Journal Article

IDS Bulletin Vol. 36 Nos. 2

Smallholder Agriculture and Land Reform in South Africa

Published on 1 April 2005

How can land reform contribute to a revitalisation of smallholder agriculture in Southern Africa?

This question remains important despite negative perceptions of land reform as a result of the impact of Zimbabwe’s “fast-track” resettlement programme on agricultural production. This article focuses mainly on South Africa, where a highly unequal distribution of land coexists with deep rural poverty, but dominant narratives of the efficiency of largescale agriculture exert a stranglehold on rural policy (cf Toulmin and Guèye, this IDS Bulletin for West Africa).

The end of apartheid found a high proportion of the South African population residing in rural or semi-rural areas, but functionally dependent on the urban-industrial economy. Access to land by black people was effectively limited to the 13 per cent of land that made up the former homelands, much of which was overcrowded and unsuited to agriculture. Agricultural activities tended to be on a small scale and made only a minor contribution to household livelihoods, considerably less than wage employment and welfare payments. Ten years on, poverty and unemployment are still heavily concentrated in the rural areas, particularly in the former homelands but also in the former white commercial farming areas. Agricultural land is concentrated in the hands of approximately 45,000 corporate and individual owners, who are overwhelmingly white.

Since 1994, economic policies adopted by the democratic government have done little to develop the smallholder sector, and may even have contributed to its long-run decline. The deregulation of commodity markets and the removal of most state support to the agricultural sector since 1990 have contributed to a climate that is exceptionally hostile to new entrants and to existing smallholders wishing to expand production. Meanwhile, the collapse of most state agricultural services in the former homelands since 1990 has further undermined existing producers. Market-based land reforms implemented by the democratic government have had a minimal impact on the racial distribution of agricultural land and have promoted new black entrants to the commercial farming sector at the expense of smallholders.

Nevertheless, land reform has the potential to underpin a revitalised system of smallholder production, in tandem with a transformation of the agricultural sector in ways that would promote economic development and reduce poverty in the rural areas (see Olukoshi, this IDS Bulletin). This would involve three key, interrelated elements: large-scale redistribution of land, enhanced state support to existing black smallholders and reform of agricultural markets.

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This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 36.2 (2005) Smallholder Agriculture and Land Reform in South Africa

Cite this publication

Lahiff, E. and Cousins, B. (2005) Smallholder Agriculture and Land Reform in South Africa. IDS Bulletin 36(2): 127-131


Edward Lahiff
Ben Cousins

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published by
Institute of Development Studies
IDS Bulletin, volume 36, issue 2


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South Africa

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