaphosa to deliver and maintain a parliamentary majority in five years’ time.

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Having won his own mandate for change in the state as well as the ruling party, the pressure is now on Ramaphosa to deliver and maintain a parliamentary majority in five years’ time. The President believes that agriculture, in the midst of the broiling debate surrounding land, can be the seed of economic health.

Contrary to public opinion, South Africa is not a net importer of agricultural products. We are not self-sufficient in terms of food, but agriculture is a handy contributor to foreign currency reserves and our trade balance.

Whilst agricultural employment hovers somewhere under the (still significant) million people mark, and the contribution to gross domestic product (GDP) is below 3%, the industry’s room for growth, its pathways to rural development, backward linkage to manufacturing, as well as the elemental connection many citizens feel towards the soil beneath their feet, makes farming our land a key part of our future.

Therefore, despite fears and doubts surrounding land reform, Ramaphosa, a farmer and outdoorsman himself, has actually spent far more time touting agriculture as a solution to our current discontents, rather than a factor thereof.

The unorthodox British economist, E. F. Schumacher, who remains influential within developmental contexts, noted in 1973 that without rural development, labour and urban conflicts will brew: “It remains an unalterable truth that, just as a sound mind depends on a sound body, so the health of the cities depends on the health of the rural areas… There is no answer to the evils of mass unemployment and mass migration into cities, unless the whole level of rural life can be raised.”

Make no mistake, South Africa is a land of urban capital and financial centres, but our unemployment levels and urban blight make a huge push to invest in rural areas and their economies vital for our future.

Lord David Owen, the former UK Labour MP and Cabinet Minister, recently wrote in The Daily Maverick, “It is no exaggeration to say that on President Ramaphosa’s shoulders rests the future of the African continent.”

And perhaps an agricultural renewal forms a significant part of this burden.

“An agricultural revolution”?

Recently, President Ramaphosa announced the government-backed finalisation of 30-year leases with 900 farmers to grant them credit access for agricultural development.

When one thinks of the steady decline of numbers of commercial farmers, under the pressure of the economies of scale, and lacking first-world style subsidisation, this measure demonstrates real intent.

In his address in February at the opening of the National House of Traditional Leaders, he said: “These measures are part of the broader effort to unleash an agricultural revolution in SA. The epicentre of this revolution will be in the rural areas of our country.

“Our first task is to accelerate inclusive economic growth and create jobs. The most direct way out of poverty for our people is through employment and other productive economic activity, such as small business ownership and farming.

“We are committed to working with traditional leaders to significantly expand the amount of arable land available for agricultural production, both for food security and to create job opportunities. Since we last addressed this issue in the National House of Traditional Leaders, we are encouraged by the fact that more traditional leaders have identified land that can be designated for agricultural production,” said Ramaphosa.

The President recently made it clear that any talk of land expropriation will not affect the Ingonyama Trust under the auspices of the Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini, and he again reiterated that partnering with traditional leadership formed a key part of his pitch for an “agricultural revolution”: “As government, we appreciate the strong working relationship we have developed to address those issues that most affect our people. The institution of traditional leadership is an integral part of our nation’s past, its present and its future.

“We consider further engagement with the advisory panel [the Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) on Land Reform chaired by Deputy President David Mabuza] necessary for the development of a comprehensive programme of accelerated land reform that gives effect to the Freedom Charter’s injunction that the land shall be shared among those who work it,” Ramaphosa said.

This referral to the Freedom Charter’s injunction for land to be shared among those who work it carried, perhaps, a further layer of meaning, considering former State President, Thabo Mbeki, and his recent interpretation of it in response to Julius Malema at the Power 98.7 Chairman’s Conversation: “The Freedom Charter says, ‘The land will be shared among those who work it.’ Why was it phrased like that? I don’t work the land. I live in Johannesburg… Who works the land? Farmers, workers, people in rural areas.”

Perhaps this turn toward government funding and the guidance of traditional leadership is a tempering of the political rhetoric surrounding expropriation without compensation.

Ramaphosa has gone on record to assure farmers that there will not be any undermining of property rights or Zimbabwean-style land grabs. Instead, government land, unused land for speculative purposes and unproductive land neglected by absent landlords would take primacy.

Changes on the ground?

The President has already given an example of the kind of unleashing of agricultural production he has in mind when he addressed the local community, Ncise, in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape last December, when a multi-billion-rand project was officially launched.

This development project forms part of a partnership with Argentina via the transference of expertise and machinery from the Province of Cordoba.

Ramaphosa spelt out the end goal clearly: “The Eastern Cape must live up to its promise in as far as being the food basket of South Africa; the bread basket of South Africa; the meat basket of South Africa; the maize basket of South Africa. That is what the Eastern Cape is capable of.”

Ramaphosa is determined to drive policy from the office of the Presidency through his reinstatement of a policy unit reporting directly to him—an entity not seen since Mbeki’s administration.

The enduring concern remains delivery

Between the Departments of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and of Rural Development and Land Reform, there are swathes of bureaucrats who should simply have done more thus far. Time will only tell if a new and entrenched national leadership can streamline and radically improve delivery. The truth remains, South Africa has a valuable agricultural sector. It is growing. It is a net exporter.

It needs to grow even more for the sake of food security for a growing population. And its value needs to be further unlocked by investment and the multiplication of skills and expertise.

Farming is a difficult business. Commercial farming is estimated to carry a debt exceeding R200 billion. The average age of a commercial South African farmer is over 62. Yet, these challenges must be overcome.

Growing rural economies has been key to decreasing poverty amongst all the Asian ‘Tiger’ economies of the east. It is time for our government to create the conditions of trust, predictability and delivery in order for us to do the same. Ramaphosa is right. Agriculture is a seed for a state’s wellbeing.

This proposed “agricultural revolution” is being directly championed by the State President himself. He cannot afford to fail. 

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