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by Phillan Zamchiya in 2018

How have foreign-based investments affected land-based livelihoods for smallholder farmers in Africa? This article seeks to shift debate from an insular macro-economic perspective to a more diverse livelihoods approach, one that is informed by the day-to-day quotidian concerns of the rural smallholder farmers. The article is informed by a qualitative case study of Mansa Sugar Limited, an Indian-owned company, which acquired 5 000 hectares of state and customary land in Zambia’s newly-created Chembe district.

The land was acquired for irrigated sugar-cane production in order to produce  sugar, ethanol and electricity. Hall (2011) and Scoones (2016) long observed the sugar rush in Southern Africa. We challenge the assumptions that there are vast tracts of vacant and unproductive land readily available for investors in marginalised rural Africa, that smallholder farmers are mere substantivists, that investor-promised multiple and inclusive macro-economic benefits and modernisation projects for the rural sector are a given. In addition, we assert that regulation of investments is more in theory than practice as power relations are heavily skewed in favour of big capital, some state elites and traditional leaders in the context of weak governance. We acknowledge that some jobs are created with differential benefits and some benefits are derived from social corporate responsibility but they are not meaningful enough to support sustainable livelihoods. Consequently, the investments have negatively affected the diverse and multiple land-based livelihoods for the rural farmers including loss of financial income, food, good health and education.  Hence the need for an alternative path to development in contrast to the ahistorical envisioned capitalist transition to large-scale estates. To substantiate our argument, we present this article in seven interrelated parts.

First, we give our theoretical approach and justification for the article. Second, we unpack the agrarian investments in Chembe, analysing the pull factors in line with the state’s pro-market policies. Third, we detail the qualitative methodology and why it is of use in capturing local livelihoods. Fourth, we explore whether the land was vacant and unproductive, how the land was acquired in the context of Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC), then broaden to look at wider livelihoods lost beyond land and land rights. Fifth, we analyse whether the forms of compensation covered wider livelihoods in line with regional and international guidelines for responsible investments. The sixth section motivates for an alternative path before concluding in the last section. In the next section we elaborate on our theoretical perspective.

by Ben Cousins, Farai Mtero, Donna Hornby, Alex Dubb in 2018


Marxist agrarian political economy has tended to focus on accumulation problematics, which were central in classic debates on the Agrarian Question (Byres 1996), which is understandable given the overall dominance of the logic of capital in a capitalist world. Within these debates, discussion of small-scale agriculture was largely orientated to ques-tions surrounding accumulation (from ‘above’, ‘below’, or in some combination) and their historical or prospective contribution to national development. This concern was key in Africa, given the large proportion of small-scale producers, both before and following national independence, notwithstanding ongoing processes (permanent, non-permanent and cyclical) of urbanisation. A notable theoretical advance was re-conceptualising ‘peasant’ farmers as ‘petty commodity producers’, concentrating the contradictory relations of capital and labour in particular households, enterprises and even persons.

More recently, Bernstein (2010, 110) has argued that the ‘classic’ Agrarian Question has been ‘resolved’ on the global stage (even, and importantly, while remaining ‘unresolved’ in particular national contexts) and is increasingly being supplanted by a gathering general crisis of reproduction for ‘fragmented classes of labour’. A key component of this ‘Agrarian Question of Labour’ is the growing number of rural households in the Global South, whose survival depends on the (direct and indirect) sale of their labour power, but who face mounting, complex and contradictory pressures on their social reproduction.

At the same time, a developing wider literature is placing renewed focus on transcending the dualism between ‘accumulation’ and ‘social reproduction’, as well as problematic analyti-cal distinctions between ‘public’/‘private’ and ‘commodified’/‘non-commodified’ domains. This literature interrogates not only the inter-relation of accumulation and social reproduction (of both society at large and of particular classes) but their mutual constitution (Bhattacharya 2017;Fergusonet al.2016). This is a fruitful area of engagement for Marxist approaches to rural class dynamics in the Global South in general, and Africa in particular, where tensions between accumulation and social reproduction, and their role in localised forms of politics, have long been noted (Bernstein 2010; Gibbon and Neocosmos 1985;O’Laughlin 1996).

This contribution discusses material from two cases in rural South Africa, and shows how land plays an enduring, albeit shifting, role in social reproduction, class differentiation and stratification amidst a wider and deepening ‘fragmentation’ of class realities. The cases illustrate how the contradictions of daily and generational reproduction are both reflected in, and act as vectors of change of, local social organisation and cultural norms.

by The Journal of Peasant Studies, Andries Du Toit in 2018
This paper explores the contribution of critical theory to the understanding of the agrarian roots and the political consequences of inequality and poverty in South Africa and stakes out an agenda for future exploration and research. It argues, firstly, that an appreciation of the significance and consequences of agrarian restructuring can be enriched by considering not only Marxist agrarian ‘political economy’ but also the analysis of welfare capitalism and distributional regimes, and Foucauldian accounts of biopolitics and governmentality. These allow us to link an understanding of the socio-economic dynamics of ‘jobless deagrarianization’ with an account of the incorporation of landless black people within the South African social and political order. The replacement of the ‘blanket of the land’ in Yako’s poem by the order of money and commoditised relationships had implications, not only for the relations of production, but also for contestations about the nature of social citizenship in South Africa – and the arts of government that could give effect and content to such citizenship.
Secondly, it argues that this research agenda, focused on an understanding of the connections between agrarian change and biopolitical incorporation, can help situate contemporary South African arguments about land politics in a more fertile terrain. Public debates about the stakes and direction of land reform in South African are generally framed in terms that render them unproductive and sterile, partly because they are divorced from the realities of agrarian change over the last three decades, and partly because the land issue is bound up with larger unresolved questions about the meaning and nature of South African citizenship. This paper is written in the hope that a theoretically enriched approach can help liberate land and agrarian policy debates from the ‘agrarian’ ghetto within which they are so often caught, and can illuminate the connections between the dynamics of rural livelihoods and agro-food restructuring and broader debates around democracy, government, and political modernity. I begin by briefly raising some questions about land reform politics in present-day South Africa, and the disconnections between these and other domains of political debate. I then summarise some insights from scholarship on the political economy of agro-food restructuring, and consider how these can be complemented by theories of welfare capitalism, distributional politics and governmentality. The next section indicates how these approaches can illuminate key features of change in twentieth century South Africa. This is followed by a summary of salient aspects of post-Apartheid biopolitics as seen from this viewpoint, and the identification of key areas for more research. Finally, I consider some of the broader political implications of the ‘thwarted biopolitics’ of post-Apartheid South Africa.
by Ben Cousins, Amelia Genis , Jeanette Clarke in 2018

Extremely high levels of unemployment contribute to poverty and inequality, and are one of South Africa’s most intractable problems. Can the agricultural sector help to address the problem? And how can land reform be undertaken in a manner that creates more jobs?

The farming sector, together with forestry and fisheries, currently contributes around 2% to GDP and around 5% to total employment, with a total of 840 000 workers. The contribution of agriculture to GDP is in fact somewhat greater than 2%, given the contributions of input (‘upstream’) suppliers and agro-processing (‘downstream’) industries. Around 30 000 medium- to large-scale commercial farmers supply the bulk of produce to formal markets, and employ most farm workers.

Perhaps 5 000 of such medium- to large-scale commercial farmers are black, but most black farmers operate on a much smaller scale. They are either subsistence-oriented (around 2 million) or market-oriented smallholders (around 200 000) and operate informally .

The number of workers employed in agriculture increased by around 200 000 between 2011 and 2018. The long-term trend in commercial agriculture, however, is towards increased job shedding as a result of investments in efficiency and mechanisation, and a shift to a higher proportion of temporary, casual and seasonal labour, as well as externally contracted labour.

Skilled workers often live on farms, although an increasing number do not, and unskilled labourers generally live off-farm and work on a casual and seasonal basis in picking and packing operations. Some crops, such as fruit and vegetables, continue to require labour for sensitive operations such as picking, but mechanised harvesting is increasing. Many fruit farms operate pack houses, but the number of workers in these is decreasing.

Farm workers are generally poorly paid and insecure, especially those who are employed casually or seasonally. A statutory minimum wage of R3169 per month or R146 per day is currently in place. Conditions on farms are rarely subject to inspection, however, and there is widespread noncompliance with labour law, even in the relatively wealthy farming areas of the Western Cape (Devereux et al 2017). Evictions of farm workers and farm dwellers still occur, both legally and illegally.

by PLAAS in 2018

PLAAS engages in sustained and meaningful ways with key sectors in society – often those who are not in conversation with one another. We work with government in a variety of ways at a senior level. We work closely with social movements, non-governmental organisations, and with small-scale farmer organisations as well as agribusiness. We provide input to the private sector, especially financial institutions, both in South Africa and abroad. And we shape global perceptions of the South African land question by briefing international diplomatic and investor missions and via extensive media exposure.

With all these relationships, we are in a unique position to listen as well as to inform, and to shape and transmit key ideas and shape the emerging narrative and potential areas of consensus for a way forward.

To enable PLAAS to continue to play this role, we need to achieve financial sustainability. Currently, as a relatively small institute, largely reliant on donor-funded short-term research projects, we manage to punch above our weight in public debate, but this may not always be possible. If we cannot retain our staff, and cover our core operational costs, we will not be able to continue to play our role. We need a sustainable financial basis, an endowment fund that can provide a sustainable stream of income to enable our operations to continue.