By: Zandile Majavu
Despite the government having allocated 700,000 hectares to emerging farmers in 2021, they are struggling to maximise their profits and compete against commercial players. Author and University of Cape Town professor Lungisile Ntsebeza, who has conducted research into land reform, explained that the profitability of farming could not be addressed without considering land ownership in South Africa. “Even in the epitome of democracy, blacks are not in a position to embark on lucrative farming since the immense majority still does not have access to land and whites still dominate commercial farming,” Ntsebeza told Vutivi News.
He said the main reason why emerging farmers could never enjoy the fruits of their labour was that they lacked access to sufficient land to embark on profitable farming. “Land ownership patterns in South Africa were racialised and the impact of this racialised ownership of land is still felt 30 years after the formal demise of apartheid,” said Ntsebeza.
However, Transvaal Agricultural Union general manager Bennie van Zyl told Vutivi News that multiple factors influenced sustainable farming and profitability. “The one big issue is economy of scale, meaning that there is enough space to produce enough products that will give you a turnover that brings sufficient income,” Van Zyl explained. He said it was not the size of the piece of land that defined the economy of scale, but the output of what was farmed.
Also, to ensure a successful business, farmers needed to take responsibility and adopt a hands-on approach with a vision for the future. “South Africa, compared with other countries, is a very marginalised agricultural country, and it is not so easy to stay in production,” Van Zyl said. “We experience different types of disasters every year that are very difficult to overcome. Unfortunately, our support from the government during disasters is almost nonexistent. The purpose of that should be to help keep farming enterprises that are under normal conditions profitable in production.”
Ntsebeza told Vutivi News that it was impossible to farm profitably in the rural areas, which were previously Bantustan plots. This was due to limited land and the growing conversion of grazing and agricultural land into housing plots. Eastern Cape-based agroecology farmer Mzimasi Ndongeni agreed that the government needed to do more. “The declining support from the government has affected the prospects of rural farmers to upscale their production to reach a profitable commercial scale on all farming streams.”
Also, the degradation of land due to unsustainable farming practices exacerbated the conditions for farmers, he said. “Farmers are also experiencing the risks of climate change with extreme weather patterns and raising prices of inputs such as synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides,” Ndongeni said. In addition, Van Zyl said emerging farmers also had to navigate the country’s failing infrastructure. It was more difficult to get produce to the markets due to the “non-existing” railway system and roads in disrepair.
Ndongeni said not all hope was lost because there was some collaboration in the sector. “Partnership and collaboration are coming up with practices that seek to restore degraded land, such as minimal tillage, crop-animal integration through regenerative grazing, crop diversification, soil covering through maintenance of living roots in the soil, and mulching,” he said.