Agrarian change, rural poverty and land reform: South Africa’s experience

An important special issue of the Journal of Agrarian Change was released earlier in the year on Agrarian Change, Rural Poverty and Land Reform in South Africa since 1994. The papers are free to download, and are well worth a read.

It was put together during an extended seminar hosted by PLAAS, involving a group dubbed ‘the rock stars’ of agrarian studies – Henry Bernstein, James Ferguson, Bridget O’Laughlin, Pauline Peters and of course the host, Ben Cousins, among others. Quite a gathering, who spent time last year in near Stellenbosch, thinking about land, poverty and agriculture. The Special Issue is in some ways an update of the earlier issue discussing post-apartheid transition, published in 1996, and edited by Henry Bernstein.

The new introduction poses some basic questions, asking “by what means, in what ways, and how much can agrarian reform address the processes that underlie rural and urban poverty and the increasing inequality that marks contemporary South Africa?” In framing the debate, the editors refer to the classic labour reserve theorists who provided a structuralist analysis of the way capital creates dualism, and so inequality and poverty:

“They focused on the question of labour, and particularly on the pervasiveness, durability and eventual vulnerabilities of migrant labour…. They saw the constitution of the ‘Native Reserves’, both social and physical spaces, as central to the functioning of colonial capitalism. The account that they provided helped us to understand that the poverty and misery of black rural areas were not the residual result of an absence of development but, rather, manifested a particular pattern of capital accumulation on the back of land dispossession”.

However there are clear limitations to this theorisation, as it is too reliant on macro constructs and economistic thinking, forgetting the local, particular social dynamics and the wider colonial politics which have shaped current settings. The Issue editors comment, “…it is necessary to grasp the diversity and differences of the rural areas of Southern Africa, and the complex social dynamics, including divisions of class, gender and generation among their inhabitants. Their histories, both past and future, are not written by capital alone”.

They also point to the important work by Mahmoud Mamdani, who argues in Citizen and Subject that there has to be much better attention to the historical-political conditions of colonialism that gave rise to domination, and the ‘bifurcated state’. Of course since the classic Marxist work of the 1970s, the migrant labour system has been radically reconfigured.  ‘Today there is “growing surplus labour’, unemployment and casualization”, with very different implications for livelihoods, and land. This means new theorisations of land and agrarian change are needed, suited to contemporary situations. How this is done of course will frame what questions are asked, and what solutions are suggested.

The contributions to the Special Issue offer a diversity of perspectives. Andries du Toit, for example, argues strongly for a perspective centred on inequality, avoiding getting too hung up on ownership of land and resources. From this perspective redistribution may operate across a number of dimensions (up and down the value chain) and spaces (including both rural and urban), allowing new livelihood opportunities to emerge. A focus on labour offers another perspective. As Sender and Johnston argued provocatively in 2004, an emphasis on improving the conditions of labour on commercial farms may be a more effective redistributive and emancipatory option, compared to redistributing the land itself.

Others focus on the potentials centred on local level accumulation from own agricultural production. The paper by Ben Cousins, for example, shows the potentials and limits of such ‘accumulation from below’ in KwaZulu Natal. A wider livelihoods perspective looks at how agricultural possibilities from land reform must be combined with assessments of income from other sources, as Mike Aliber and Ben Cousins show from a study in rural Limpopo province.

Still others point to perspectives centred on social development, and how access to education, health and social care may infuence poverty levels in profound ways. And whether the focus is on inequality, labour, agricultural accumulation, livelihoods or distributive justice and social development, all are intersected by dimensions of differences affected by gender, age and ethnicity.

The Special Issue thus offers no clear-cut answers, nor any defined formula for the way forward – indeed there is no clear agreement on theoretical framing among the papers, and so a diversity of positions implied on the value (or otherwise) of redistributive land reform. This makes it a refreshingly pluralistic take on a complex issue, where different perspectives combine, challenge, contradict and complement in different ways. There is no one-size-fits-all version, as in the 1970s framing, but a diversity. This is helpful for productive debate, and this Special Issue is an important contribution, helpful for anyone seeking to understand agrarian change in Southern Africa, including Zimbabwe.

Where the authors do converge, though, is the urgent need to do something about deeply structured patterns of inequality, whose characteristics have barely budged since 1994. Henry Bernstein observes that “South African agriculture and agricultural policy since 1994 has done little, if anything, to ‘transform’ the circumstances of the dispossessed – rural and urban classes of labour – whose crises of social reproduction remain grounded in the inheritances of racialized inequality”.

This is a shocking realisation, given the great hopes that were held up for a ‘free’ South Africa. As the centenary of the 1913 Natives’ Land Act is commemorated this year, it is a reminder that, as in Zimbabwe, the inheritance of a particularly divisive history is exceptionally difficult to shed.

While the Special Issue is focused on South Africa, Zimbabwe is frequently mentioned across the papers. The editors note the ‘spectre’ of Zimbabwe in public and policy discourse, as an impetus to address these stark poverty and inequality challenges. But perhaps Zimbabwe can also offer lessons on the potentials as well as challenges of redistributive land reform. The conditions and contexts are of course massively different, but some exchange of ideas and perspectives between South Africa and Zimbabwe may be productive, given the urgency of the challenge south of the Limpopo.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland


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2 responses to “Agrarian change, rural poverty and land reform: South Africa’s experience

  1. Pingback: Catch up time: the top 20 blogs from the past year | zimbabweland

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