Smallholders and Land Reform: A Realistic Perspective

The current heated debate on land reform is fuelled by bold pronouncements about how white-owned land should be secured for African people. But it is marked by an absence of detailed policy discussion about what should be done with the land that is redistributed. There are some suggestions that African smallholders – families that occupy a residential plot with garden, a field of about one or two hectares and have access to communal grazing – should be the main beneficiaries. In this scenario, they would play a central part in agricultural production and boosting national food security on transferred land. Smallholders occupy a considerable area of agricultural land in South Africa, perhaps 23-25 per cent (over 20 million ha), and we agree that policy should facilitate their livelihoods by expanding agricultural production. Before transferring large amounts of new land, and imagining that smallholders will make a major contribution to national agriculture, we should analyse historical trajectories as well as the current levels of production. Policies based on profoundly inaccurate data and assumptions are doomed to fail and may do grave damage to both the agricultural sector and the national economy. Moreover, as a policy priority, it is vital to identify where the major demand for land lies.