Phumulo Masualle, former Premier of the Eastern Cape province in South Africa, pencilled an essay in 2017 calling for the revitalisation of rural, small towns. In short, he argued that the demise of South Africa’s rural small towns stems from the lack of economic opportunities and declining quality owing to poor infrastructure and a lack of new private investment which is partially constrained by a reluctance to transfer excess public land and tenure issues, amongst other factors.
I thought of Masualle’s essay yesterday after a short visit to Cradock in the Eastern Cape for a farmers’ meeting. Thank goodness the town doesn’t precisely fit Masualle’s description of the situation in other small rural towns. The only factor that differentiates Cradock from some small rural towns is its vibrant wool, beef, dairy, fruit, lucerne, and mohair industries. The commerce and services that occur in the city centre are one way or another linked to the health of the agricultural businesses, which in the recent past have not been smooth sailing.
Drawing from conversations with farmers in the region; climate change, biosecurity, water regulations and land reform remains amongst the factors that keep some of them up at night. Fortunately, most of these matters are within the regulator’s or government’s control – which I hope will continue to have close cooperation with organised agriculture groups while pursuing the transformation objectives.
As I had noted in my previous writings, my hope is for President Ramaphosa’s new administration to articulate a clear and lasting policy framework on land reform and water rights which not only encourages investment but also brings restorative justice and ensures that underutilised land in the former homelands and some land-reform farms are brought into full production to boost growth and jobs. This would be a step in the right direction towards revitalising the small, rural towns. But also crucial in the process would be to focus on beneficiation of some of the agricultural products, particularly in the former homelands’ small towns where the only economic activity seems to be retail on the back of remittances and government social support finances.
So, to former Eastern Cape Premier Phumulo Masualle’s proposition of revitalising rural small towns. I would present to him that this should start with the revitalisation of agriculture and in the process enticing agribusinesses to expand operations to such towns, then focus on beneficiation. This could provide much-needed jobs and keep small towns alive.
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