The Political Economy of Sugar in Southern Africa – Introduction

Published on 16 September 2016

In this introductory paper we review historic and contemporary development of sugar cane
production across the southern Africa. We argue that the region’s sugar industry provides a
useful lens through which to understand current dynamics of corporate capital and agricultural
production in Africa. We identify three distinct elements of political-economic analysis: first,
the operation of logics of capital investment in different settings; second, the nature of state
policies and politics in different national contexts; and third, local processes of production,
accumulation and livelihoods, including effects on labour and social differentiation. The paper
draws on the empirical cases from seven southern African countries presented in this collection.
It highlights the rapid concentration of corporate control by three South African companies
over the past decade, but also a diverse set of outcomes contingent on local context. This is
particularly evident in the nature of ‘outgrower’ sugar cane production which is found in all
cases but constituted in different places by quite different social categories in terms of wealth
and scale of production. We argue that common stereotypes of corporate investment as either
‘win–win’ or as a ‘land grab’ rarely apply. Rather, the nature and outcomes of ‘outgrower’
systems needs to be understood as a manifestation of context-specific political-economic
relationships between corporate capital, national governments and a variety of local holders
of capital, land and labour.

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