AGRICULTURE-AND-SKILLS-DEVELOPMENT

South Africa’s greatest challenge is the yawning gap of the Gini co-efficient

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South Africa’s greatest challenge is the yawning gap of the Gini co-efficient in a society in which the haves increasingly have more and the have nots make do with less and less. It’s a situation that isn’t just unsustainable, and a bleeding provocation–it’s underpinned by a historical structure.

In 1913, Sol Plaatje began his legendary polemic Native Life in South Africa with the unforgettable lines: “Awakening on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually, a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.”

Land reform and especially access to land to farm remain a burning issue in our country, 107 years after the imposition of the hated Natives Land Act that allocated only 7% of the arable land in the country to the majority African population. Today in the 26th year of our much-vaunted democracy, nearly 75% of the available arable land remains in white hands.

Despite a quarter of a century’s efforts, government’s land reform policies have not succeeded, there are variety of reasons for this, from structural barriers to entry to the reality that farming in South Africa has always been difficult, even more so now in an era of climate change and global warming which is making reliable, affordable and sustainable access to water in a water stressed nation such as ours the next flashpoint.

Land is one issue, food security—particularly for a country where unemployment is rampant and more than a third of all South Africans depend on state grants as their key monthly source of income—is even more critical. No one needs reminding of the inherent dangers of populism and political opportunism which have played out in Zimbabwe especially where economically effective land is placed in the hands of emergent farmers without the necessary skills or politically connected individuals with no intention of farming.

Between 2018 and 2019, Henley Business School Africa launched a multi-disciplinary in-depth study into South Africa’s agricultural sector to establish the scope of this problem and come up with practical, equitable and sustainable solutions to what has become an almost intractable issue. Working with the Department of Real Estate and Planning (DREP) at Henley Business School UK, and the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development (SAPD) at the University of Reading – both of which are regarded as the best in their respective fields in Britain – we conducted qualitative interviews with the relevant Directors-General, agricultural organisations and other academic institutions as well as several members of the Panel of the President on Agriculture and Land Reform.

We found that while farmers get a lot of training on technical skills, there is not enough training on management. We identified three focus areas where we could help: management and planning, financial management and budgeting and management of people. We then created a Foundations of Farm Management short learning programme which is three days long, with a day on each of these focus areas. We have also developed a Farm Innovation Management programme to take us to new levels. We intend to partner this year with the various agricultural bodies, the commodity organisations like the wool board or the sugar board or Grain SA, and the various co-operatives who all offer technical training, as well the country’s agricultural colleges, and get them to add a day to each of their existing courses to allow us to do the management training.

We want to help new farmers get onto the land and we want to develop subsistence farmers into commercial farmers, radically transforming the agricultural supply chain to the benefit not just of the country but to so many people who have been deliberately excluded from the agricultural sector for a century.

One of the foundation of apartheid was to label black people as less capable, using reinforcing mechanisms that were as blunt as they were crude, and in some cases involved the hijacking of religion, to buttress a horrid ideal that you could not leave certain things to black people otherwise the entire country would fall apart. It was a cruel psychological manipulation, that damaged millions. Paradoxically, as Mamphela Ramphele once said to me, it left the oppressors more damaged and twisted than the people they oppressed.

There is no science of race. We are all one race. And it’s a fallacy that it is exceptional to be intelligent. Last year as I capped more than 845 graduates. Looking into each person’s eyes and shaking their hands, I imagined their back stories, many of them becoming the first in their families to get these qualifications, many of them who would not have followed a traditional university career of becoming an undergraduate straight after school, but instead had to go to work first.

I wondered at the sacrifices they, their families, parents and grandparents had all made to get where they were. Under apartheid, none of them would even have been considered capable of getting a business education much less a triple accredited, international MBA, any more than we would have considered Slovakia and Bulgaria capable of coping with capitalism, yet today are among the starring emerging economies along with Estonia and Slovenia with their dynamic populations disproving the hoary Cold War propaganda.

We have made a cult of aspiring to be extraordinary when the ordinary is beautiful; the ordinary holds all we need to flourish, with commitment and discipline, People blossom when they get the right opportunity, it’s not exceptional, indeed we cannot afford for it to be considered exceptional because then we will only end up with 2% of the population being extraordinary, when we need far more to flourish if we are to thrive as a society. The systems that we still have in place though are designed to maintain these small elites. We have to break these systems down and open up access to all to achieve their full potential. And in the agricultural sector, that means giving a mass of ordinary, intelligent people the opportunity and the skills to become extraordinary farmers.

When we look at the agricultural sector, there is still a mindset that holds that you have to be a hyper educated white farmer in a multi-generational business on massive land holdings to be successful. The truth is that it’s nothing to do with your pantone, but everything to do with learning, socialisation and opportunity and practice. There are new methods and technology that make farming accessible to ordinary people on a scale that the accepted dogma would have said was unsustainable. We need to diversify our economy, we need to transform our land ownership and improve our food security, not by making South Africa the breadbasket of the world, but by farming more cleverly, more sustainably, farming for the future in full accord with the realities of our endangered planet and the stress on our finite water resources.

It was Thomas Jefferson writing to George Washington in 1787, who said: “Agriculture ... is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals and happiness”. He was so right. Farmers are connected with the cycle of life through a visceral link with the land that many of us have lost. A good farmer would never have signed off the KPMG accounts because they would have seen the consequences of that, they would have understood the causality, because that would have been their lived reality. It’s another reason why agriculture is so critical in an industrial economy, even beyond literally feeding us. A farmer understands what you sow is what you reap. The rest of us have to relearn that lesson.

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