SA's food opportunity

2008-05-06 00:00

The extraordinary rise in food prices offers an opportunity for South Africa to determinedly focus on getting a large number of impoverished people to grow their own food or to at least feed themselves.

The food price crisis underscores the importance of the government having effective land reform and agricultural strategies. The rapid industrialisation of all the successful East Asian economic tigers, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, was preceded by sweeping, but effective, land reforms. South Africa will have to create a balance between encouraging state-of-the-art commercial farming and developing small farmers, who can at least provide for themselves and surrounding communities.

So far, ANC leaders have encouraged the creation of black commercial farmers, just as they have encouraged the establishment of black economic empowerment tycoons. Small farming has been neglected in the same way that small, micro and medium enterprises have been neglected. The neglect of SMMEs has meant that close to five million people, eking out a living in the informal sector, whether selling peanuts or having a spaza shop, the real entrepreneurs, who will starve unless they sell their wares, have been thrown under the proverbial bus. Yet, the few black oligarchs, formerly politicians turned businessmen or big commercial farmers, have been accessing most of the R200 billion given to BEE the past decade. If just a fraction of that money had been transferred to the authentic entrepreneurs in SMMEs and small farmers, redistribution would not only have been more broad based and poverty reduced much more significantly, but economic growth would have been higher and more jobs would have likely been created.

The same neglect of small black farmers has also meant that millions who could have at least fed themselves now go hungry, be-cause they do not have access to land, micro-finance and training. SMMEs and small farmers do not have access to influence in the ANC. South Korea, one of the most successful of the East Asian tigers, started off at the end of World War 2, like South Africa, as a country where land distribution was one of the most unequal in the world. Then 80% of the rural population was landless and three percent of those living in the countryside controlled 60% of the land. Yet, the efficient redistribution of land saw almost half of the land equitably redistributed over a period of only two years (between 1948 and 1950). Off course, land redistribution should not mean giving land to those connected to the leadership of the ANC.

Perhaps one reason why land reform has been so poor is that South Africa has no effective, powerful and organised national civil movements specifically focused on securing equitable land reform. Similarly, there is no nationwide effective pressure group for SMMEs. The way to do it is to give poor families small plots of land so that they can provide food for themselves. Whether a family is poor must be rigorously checked. Women-headed households must be particularly targeted to be given land.

Redistribution of the land must be closely linked to a programme of skills training not only on how to farm effectively, but also how to manage and make micro-finance accessible. South Africa must use co-operative systems effectively used by Afrikaner farmers during the war years, and also effectively used in Israel. In this way small farmers can pool their products, marketing strategies and finance- raising abilities. Furthermore, rural communities, dorpies and villages can set themselves up as farming co-operatives, with every family in the area having a share in the concern. This will be broad-based empowerment. South Africa’s problem is that it has an army of unemployed people who don’t have the sophisticated skills to secure jobs in areas where jobs, for example in IT, are currently being created. Those in rural areas can be roped together to provide food for them while at the same time acquiring crucial skills. Furthermore, the shortage of food across the globe also presents opportunities for South Africa’s commercial farmers. South African economic planners should identify the kind of food South Africa and world markets need and then steer production towards those foods. South African planners will also have to identify niche food markets, and then step up production in these. Big BEE farmers, in particular, could be steered to produce such niche products.

The global food crisis, which is likely to continue for some time, presents the same lucrative economic opportunities as the current commodities boom. It will be a shame if South Africa fails to turn the food crisis into a boon, to provide training, jobs and food, as well as food for export. Sadly, South Africa has failed to capitalise on the commodities boom: through massive benefication, skills training, investment and broad-based em-powerment create more jobs and lift growth rates further. Creating new economic development initiatives must be part of an effectively co-ordinated broader industrial policy that aims to transform every sector of the whole economy, by finding new niches, in an integrated way.

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