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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.