South Africa’s new agricultural leadership should focus on getting things done, not designing new policies

South Africa’s primary agriculture sector accounts for nearly 3% of GDP and about 8% when considering the value of agro-processing. But it can contribute even more to economic growth that delivers benefits fairly across society and creates jobs.

This can’t happen, however, if new policies and plans keep getting introduced. Fortunately, the views of the new agricultural minister, John Steenhuisen, may not be far from the existing policy path. Steenhuisen is the leader of the Democratic Alliance, the second biggest party in parliament, which has joined a unity government with the African National Congress after the latter failed to win the majority vote.

The African National Congress has been governing under the vision of the National Development Plan, which was recently distilled into the Agriculture and Agro-processing Master Plan. The aim is to grow an inclusive and competitive agricultural economy by focusing on specific commodities and their value chains, as well as specific regions.

The Democratic Alliance’s agricultural approach is no different from the ANC’s. For example, in its 2024 manifesto, the DA states that the party will “empower South Africans through land ownership by protecting private ownership of land as outlined in section 25 of the Constitution.”

It also promised to

utilise government-owned land and prioritise the use of land owned by the government, specifically focusing on the vast tracts currently held by the Departments of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, as well as Public Works and Infrastructure.

The DA says it will improve post-settlement support to beneficiaries of land reform by strengthening the capacity of provincial governments. Post-settlement support refers to the assistance that government gives new land owners.

The major political parties’ views are aligned. And South Africa already has good policies that can ensure agriculture’s potential is realised. Therefore the task of the new political leadership should be relentless implementation.

The main programme of action is the Agriculture and Agro-processing Master Plan, which was co-created in 2022 by business, labour, government and all social partners. The implementation of the plan so far has been scant, but major stakeholders in the sector remain enthusiastic about it. Also missing is a good understanding of the plan by officials in provincial and local government. This is key because they are the ones who must work with the private sector to carry out the masterplan.

There are several other factors holding back agriculture’s development and growth. They fall outside the department of agriculture’s control but are key to the sector’s functioning as they either increase operating costs or turn off further investment. Much of the masterplan’s success depends on these factors being addressed. For example, if a municipality is not delivering services and roads are poorly maintained, it is tough to attract investments.

The major priorities for the new minister, which would have much wider positive spin-offs for the sector, would be the following aspects of the masterplan.

The priorities

Animal health: The former agriculture minister, Thoko Didiza, appointed a Ministerial Special Task Team to provide insight on ways to improve animal health in South Africa. The team’s report provides clear policy guidelines, which the new administration should follow. The livestock and poultry subsector forms nearly half of the South African agricultural economy. This makes animal health vital, especially for the export drive that is a focus in the sector.

Agricultural product standards: There have been various complaints in the industry about the use and high costs of private sector inspectors to ensure agricultural products meet set standards. The next administration should address this, as costs burden producers and consumers. In some cases, it’s not clear what benefits some of these private sector inspectors bring to the industry.

Registrar for Act 36: Government, academia and organised agriculture are doing work to improve the capacity and effectiveness of this crucial office, which registers all new agrochemicals, seeds and other agricultural products. The initiatives under way must continue under the new administration. Delays and backlogs in the registrar’s office must be cleared.

Agricultural exports: The South African government has done admirable work opening various export markets over the years. These efforts should continue to focus on India, China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, among others. Existing markets in Africa, the EU, the Americas, parts of Asia and the Middle East must also be nurtured. South Africa needs as many export markets as possible to improve diversification in a world of geopolitical tensions.

Statistics: The agriculture department should improve the statistics on agriculture across all subsectors. These are critical for monitoring, evaluation and policy formulation. There are gaps in understanding smallholder and informal value chains, partly because of inadequate statistics.

The agriculture department must work with other departments on:

Ports and rail: critical to exports and domestic product distribution.

Roads and municipalities: vital for the success of agriculture and agribusinesses.

Rural crime: stock theft and other forms of crime undermine investment in agriculture and the growth of small towns.

Water: collaboration with the Department of Water Affairs and others to improve the policy dispensation on irrigation water.

Land reform: The Land Reform and Rural Development Department, which is now under another minister, should continue setting up the Land Reform and Agricultural Development Agency. The agency’s main task is to release about 2.5 million hectares of land held by the state to intended beneficiaries. This transfer can potentially improve the inclusiveness and growth of the agricultural sector. The land release process will need various agencies to collaborate.

Agriculture is a sector that can uplift the economic conditions of rural South Africa, and provide much-needed jobs. Leaders at both departments of agriculture and land reform must build on the existing work.

by : Wandile Sihlobo, Senior Fellow, Department of Agricultural Economics, Stellenbosch University

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