SARChI Chair

ruth hall

Prof Ruth Hall
Senior Professor

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Professor Ruth Hall holds the South African Research Chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, which is funded by the National Research Foundation. The Chair is located at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape.

Professor Hall has initiated a five-year research programme (2020-2024) on dynamics of agrarian change and rural transformations in Africa. The Research Chair will include work on the character of smallholder agriculture and accumulation dynamics in agriculture and the rural non-farm economy, and will address questions of changing agro-food systems; resource access; rights and governance; land use and production; class formation; social differentiation; and the broader politics of land and agrarian reform.

The SARChI Chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies

The theoretical approach employed in the Research Chair’s programme will be heterodox, drawing on Marxist traditions and using concepts of capital accumulation and social reproduction but also embracing elements of sustainable livelihoods analysis and other approaches within development studies and related disciplines. Socio-legal studies are also welcome. The research will be multi-scalar in character. Empirical research, combining varied qualitative methods including ethnographies, participatory action research, life histories and quantitative methods in the form of household surveys, will be rooted in specific field sites. Analysis of findings will be located within an understanding of the national political economy of the country or countries in which studies are conducted, but also linked to regional dynamics and to the global debates about the future of rural populations and the future of food and farming.

Workstream 1:

The political economy of redistributive land reforms

Redistributive land reforms are underway in highly unequal societies such as Africa’s former settler colonies that underwent substantial land dispossession and which remain marked by agrarian dualism. The research will draw from the international literature on state- versus market-based land reforms, and generate new empirical research and international comparative research collaborations in order to theorise the politics of policy-making, implementation and outcomes of land redistribution, with attention to contestations over the class agenda and trajectories of agrarian change. The original contributions will be a gendered political economy analysis, and theoretical contributions on land reforms in the 21st century.

Workstream 2:

Land commodification and land governance under statutory, private and customary tenure

Privatisation of state and customary lands in Africa has been prompted both by ‘land grabs’ or corporate large-scale land investments, and by dynamics of social differentiation and accumulation. Enclosure and concentration, the growth of medium-scale farmers and ‘commercialisation’ are underway. These trends have been associated with the rise of agribusiness capital but also the growing influence of finance capital in African agriculture, linked to transformations in land rights, land use and production; livelihoods, migration and the non-farm economy; local economic linkages; and changes to the agrofood system. These pathways of change are in part due to the instability of petty commodity production and the vulnerability of small-scale producers in corporate value chains, often via contract farming.

Workstream 3:

Agrarian question of labour, crises of social reproduction and fragmented ‘classes of labour’

The production of new surplus populations arises from social differentiation, land dispossession, farm evictions and agricultural commercialisation. We will examine what happens to those excluded from existing or new emerging modes of accumulation. Using Issa Shivji’s (2017) notion of ‘working people’, the research will address the agrarian question of labour, social reproduction and livelihoods. It will explore counter-currents to the prevalent directions of agrarian change, including cooperative ownership and production, alternatives to large-scale industrial monocropping and its ecological implications, and political struggles by social movements, farmer organisations and others, challenging the constraints of national and global development pathways under neoliberal capitalism.


The Research Chair aims to develop a body of work that advances theoretical and empirical understandings of the political economy of agrarian change in sub-Saharan Africa, with a focus on Southern Africa, and particularly South Africa. The broad field may be defined as Critical Agrarian Studies which, while a growing field of scholarly enquiry globally, is not widely evident yet in curricula and scholarly research in Africa. Drawing on Edelman and Wolford (2017), who map out the key features of this emerging discipline, the aim is to critically engage with dominant frameworks in development studies that are still underpinned by some of the presumptions of modernisation theory, which envisaged the conversion of smallholder and family farming into large-scale ‘modern’ capitalist and industrial agriculture.

These received wisdoms and intellectual orthodoxies remain remarkably resilient in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent, and are reproduced in postgraduate studies and other scholarly work. Critical Agrarian Studies calls into question the underlying ideological and theoretical tenets underpinning such assumptions, locates them critically in a historical context of colonialism and post-coloniality, and provides the basis for alliances of scholars and activists to chart alternatives to this pathway of development. The research focus addresses knowledge gaps in Critical Agrarian Studies, including on dynamics of agrarian labour in the context of both land commodification and concentration, and redistributive land reforms. In these ways, the aim is to use the Research Chair programme to contribute to building this field of enquiry within Africa, and to galvanise a new cohort of young African scholars who will investigate the political economy of agrarian change.


1. To conduct rigorous field-based research on agrarian transformations underway in Africa, the political economy of redistributive land reforms, land commodification and concentration, and the agrarian question of labour, in order to produce theoretically informed and empirically grounded insights into complex and dynamic social realities in South Africa, Southern Africa and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.

2. To recruit, train, supervise, support and mentor a cohort of PhD and MPhil students and postdoctoral fellows, bringing together SARChI bursary-holders with others, with additional funding streams, and collaborating with other key scholars and institutions, to provide rigorous theoretical and methodological training, and to build the discipline of Critical Agrarian Studies on the African continent and contribute to the next generation of critical agrarian scholars.

3. To communicate the policy implications of research findings to policy makers, civil society organisations, social movements, the private sector and society at large, within a well-designed process of policy dialogue within South Africa, in other countries in Southern Africa, and in key international fora in Africa (African Union, UN Economic Commission for Africa, African Development Bank, Pan African Parliament, and global fora such as the UN Food and Agricultural Organization.

4. To publish cutting-edge research in high-impact internationally-recognized and peer-reviewed academic journals and books, and thereby to contribute to international scholarship on questions of the political economy of agrarian change, land reform and agrarian labour.

Research questions

The following overarching questions are posed within this programme. All three workstreams are to contribute towards answering them.

1. What agrarian transformations are underway in the African countryside, and how are we to understand these historically and in a global context?

2. What are the dynamics of land redistribution, privatisation, commodification and concentration and how are these and other factors reshaping agro-food systems?

3. What patterns of social differentiation and accumulation are evident, with what outcomes for class formation, race and identity, gender and generational relations?

4. What are the outcomes for forms of agrarian labour and social reproduction?

5. How are state-society relations shaping and in turn shaped by agrarian transformations?


ruth hall

Prof Ruth Hall

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Latest publications

Steven Lawry et al (2017). ‘The impact of land property rights interventions on investment and agricultural productivity in developing countries: a systematic review’ (Journal of Development Effectiveness 9:1)

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We conducted a systematic review on the effects of land tenure recognition interventions on agricultural productivity, income, investment and other relevant outcomes. We synthesise findings from 20 quantitative studies and nine qualitative studies that passed a methodological screening. The results indicate substantial productivity and income gains from land tenure recognition, although gains differ markedly by region. We find that these…

Alex Dubb (2018). The value components of contract farming in contemporary capitalism (JAC 18:4).

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Contract farming (CF) has generally been understood as, essentially, a market institution—by both (approving) “mainstream” and (critical) “radical” perspectives. Analyses of relations of production have, meanwhile, tended towards a problematic “peasantist” frame, where contracts undermine farmer “autonomy” in processes of “flexible” corporate agro‐industrial restructuring. This paper argues that a materialist analysis of CF from within capital–labour relations offers a stronger…

Bulisani Ncube (2017). Dynamics of Fresh Produce Marketing in Small-Scale Irrigation Schemes: Challenges and Opportunities for Smallholder Farmers in South Africa (EASSRR 33:2).

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Small-scale irrigation schemes provide a worthwhile livelihood for smallholder farmers, though those farmers struggle to obtain a guaranteed and consistent market for their produce. This article focuses on constraints and opportunities that different types of smallholder irrigation farmers in South Africa have in meeting requirements of fresh produce markets. It draws on findings from 94 household interviews, in-depth life histories,…

Donny Hornby, (2018). A Slipping Hold? Farm Dweller Precarity in South Africa’s Changing Agrarian Economy and Climate (Land 7:40)

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The paper investigates whether farm dwellers in the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province of South Africa are subject to a “double exposure”: vulnerable both to the impacts of post-apartheid agrarian dynamics and to the risks of climate change. The evidence is drawn from a 2017 survey that was undertaken by the Association for Rural Advancement (AFRA), which is a land rights Non-Governmental…