Opinion Piece: The rural areas of South Africa no longer a safety net or ‘home’? – Sue Jean Taylor

The land is the ‘insurance’ for rural farmers in Africa

Farming in African countries is characterised by vulnerability, and small-holder farmers farming small pieces of land. Almost everyone is farming, and there is very little hope of most rural people being able to move out of farm work into better paid occupations, although this does happen from time to time. These rural farmers need to be protected and supported in many ways, to ensure that they can successfully farm and remain on the land.

Disasters are common-place in African rural areas, and it is well-known that most farmers and poorer households in Africa are not insured in the formal sense and rely on various local safety nets to recover from disasters and setbacks. If disasters occur too frequently, they cannot recover and may become destitute, or leave the land to try and make a new life in nearby towns and cities.

The lack of a robust rural development programme in South Africa

In South Africa, the land is not fertile on the whole and most of the country is arid or semi-arid. The country does not drive a massive small-scale farmer programme, possibly because of the land ownership issue and its legacy.  Yet, there is a great land hunger in some of the rural areas, accompanied by land invasions and invasions into protected areas. In other areas, the land is so heavily degraded by poor farming methods and overstocking, that it would be almost impossible to recover this land as quality agricultural land. (see below).

Land degradation in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Image by SJ Taylor, 2016.

Massive urbanisation process underway, people leaving the land

In many of the rural areas in South Africa, for example in the tribal lands of the Eastern Cape, crops are no longer being grown.  In some cases, tribal land is being sold for housing in many areas, reducing the amount of quality land for farming.  Not surprisingly, most people in South Africa no longer want to farm on the whole – they want secure obs and an urban lifestyle, to the extent that many municipalities cannot cope with the arrival of thousands of destitute work-seekers, who also need housing, schools, water and sanitation – yet cannot pay for services or buy a home.

Traffic flowing through the small town of Marikana, in the Rustenburg Local Municipality, South Africa. SJ Taylor, 2018.

In South Africa, the rural areas in South Africa once provided a social safety net for migrant workers who travelled to the big cities. These workers sent remittances to their rural homestead and returned to wives and families once a year.  When they could no longer work in the cities or mines, they returned ‘home’ to the rural areas and lived there until the end of their days.  However, this no longer seems to be the case. In South Africa currently, the rural areas and small towns in the former homelands are now so under-developed through lack of investment and sound governance, that they no longer fulfill the safety net role. It is now that jobs in urban areas are the safety nets for the rural areas, and not the other way around. For many urban workers, they do maintain strong links with the rural areas of ‘home’ and manage to balance a rural, traditional way of life and a modern, professional life in the cities.

Options to create small-scale farmer resilience – various types of ‘insurance’ for rural farmers in Africa

However, much thought has been given on how to provide rural people in Africa with some form of ‘insurance’ – perhaps paid for through government schemes.  Not sure how extensively this has been implemented, if at all.  Most countries in Africa have very viable and forward thinking agricultural sector that focus on subsistence and small-scale farmers, and creating resilience and new opportunities for these farmers. Of course challenges remain – notably issues like droughts and floods, and a lack of access to market information and markets. Other farmers provide their own resilience through cash crops, and in Ethiopia, growing Eucalyptus is a valuable activity for farmers, and one sees evidence of this on the farms, and also in the cities where the Eucalyptus poles are sold (see photograph below).

Eucalyptus poles on sale at a roadside depot in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photograph by SJ Taylor, 2015.

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