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Do Black South Africans want to farm?

The Freedom charter provides that The Land Shall be Shared Among Those Who Work It! and Restrictions of land ownership on a racial basis shall be ended, and all the land re-divided amongst those who work it to banish famine and land hunger.

Land has formed an integral part of the demands for freedom by South Africans for over 100 years and access to land still forms part of our constitution with Section 25(5) providing that:

The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to foster conditions which enable citizens to gain access to land on an equitable basis.

Therefore it seems safe to assume that people want land and in particular black South Africans want land. This is the assumption that the ANC and hence the government is working off. It is also this assumption that has led to the failure of the land redistribution program in South Africa.

If we are to examine what it is that all people actually want then a good place to start is Maslow's hierarchy of needs. In the first instance people need their Physiological needs to be met. This is the basic human requirements of food, water, shelter, sleep, sex etc.


Next human beings need their safety needs to be met, these being Personal security, Financial security, Health and well-being, Safety net against accidents/illness and their adverse impacts etc. then the list goes on to love and belonging, Esteem and Self-actualization.

The point of the above, and there is no need to get into the debate about the various criticisms of the hierarchy theory, is that the demand made for land is actually a demand for a better life for oneself and one's family.

This is why the various land redistribution and restitution programs in South Africa have failed. Land in 1912 when the ANC was formed or in 1955 when the Freedom charter was adopted is not the same as land in 2012. The reason for this is that the world is not the same. In 1912 access to land meant that you could support your family and you could actually live a pretty good life. Even in 1955, the population was smaller, cars were a luxury and 90% of the goods we see in a household today did not exist. Access to land could give you and your family a pretty good life.

Persistent unemployment has become synonymous with the youth experience across South Africa. Youth unemployment rates are almost four times higher than the regional average – 62% of South Africans between 15 and 35 years are unemployed and of these 60% have never been employed.

Add to this the fact that even those who have jobs are earning below what is considered to be a monthly living wage and what emerges is youth employment crisis.

The agricultural sector could be a key source of job creation for young people. But conventional opinion has it that they are turning their backs on the sector despite high levels of unemployment. So what gives?

Drawing on personal narratives collected from 573 young people across three provinces in South Africa, recent research has begun building a picture what young people think and feel about work in agriculture.

Overall, the prevailing notion that they are turning their backs on the sector seems to hold true. Over 60% of respondents felt that it was harder to make career decisions relating to agriculture than other careers.

But our research dispels the view that this is because of a lack of interest. Based on our interviews, more than half of those surveyed suggested that they saw a place for agriculture in the long-term visions for their lives. This was either as a useful stepping stone, or as an exciting option in its own right.

The problem wasn’t a lack of interest: rather it had to do with the fact that jobs in agriculture were either back-breaking and financially unappealing – at the subsistence level – or they were in large agri-businesses where workers are often treated appallingly.

These voices present a clear mandate to those interested in the future of youth, land and employment in South Africa: open up an economic space for viable family farming in South Africa and young people will throw their energy into the sector.

Stigma, risk and reward
Unsurprisingly, agriculture appears to carry a stronger set of negative stigmas than other careers. Examples included themes around agriculture being for poor and elderly people, on the one hand, or, on the other, for wealthier white people.

Agriculture was also perceived by many as a risky career path that involved a lot of hard work for little financial reward.

Access to land only provides the barest of necessities. Being able to grow a few small crops and own a few cattle or sheep may feed your family, but it will not pay for an education, clothe your family and provide you with a TV, cell phone, microwave, electric stove, computer and all the other goods that are now a necessity to belong to the new world.

Furthermore the people themselves have changed, for one; there are a lot more people it is not so easy to provide for them all on small plots of land. Second urbanisation has resulted in a large population that is unable to support itself though subsistence farming. Third the barter economy that used to exist has now almost completely been replaced by a monetised system.


And most important of all, people, including unsurprisingly black people, do not want to live like their forefathers did 1912. This is why redistributed land is turned into money by being stripped or sold as soon as it can be.

In order for land redistribution to be successful we need to ensure that the beneficiaries of the redistributed land can run a business (albeit a small business) on the land which will be able to support a modern lifestyle. It is difficult enough to make money from farming at the best of times. If you start off with a farm that has been stripped, with business owners with no appropriate farming skills and no money it is virtually impossible to develop a farming business that can support a modern lifestyle that we all aspire to.

Land is a means to an end not an end in itself for the vast majority of South Africans, including black South Africans.

Nevertheless, over a third of the young people we spoke to expressed positive vies about working in agriculture.

Many want to work in agriculture. But they said they battled to navigate the spaces between their own vocational motivations, the available work opportunities and the pressures they encountered from friends and family.

Stepping back to look to contextualise youth narratives within the broader food system presents good news and bad.

The bad news is that there aren’t enough farmers who fill the space between subsistence agriculture and large-scale agri-businesses. This “missing middle” leaves young people feeling trapped.

They either feel trapped by the poverty, isolation and backbreaking drudgery associated with rural subsistence agriculture. Or they face the unappealing prospects of unskilled minimum wage jobs on increasingly industrialised (and often racialised) commercial farming operations.

Seen in this light, it’s not surprising that young people are turning away from agriculture. The choices they are making simply reflect the fact that they are avoiding work that is demeaning.

There is some good news: many young people see potential. They aspire to entrepreneurial work with a deeper social purpose. Encouragingly, many believe that the act of working on the land to produce food is meaningful work.

In order to do achieve a successful land redistribution program we need a well-structured and resourced 20 year plan that concentrates on a limited number of long term projects rather than a shotgun approach that tries to do it all at once. If we do not put measures in place to achieve this then access to land will be meaningless.

Our so called "small farmers, Black Farmers" are doing very good and most of them are very successful in farming and agriculture.


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