One of the big questions that have occupied South African agricultural economists over the past decade has been: how to foster inclusive growth in the sector. This is, of course, a broad question with several dimensions. One of the more technical aspects related to this question which deals with where growth should happen — area and commodities to prioritise — has largely been resolved and is also addressed in the National Development Plan published in 2012. But the “softer” side of this question, which deals with stakeholder participation, trust, and vision alignment remains unresolved and, I would argue that is a major stumbling block to implementation.

There is a generally shared view amongst policymakers that Public-Private-Partnership approaches could be best for developing the South African agricultural sector, and this is a view that appeared in the National Treasury paper of 2019 on economic policy. Private sector (agribusiness, farmer organizations and commodity organizations) have also argued for the same. However, there seems to be a challenge is reaching an agreement on such a partnership approach and the roles of different parties, which would then demand a commitment to implementation from each grouping.

This is one area that should require much more of our attention, especially we begin to think of the post-COVID-19 agricultural economy. The question of how to create a united vision, build trust and commitment is important.

It seems that the dualism of the sector over the decades has maintained a division along the “haves and have not” with fundamental mistrust between individuals and organisations. It can be argued that this is partially responsible for a lack of unity and progress in the sector. The established sector’s needs and priorities are different from those of the emerging sector. This exerts pressure on farmer or commodity groupings as they are tugged from post to post in an effort to meet the various demands of a diverse sector.

This has seen different organisations formed to focus on the needs of the established or emerging sectors. Unfortunately, in a country with a past like South Africa’s this division is also reflected along racial lines and even in the private sector, farmer organisations are largely formed along the racial lines, instead of having a united farmer group. This is partly, of course, because of South Africa’s history which has often made the needs of farmers somewhat different – some still need to enter the formal sector, while others aspire to grow further. However, the result is mistrust as there is a lack of common voice and vision.

There is a growing recognition that South Africa’s vision for agriculture must address the needs of both the established and emerging sectors, however, this is yet to translate into unified organisations that can meet the demands of both segments without prioritizing one over the other.

Then there is a lack of collaboration between government and the private sector (mainly commodity organizations, agribusinesses, commercial farmer organizations, etc.). These organisations are frustrated with the lack of delivery and extreme bureaucracy. When they do try and implement transformative initiatives, it is sometimes not supported by government officials, primarily at provincial levels and municipalities. Due to this lack of collaboration, the duplication of effort and the continuous positioning of leaders to the programmes and funding result in the smallholder farming groups, aspiring farmers being underserved. In some ways, they are the casualties of the process.

To build trust one needs to think about confidence-building measures these could initially be through dialogue amongst all these key stakeholders, but importantly through voluntary empowerment initiatives by the private sector stakeholders that are capable of reaching scale, while the government will need to provide nudges for the private sector stakeholders.

The government alone might not be able to drive agricultural development, and if anyone disagrees with this view, they need to look at the past two decades. The limited resources, and at times, misallocation of resources and shortage of expertise at provincial and municipality levels, amongst other factors, have been key constraints to a successful implementation of agricultural development programmes. There are, of course, land reform policy constraints that also added into lower levels of agricultural development over the past two decades (see here).

Cooperation between the private sector and government could bridge these shortages. On a land reform point, various partnerships models have been proposed by private sector role-players over the past few years and but the very limited pilots of these models have materialized. One can again partially attribute this to a “lack of united vision, trust and commitment” between the private sector, government and also civil society.

On the point of “united vision”, one finds that some private sector stakeholders have a vision for South Africa’s agriculture as a high-tech, professional and internationally competitive industry. Meanwhile, other stakeholders perceive smallholder and subsistence farming as a solution to agricultural development (I have made this point here). This, in my opinion, partly results in many of these plans not coming to fruition.

In all the problems that are confronting South Africa’s agricultural sector at the moment and the promise for jobs and growth the sector holds, the most consequential matter that will need to be resolved is this “softer” issue of a unified vision and commitment. The technical matters could be resolved with efficiency over time and some, particularly about job creation, expansion and growth in the agricultural sector have been largely resolved as I alluded earlier.

However, without ridding the sector of its trivial politics and divisions, we will never reach sufficient buy-in from all stakeholders, and thus the chances of success for any policy programme become extremely limited.

Follow me on Twitter (@WandileSihlobo). 

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