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Cows moving along a dirt road.
During the apartheid era, Transkei was one of several government-designated ‘homelands.’ Susan Winters Cook/ Getty Images

South Africans are abandoning smallholder farming – history and policy can help explain why

South African smallholders are abandoning farming. The decline in field cultivation is a problem, since many of these smallholder households struggle to make ends meet. If people were able to produce more of their own food this would improve their lives.

The current situation is a combined effect of the country’s historical legacy and the negative impacts of recent agricultural programmes on many smallholders’ ability to farm. Understanding these reasons is an essential starting point for reversing the decline.

This article draws on work reported in three papers published in the journals Geoforum, Agrekon and Journal of Rural Studies. It is based on research I undertook in villages in OR Tambo District, South Africa, between 2006 and 2020, two household surveys from 2008 and 2020, and perspectives from South African history.

In the villages where my research is located, the number of fields in cultivation declined from 50% of fields in 2008 to 15% in 2019. This is representative of what can be seen in several South African smallholder communities today.

In the district, 66.5% of the population lived below the lower poverty line in 2019. These are households where basic needs cannot always be met.

Poverty and food insecurity have increased since the COVID-19 pandemic. Most households rely on a combination of social grants, self-employment and some food grown in their gardens. Most households have access to a field in a communal field area, but these are rarely planted today. For the past 20 years there have been repeated government interventions to support farming, but despite this, fewer farmers plant their fields now than 15 years ago when I started my research.

I argue that important reasons for this can be traced to displacement of smallholder farmers during the colonial and apartheid era, and inappropriate technical support. To reverse the trend of declining field cultivation, government policies need to address the errors of the past.

History of smallholder agriculture

For over 100 years, South Africa’s colonial and apartheid regimes systematically undermined smallholder agriculture. By drastically limiting access to land, the regimes prevented the black majority population from surviving on agriculture alone. This ensured cheap labour for mines and settler farms, while leading to overcrowding and land degradation in the “homelands” set aside for black people.

In addition, two key events had a negative impact on farming in the villages I studied: “betterment” and cattle deaths.

Betterment is the term for government attempts to reduce land degradation and increase government control over land use in the homelands. It started in the studied villages in 1957, nine years after the introduction of apartheid in 1948.

Homesteads previously spread out over the landscape were demolished and forcibly relocated. People lost years of investments in infrastructure and soil improvements, while social ties important for the mobilisation of farm labour were weakened. Many of the people I spoke to, for example, referred to reduced engagement in “ploughing parties” where neighbours organised joint work in the fields. This has been reported by many others too. Betterment reduced engagement in agriculture, though farming remained a core part of rural livelihoods.


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Another major blow to farming was cattle deaths. While cattle numbers had started declining in the 19th century, a great many cattle also died in the late 1970s and early 1980s due to drought. This coincided with an economic downturn in the country and the declaration of Transkei, where my research villages are located, as an independent country in 1976 (unrecognised outside South Africa). Large numbers of people were forcibly relocated there from elsewhere in South Africa.

The simultaneous loss of cattle and urban jobs caused a downturn in farming and made it impossible for most households to purchase new animals.

The Transkei government continued the apartheid government’s oppressive politics. It also, however, fenced field areas to protect them from grazing cattle and provided ploughing support.

Smallholder farming today

Today, as a result of past legacies, households mainly rely on other forms of income than farming. This is unlikely to change completely. Most rural residents in the villages where I have worked do not see farming as their future main occupation, but they still value part-time farming as important for food security. In this they face constraints which government interventions have not addressed.

The past decline in cattle numbers means that the stock of cattle in the community is now too small to support farming adequately. Households that do not own cattle find it difficult to plough their fields. Those with cattle are reluctant to lend them to anyone as it exhausts the animals.


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Another challenge is that the fencing that was erected from the 1970s onwards is old and damaged, so unsupervised cattle can enter fields. A handful of farmers with the means to do so have fenced their own fields. This is costly and not possible for most. A weakened social support structure in farming also means that the poorest households struggle to get labour.

Government-sponsored programmes in the past 20 years have aimed to reverse the decline in agricultural engagement, mainly by subsidising fertilisers and genetically modified (GM) or hybrid maize seeds. The assumption is that these inputs are the key to increased agricultural production. But the new seeds cannot be replanted or legally shared, so people must buy them every year. This undermines the way households help each other with seeds.


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Another false assumption that has influenced recent government programmes is that farming is an either/or activity. This has resulted in programmes giving support only to “committed farmers” – those already planting their fields.

A minority of better-off smallholders – with their own cattle for ploughing, the ability to fence their fields, and some money to purchase labour and inputs – have benefited from recent agricultural programmes. Meanwhile the majority of smallholders have been pushed out of agriculture.

Why government should make changes

My research shows that many smallholders want to increase their engagement in farming. Farming remains important even to people who find it hard to stay involved. A planted garden is still seen as crucial for a proper household, and many would like to farm more, particularly to produce food.

Based on my research, I suggest the government should build on this will to farm and abandon its strategy of nudging people to adopt expensive inputs. More effective measures to support farming would be:

  • unconditional help with ploughing and fencing

  • making more agricultural advisors available

  • training agricultural advisors in low-input farming

  • supporting the use of local inputs, such as seed and manure, and allowing access to improved but locally adapted seeds.

These measures would be no costlier than the current input-support programmes. (The seed supplied by many of the recent government funded programmes has been as much as ten times more expensive than other available certified seeds.) The measures I suggest would also be positive for households across all wealth levels.

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