South Africa: Book Review | Finding Common Ground

book review

Wandile Sihlobo's words about his passion for agricultural development in rural areas ring hollow at a close reading of his new book. It is a bidding for Big Agriculture and its supposed land reform answers.

Travel on the N1 from the Western Cape's Worcester to Musina in Limpopo and look out the window. Look at all those vineyards climbing up hillocks, and the beautiful old houses peeping through. Climb up the Free State hills with its meadows, carefully rolled up hay and grazing herds. Spent, get to the banana and avocado plantations in Limpopo, having seen land green with maize fields that stretch for miles and miles on the peripheries of Gauteng. Almost all that land and its bounty has, through years of systemic and violent dispossession, come to belong to white people. Black people, in their millions, do the tilling as hired hands and then retire to labour camps far away from Baas Botha's tree-lined abode.

This rough sketch of South Africa is disputed by no one who is honest. Afterall, the country's long history of racist bias against its black citizens is well documented, down to the sordid details of years of discrimination, pillage and murder. While the defeat of apartheid in 1994 brought political power, it failed to usher in economic freedom for most South Africans.

Land, which remains an integral resource for wealth creation, largely remains in white hands. Politicians, activists and commentators, since Nelson Mandela's time, have held that this is a wrong that must be righted. In the years after 1994, the ANC-led government initiated a market-based (or willing buyer-willing seller) land reform programme, with the aim of transferring 30% of white-owned land to black recipients by 2014. Billions have been spent and only about 10% of productive land has been transferred from whites to blacks. There has been no reform, then, up until today. And on the way forward, there is no agreement.

Wandile Sihlobo's Finding Common Ground, with the title hinting at compromise, proposes ways in which sound land reform can be achieved. The book, though published in 2020, is not exactly new. It is, in the main, a compilation of old articles Sihlobo contributed to the Business Day newspaper and other publications from 2016 onwards. These old texts are now arranged into eight sections, each dealing with a specific aspect of the South African agricultural economy.

Land reform is the first and biggest section. It is Sihlobo and collaborators' response and contribution to the heated land debates initiated, in part, by the EFF in the years leading up to the 2019 general elections. And, indeed, several of these articles were written specifically because "the commentary in the public domain was not cautioning enough against the key dangers of adopting the policy of expropriating land without compensation".

Accommodate blacks in the existing model

Sihlobo is the chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz). This is no insignificant detail. While he acknowledges that there is a need for reform in the agricultural sector, he holds that such reform must be facilitated by the markets or private sector, and not be hindered by the government and its bureaucracy. His main argument takes it as a given that the current model of land use is good for the economy because it is, in essence, an extension of financial institutions. A machinery that ought not be disturbed. In a nutshell, it is an argument for agribusiness as it stands. All he is calling for is the inclusion of more black faces in an economy or financial sector built on ostracising them for centuries.

The author is on the Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture that President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed in 2019. One of his fellow panelists, advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, has in the past argued that "the taking of the land was only an instrument in the total cultural, social and economic domination of black people. If that legacy is to be undone, the return of the land should be restorative of African humanity. Transactions about the 'return' of the land are incomplete without restoring the dignity of those from whom the land was taken." Sihlobo does vaguely affirm this position, then teeters to business' talking points, making all his points seem like lip service.

In arguing against amending Section 25 of the Constitution to allow for "the wholesale expropriation of land", Sihlobo says it is the government and its organisational inefficiencies and gross incompetence that led to so dismal a failure in land reform in the years leading up to 2014, because "with an average of 13 000 farms available on the market every month, there have always been enough willing sellers".

The ANC-led government has indeed failed. This much is true. But the private sector has played a role in this trouble, too. Farm prices, for example, are often inflated. This led to the introduction of the valuer-general whose powers are often challenged by landowners. The author does not mention this or similar details.

Big Agriculture to self-reform

Now, Sihlobo says it is best for the private sector to take charge (with minimal state involvement) of the land reform process. He calls on commercial farming unions to offer some of their land (and maybe some money, too) for this big business-led enterprise. All this is in an article titled "Leveraging the intent and commitment of the private sector to implement land reform". Not one word here is written in jest.

The author says that big business and age-old institutions of oppression are capable of self-reform. But for the reform programme to take off, there must be four "big tickets" extended to these industry leaders. He holds that these incentives or tickets will "activate the distribution of land without the need for legislative change or a large state machinery".

In true neoliberal fashion, the author goes on to extol Big Agriculture's employment creation role without commenting on the quality of the jobs created. Not once does he comment about the worker rights abuses rampant in the sector, from mielie farming to the Cape winelands. Only numbers matter. 842 000 people worked in the agricultural sector in 2019 and it is all good, and no stories about the slave wages and evictions. Not a single word.

A recurring theme in Sihlobo's book is the need for the development of agriculture in communal areas, especially in former homelands. He offers that "weed" might just be the crop to take communities out of poverty.

While it has been recorded in a number of publications that cannabis has the potential to become a multibillion-dollar industry, there has been no evidence of it directly benefiting indigenous and impoverished communities. In Lesotho, where it is now legal (as Sihlobo rightly points out), it is not communities deep in the mountains and hills who have benefited but the big-money businesses that have moved in from abroad.

There is no reason to believe that the same model employed in Lesotho will not be implemented in South Africa once companies get the green light. It is not grown in fields in every home, as is the case with mielies and other annual crops, but in sophisticated greenhouses and secluded fields. The BaSotho till the soil, fix the water pipes and harvest the crops for poverty wages. The industry has not suddenly transformed their lives. All it might do is up the country's gross domestic product (GDP) a little. But what is GDP to impoverished people?

Even if production were to be channelled to poor communities, there is no guarantee that the "dagga" market will not get clogged with oversupply. After all, it is an industry predicated on potentialities.

Talking on whose behalf?

Sihlobo is an agricultural economist who routinely analyses yields and their potential markets (mostly) for the country's big agricultural players, from grain to wool. Reading the book, one gets the impression that this whole project is meant to do their bidding. It is supposed to be the common sense scroll to bring everyone to some form of agreement, some "common ground".

In the closing pages, he turns his gaze to Africa and, in his way, finds folly in countries that won't let South Africa dump in its genetically modified (GMO) white mielies, tonnes and tonnes of the crop. He is not happy with regulations either. And as South Africa's Big Agriculture wants to get into Zambia and farm mielies there, he asserts that it might do for the country to get rid of agricultural markets regulation.

He is not pleased with Zambian Agricultural Secretary Julius Shawa's insistence that investors in the sector "should forget the export market and focus only on meeting domestic demand", and seals his outlook with this pronouncement: "To be able to attract South African investment successfully, Zambia needs to emulate the South African policy model on free markets in agriculture."

Having explored Africa as a potential market for South Africa's products and a destination for farmers and their money, the book suddenly ends, before saying a word about the Ingonyama Trust.

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