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Conference Report on Rethinking agriculture in South Africa: Constraints and opportunities: Key lessons for policy makers

by Donna Hornby; Ben Cousins in 2016

A conference-dialogue was held in Cape Town from 11-13th October 2016 with the purpose of rethinking agriculture. The key question guiding the event was: ‘What role can agriculture play in helping resolve the crisis facing South Africa?’ Persistently high and increasing rates of unemployment, rising inequality, a stagnant economy and a dysfunctional state – these issues define the key policy-political challenges in contemporary post-apartheid South Africa. Rural areas and the agrarian economy are important contributors to these dynamics. Large-scale commercial farming is shedding jobs while land and production concentration is occurring in response both to the dismantling of apartheid subsidies and regulated markets, and to global competition. Processes of integration up and down the value chain are creating opportunities for a new kind of financialisation that holds production at ransom. Smallholders, who are often seen as holding the promise for agrarian transformation, are also undergoing rapid processes of change. De-agrarianisation combined with shifts to highly gendered investments in livestock suggests a great deal of dynamic heterogeneity and complexity that may render simple policy solutions difficult to achieve. Furthermore, the diversity of rural livelihoods, with multi-directional rural-urban migration, suggests that farming, as a primary activity, is likely to be an option only for a few, although for many it remains an important component of a diverse portfolio of livelihood options. Given these complexities, what role can agriculture play in helping resolve the crises facing the country? This report details the deliberations of an event that sought to ensure ‘dialogue’ and debate in order to deliver policy proposals by inviting a range of stakeholders. The programme was structured to maximise participation, with regular slots aimed at pulling out the implications of research for policy and practice. Funding for the event was provided by the National Research Foundation and the Mandela Initiative.