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  • on 28.07.2015
  • at 12:54 PM
  • by Naomi Cohen

South Africa’s struggling agricultural sector: what went wrong 20 years ago 0

South Africa’s decision to play by the global rules of free trade post 1994 put the country’s agricultural sector in a difficult position.

While it was expected to compete against the best in the world, the support that could have helped it was taken away. At the same time, the countries it was competing against were very supportive of the sector – some times as much as three times more. This meant that new black farmers missed out on the opportunity to catch up with farmers who had been supported previously.

Beyond that, there was the problem of land reform which needed to be addressed without putting the spirit of reconciliation as well as productivity at risk.

South Africa has limited agricultural potential and produces at relatively high cost to attain the same unit of output as most countries in the world. It is classified as a semi-arid area, meaning its rainfall is low and erratic. The country has an average annual rainfall of less than 500 mm compared with the global average of 860 mm.

Only 12% of its 1.2 million square kilometres is suitable for agricultural use.

Political imperatives

Although the agricultural sector had to provide food, the new democratic government also needed it to address political challenges related to rural development, social and political issues. The focus at the time was on transforming the sector to achieve these political goals rather than to prepare for global competition.

Looking at land ownership, this is understandable. More than 80% of agricultural land was owned by white commercial farmers, yet the white population made up about 13% of the country. Addressing the unequal and racially skewed land distribution would also contribute to overcoming the socioeconomic challenges the country faced. These included unemployment, income inequality, food insecurity, poverty and malnutrition.

Possibly the biggest of them all is unemployment, which has remained at more than 20% in this 20-year period. The majority of the unemployed are unskilled or have low skills and are affected by low and poor levels of education. The agriculture and mining sectors absorb the majority.

Employment in the sector has declined substantially over time. In the 1970s agriculture used to employ over 2 million people on farms alone, or about a quarter of the employed. By 2014, fewer than 700,000 were employed on farms, less than 5% of the employed.

Continue reading on The Conversation: Africa

by Mmatlou Kalaba

Photo Credit: Flickr/Andres Cuenca

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