Iph’indlela (where is the way)? Some among us probably had this question in mind after seeing the Cabinet composition of South Africa’s 7th democratic administration. The splitting of the agriculture and land affairs portfolios into two distinct departments is one of the significant changes.

The views  about the agriculture portfolio are mixed, judging from some social media posts.

But there shouldn’t be a worry, in my view. Agriculture’s potential enjoys universal recognition and its status as a growth propeller is embraced in a way that transcends sectoral interests. Specifically, the country’s political leadership has a deep appreciation of the importance of agriculture in driving the rural economy, addressing poverty, and creating job opportunities.

Much has also been written about the sector’s untapped opportunities for unlocking growth and addressing racial inequities in its ownership. My contribution to the discourse includes the books, A Country of Two Agricultures, and Finding Common Ground: Land, Equity and Agriculture.

The enthusiasm for future growth opportunities in the sector has been shared, not by a few, but by most stakeholders. This culminated in the drafting and publishing of the Agriculture and Agro-processing Master Plan (AAMP), which seeks to grow a competitive and inclusive sector. The AAMP’s growth narrative is through focused value chain deep dives and commodity corridors.

Against this brief background, the appropriate response to the pertinent question and the exercise of seeking a path – Iph’indlela? (where is the way?) – would be to highlight the key areas that require the attention of the new political leadership in agriculture, land reform, and the rural development department.

In agriculture, the priority areas are (1) addressing animal health issues, (2) dealing with the complexities and excessive costs that assignees add to businesses under the Agricultural Products Standard Act; (3) modernization of Act 36 that regulates the registration of agrochemicals, seeds and other agricultural products; (4) continuing to expand market access for agricultural products in various export markets; and (5) dealing with rural crime incidents.

Beyond agriculture-specific matters, structural reforms of the network industries are vital in supporting the growth of the agricultural sector. Here, the Government of National Unity should support the work of Operation Vulindlela, which the Presidency and National Treasury are currently leading. The urgent reforms that would benefit the agricultural sector include (1) improvements in the water infrastructure and policy, (2) improving the efficiency of logistics, particularly the ports, rail, and road conditions, (3) continued reform at Eskom and the broader energy sector, and (4) improved digital communication in rural areas.

The focus on land reform and rural development plans should be the continuous release of the state’s over 2-million hectares of land acquired over the past few decades to appropriately selected beneficiaries with title deeds. Title deeds should be a priority as they lend these beneficiaries much-needed dignity and a source of financing.

Still, releasing the government’s land should not be the be-all,end-all for the land reform programme. Instead, land reform should continue through all its existing levers: redistribution, restitution, and land tenure.

To successfully achieve transformative outcomes in agriculture, state capacity should be reinforced. The various directorates in the government that run these land reform programmes must be bolstered. Also, corruption must be dealt with decisively so that the resources for land reform reach the intended beneficiaries.

Another important programme for driving change in the sector is Blended Finance. The, now formerly Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development has been driving this programme in collaboration with the Land Bank and other financial institutions. It must be expanded to reach more beneficiaries, primarily to expand black commercial farmers.

As a country, we must do all we can to move beyond “A Country of  Two Agricultures“. We must introduce more efficiencies in programmes aimed at supporting new-entrant black farmers, unleash the transformative possibilities of the land reform programme, provide financial assistance, and give new-entrant farmers greater technical support while enabling them to connect to markets and root out corruption in government programmes. This process should happen concurrently with a vigorous effort to support the existing commercial farmers who are the backbone of the country’s food security and job creation.

Nansti’ndlela ke (this may be the way)!

Follow me on X (@WandileSihlobo). 

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