Dreams of Arcadia … and the nightmare that may follow
What is the South African dream? Here’s one answer. In the heartland, a sheep for every family and two rows of beetroot in every garden plot. In suburbia, a plethora of farm-to-table markets where salt of the earth people deliver fruits and roots by hand. You know, so fresh you can taste the sunshine. Farmed and prepared like in the good ol’ days, whenever those were, in harmony with nature.
This dream is diametrically opposed to the cappuccino – machine-made, noisy, foreign, laced with frenetic energy, unforgettably advertised by the déclassé fast-food mega-chain Wimpy.
Politics this year has been split by the pastoral South African dream and the garish wake-up to corruption. The latter is the story of “state capture”, really big business and the state cosying up together under the camouflage of “radical economic transformation” in a pattern so anciently obvious Socrates and Cicero worried about it.
Lucky for us, some of the corruption was exposed by discards and outcasts at places like Wimpy and now, goes the moral of the story, is the time to wake up and resist oligopolistic domination.
Those who rose under Zuma would rather we go back to sleep and so the land debate issued forth on a dream of simpler times – pre-colonial, pre-industrial, pre-greed, in a word, prelapsarian. To walk the earth as Adam and Eve before the snake’s whispers of original sin, that is the mission. “We can make this country the garden of Eden” says President Ramaphosa. This dream is beautiful and dangerous on its own terms, but being just a dream it could be hijacked by forces that never sleep. State capture could hit agriculture next.
Call me crazy, but I worry. I worry that the sentimental attempts of state, NGO and academic actors to transform South African agriculture into a black Arcadian paradise will be foiled by “pragmatism” of the most opportunistic kind.
Food security is a political necessity, it will be protected. Just as with Zimbabwe, this is likely to take international support. But we are richer, a vastly richer and more developed company, so grinding local small businesses through the mills of an international government-backed food-cartel offers profits few of us could dream up.
To understand this one must understand how exceptional farming is here. After the Second World War, Green Revolution agri-technology increased productivity at unprecedented rates globally. Protectionist policy climbed in hard terms, too, stimulating super-economic profits, corrupt farmer-government relations and oligopolistic inefficiencies around the world.
Even by global standards apartheid was extraordinary. Ideology and mutually beneficial relations brought “big farmer” and “big brother” together here in legalized price-fixing, pay-for-play and de facto open-book corruption.
Arid Karoo soil that no plough should have strayed through was farmed under apartheid subsidy, tariffs and state-insurance. The wasteland produced low yields but bumper crop money because the cereal boards set loony prices that effectively distributed money from the taxpayer to even the least efficient farmer. This was in the name of “the people” who at the time were called the volk.
When the ANC came to power, it said enough of that and unfit farmers had no power to resist. So protectionism was slashed, margins tightened, and chaotic winds of international competition howled across the fields halving the number of commercial farmers in the decades since. From having one of the most protected, we suddenly had the freest farming sector besides New Zealand.
Those who survived this blast tend to live on high doses of in-season caffeine just as their businesses operate on annually renewed debt, diesel, and a host of Green Revolution chemicals that could kill you at a whiff. It’s not pretty, but this is where almost all the nation’s calories come from. And, as it so happens, this deregulated market is one of the few in South Africa that produces internationally competitive products with growing exports.
In addition, farming is one of the most small-business oriented sectors in the country. SARS and treasury data suggest that only construction matches farming for being so bottom heavy in the formal market.
Harsh competition has created a dynamic land market, too, with about 13 000 farms being on sale in a normal year. This was compounded by drought in 2016; in that year, 20 000 farms went on sale and 3.5 million ha were sold. By economist Wandile Sihlobo’s calculation, 20% of all farmland has been sold to non-white people (or the state) on a willing-seller basis since 1994 (not including former bantustans). This number would be higher if financing black emerging farmers was not such a mess.
In short, business is good, dynamic, open to new entrants and, at the farm end, prices are low. But it does not suit the ANC to recognize the elements of success in its own classically liberal agri-policy at the political moment, so it dreams of change. What if, one might speculate, farming comes to look like the mining sector instead?
A handful of black shareholders became fantastically rich there, powerful and ultra-high status: transformation at its most undeniable. Total mining jobs shrank, prospecting vanished and funny games nearly landed us in servitude to Russia. But one might think this was all worth it.
The farm sector could transform like mining in three easy steps.
1) Expropriation Without Compensation at scale. The media is split between ecstasy and horror as land prices fall and production plummets. Food prices climb.
2) Hunger protests erupt. The ANC gets desperate and calls on giant domestic and global corporate agriculture to bail it out under the banners “black and white farm together” – and “South-South cooperation”, if we are bailed out by China or Brazil.
3) These firms enter into corrupt BEE deals and leases from the state, transforming rural South Africa into an oligopolistic processing plant that resembles the mining, banking, energy and auditing sectors in concentration, with barriers to new entrants, and corruption.
Apartheid style farming comes back, this time with foreign blessing and tribute paid back to them. Once going the satanic mills turn irresistibly, capital concentrates tighter in a vicious circle.
The former bantustans remain off-book and stagnant and efforts to sell handpicked good news stories become embarrassing in their resemblance to apartheid PR.
Dreams haunt us again, a sheep for every family and veggies in every garden plot, while revolutionaries whisper in our ears that this time, comrades, it’s going to work!
Gabriel Crouse is an Associate at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823.