A critique of prevailing economic conditions must lead us to the conclusion that land and agrarian reform must be predicated on the right to food, dignity and a clean, healthy environment…and it must be done speedily and in a different way.

Betting that outsourcing South Africa’s agriculture to a few thousand large-scale commercial farms (LSCF) can help the country achieve autarky neglects to factor the fact that LSCF are businesses that ship their commodities abroad or to supermarkets in the most affluent suburbs. The rest of the country cannot afford what they produce.

So what needs to happen to ensure that we take care of the rest of the country? The recently published Making Peace with Nature document argues that, going forward, human development has to be based on the following pillars:

- Sustainable economic and financial systems.
- Healthy, nutritious food and clean water and energy.
- Healthy lives and wellbeing for all in safe cities and settlements.

This, neatly summarised, is the path that South Africa must also follow. Interestingly, the ideas captured above all appear in the recommendations section of President Ramaphosa’s Land Reform Panel final report, i.e. transformed cities, transformed agriculture that prioritises not just LSCF but small ones as well, equity and accountability, democratic control of resources, etc.

President Ramaphosa’s Land Reform Panel final report calls for “structural change to transform household and commercial food production and deepen diversity in the agro-food system”. This, in many ways, is a call for an AGND in South Africa.

A degrowth, deep democracy AGND should be based on the idea of regenerative economies based on commons, cooperation, caring and social wellbeing. Trickle-down economics and its attendant inequalities simply makes that impossible. People should invest their time in personal growth and wellbeing that enriches communities rather than GDP growth that only serves to enrich those who control the forces of production.

Within a democracy AGND, people will produce food first to meet their own needs before they think about markets. They will not necessarily need to meet all their needs from the land that they receive. Like I mentioned before in the first part of this essay, to expect land reform beneficiaries to meet all their needs from the land is quite simply an unrealistic and ultimately self-defeating objective. Most white farm owners do not earn all their living from their land. They have an assortment of other activities that generate income: property, wedding venue hire, hiking trails, art, photography, part-time work, etc. Many of them are also absentee landlords.

A degrowth, deep democracy AGND should recognise that the earth is not just a force of production to be plundered and exploited around the clock but rather the foundation of nature and nurture. It needs to be given time to rest and heal so that it can produce rich, nutritive food. Metabolic rift should not deprive it of the by-products (waste, etc.) of the food that it gives us, which it needs back for regeneration.  

A deep democracy AGND will recognise that all South Africans need to have a place that they can call home. This lodestar, this compass if you will, shall be the inspiration that guides their path and unites them with their fellow community members. It shall be their ancestral home, where they all gather on special occasions and invest in for the happiness and prosperity of future generations.

Yes, land reform should not be only about agriculture, but also about homes and creating prosperous, harmonious communities. The first iteration of land reform within the Reconstruction and Development policy agenda awarded land for agriculture as well as for houses. It was only after 2000 that policy shifts were made to focus only on agriculture and this has helped to prolong apartheid geography in rural areas. It is time to revert to the initial agenda.

In terms of practical steps, there is already a lot of infrastructure in place to enable an AGND. South Africa for example is number ten in the world in terms of tarred roads. That is a major achievement that the ANC government should be proud of. It should also leverage that success and extend it to other infrastructure: bulk water supply, broadband, electricity, etc. Furthermore, the following also has to happen:

At least 80% of land and agrarian reform should target smallholders and only 20% should go to medium- and large-scale commercial farmers. The national government should identify all immediately available farmland as well as donations from churches, business, the private sector etc., and subdivide it into plots. Plot sizes should be capped and new plots titled as soon as possible so as to give property owners the ability to raise money for their projects. In a previous opinion, I have argued that new farm plots should be as small as 20 hectares. Former President Zuma had the One Farmer One Hectare programme. I say One Farmer, Twenty Hectares. Someone else may decide for slightly bigger plot size, but for me, it is preferable to go small. LSCF require a lot of investments and labour and it will take an incredible length of time to create a thriving business on every single farm if only this type of agriculture is to be prioritised.  

Speed is just as important for this process, so immediately land is made available, it should be titled and handed over to a beneficiary.
Starter packs should be given to help land reform beneficiaries build a house on their plot and start a project.  

Permaculture should be strengthened and encouraged as the default land management philosophy. With this type of agriculture, people can grow dozens of different things on the same plot. The earth is always covered, and so it is a net carbon sink. Permaculture will save water while feeding the nation and help the country meet its voluntary emissions reduction targets.  

Provincial governments should create agrihubs (one-stop shops) in all districts. These hubs should have among other things government office support (to deal with any administrative issues) mechanisation facilities (a warehouse where people in the neighbourhood can borrow tractors, harvesters, borers, etc.,), financial offices (for loans, money transfer), extension office, permanent training centre (to provide short practical courses to those who need them) and marketing liaison (to manage forward and backwards marketing support).

Equity must be a constant priority. More should be done to ensure that women, youth and people living with disabilities are placed at the front of the queue whenever projects are made available.

Community markets should be built where smallholders who produce enough for the markets can sell their produce. These markets should have transportation to move goods speedily and storage facilities to store what is not sold in optimal conditions. Farmers should also be able to create community seed banks and exchange seeds freely.

The private sector must go beyond reactive criticism and play an active role in land reform. Major corporations and unions need to step in and help build resilient communities. It is not just about AgriBEE. They should be doing more to train people, set up housing schemes, avail land for immediate transfer, and so on. There are small examples of where major corporations and unions have helped settle farmers on land (e.g., in the sugarcane production basin in KZN) but this needs to be generalised.

Urban housing projects should adopt a more integrated approach that combines offices and living spaces within the same area. All communities must have access to parks, playgrounds and where possible, common gardens. In the Netherlands for example, cities often have common gardens where people can apply for a small patch and grow salads, spinach and so on. The Philippi Horticultural Area is also an initiative that should be generalised across urban areas in the country.

Ideally, accelerated land reform should be based on a comprehensive, long-term approach. Bits and pieces of legislation should not be implemented every time a new president is elected. For example, the Zuma administration introduced the position of Land-Valuer General to expedite land valuations following the adoption of the Property Valuation Act in 2014. Seven years later, President Ramaphosa created a Land Reform Agency, to further expedite the process. All these steps should be implemented at the same time.

An AGND can completely reshape the South African landscape and give it clean food, cleaner air and thriving, resilient communities. We must believe that this is possible – and then make it happen.

When Deng Xiaoping started laying the groundwork for China’s modern economy in 1978, he told a gathering of the Chinese Communist Party that “we need large numbers of pathbreakers who dare to think, explore new ways and generate new ideas…otherwise, we won’t be able to rid our country of poverty and backwardness or to catch up with—still less surpass—the advanced countries.”

China’s GDP at the time was just 149 billion USD. Its real per capita GDP was worse than the Republic of Chad’s (which stood at 1.1 billion USD at the time). Forty-three years later, the Chinese economy is worth a staggering 14 trillion USD. Chad has a GDP of 11 billion USD today. It is ranked 187th out of 189 countries in the 2019 Human Development Index. One country had a plan, the other did not.  

How did Deng’s dream become reality? A simple plan: 1) copy the best; and 2) pursue goals with dogged determination.
South Africa has a headstart on China. Its economy is more than double where China started its modern project from over forty-three years ago. It is time to engineer a great agricultural transformation here. It is time for an AGND.