About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Land and agrarian questions in SA - A socialist perspective

RICHARD LEVIN argues that land and agrarian struggles are a largely neglected area within our movement. It is essential for a party like the SACP to engage much more actively and strategically with these struggles.

Land is a key agrarian question in SA. For the majority of oppressed rural blacks the transformation of agrarian relations is tied to the opening up of access to land. Agrarian questions relate to the form taken by the development of capitalism in agriculture. They are also political questions, involving an analysis of which rural social classes are most likely to be the allies of democratic revolutionary political parties.

This article discusses four agrarian questions:

     the land question and agrarian reform

     forms of production and social differentiation

     food production and the division between town and country, agriculture and industry

     democracy and alliances in agrarian struggles (endnote 1)

Land and agrarian reform

Land dispossession has been central to the development of the state, economy, politics and social classes in SA. In the process of land dispossession rural livelihoods have been destroyed. Land was central to the cultural and economic survival of indigenous African people. This is why land must not only be understood in terms of its productive and market value. Land availability may be meaningless without the means of production required to produce on that land. Those who agitate actively for land are often those who already have access to productive resources to cultivate land.

While land reform is in the interests of all rural black people in SA, allotment holding wage workers, agricultural labourers and marginalised women will struggle to engage with the market as individuals. They may only benefit if organised co-operatively. Land reform on its own cannot transform capitalism. Private property rights are bourgeois demands with a variety of potential beneficiaries. Land reform, like most bourgeois reforms, may enhance capitalist growth, while simultaneously transforming class relations and stimulating class formation and differentiation.

Class, gender and land

Social relations in the countryside involve social class, gender, race and political power relations in white farming areas and villages of the bantustans. The formation of social classes in white farming areas is relatively straightforward. They evolved when black people were dispossessed of their land and forced to become share-croppers and labour tenants.

With the development of capitalist agriculture, share-cropping largely disappeared, while state intervention from above, during the apartheid era, sought to eliminate labour tenancy. This semi-feudal exploitative relation was not, however, completely eliminated and it persists to the present in various parts of Mpumalanga, the Northern Province, North West and KwaZulu-Natal. In parts of the Free State and Eastern Cape many farmworkers still own small herds and enjoy grazing rights and comprise the remnants of a labour tenant class. Understanding the different demands of farm workers and labour tenants will be important for advancing particular land reform programmes. While working and living conditions (including security of tenure on residential land) are often the priority for many farm workers, for labour tenants the key demands generally hinge on agricultural and pastoral land rights.

The formation of social classes in the old bantustans was a more complex process, involving more people. Indirect rule through the creation of bantustan regimes contributed to the formation of incipient bourgeois class forces, while national democratic transformation has hastened the process of bourgeois class formation in these areas. Social differentiation in the former bantustan areas has also been generated by agricultural and non-agricultural forms of petty commodity production. Petty commodity production involves two forms of exploitation (endnote 2). The first arises out of market forces which lead richer households to enter unequal relations from a position of comparative advantage. Exploitation in this context is produced by unequal relations where the rich exploit the poor. Exploitation is also a product of forces imposed directly from above. In this case, political power is used to facilitate accumulation. In SA, differentiation is a product of both forms of exploitation.

The concept of petty commodity production helps to explain the instability of peasant society and economy, as well as the numerous forms of production which contribute to the survival of rural people. Agricultural petty commodity production (or peasant production) is an unstable form of production because it is highly vulnerable to competition. This instability helps us to understand the fragility of rural livelihoods in SA. Any solution to agrarian questions in a new democratic dispensation involving land reform and the restructuring of the market will create spaces for petty commodity production and lead to processes of class transformation and differentiation. An investigation of the nature of social differentiation in the bantustans is important in order to give a class content to the political practices being established through post-apartheid reconstruction.

To understand class it is necessary to examine various social relations including labour exploitation, access to and ownership of land and grazing rights, and ownership of other means of production - including agricultural capital assets and irrigation equipment. In the South African context, wages are another crucial determinant of rural social differentiation. Ruth First, writing on the peasantry of southern Mozambique, showed how wages played a key differentiating role among the peasantry (endnote 3). According to her analysis, poor peasants depended on wages for the purchase of the means of subsistence, whereas middle peasants depended on wages for agricultural production inputs. Thus migration in southern Africa has taken place for distinct reasons for different social classes in the countryside.

It is possible to identify several broad socio-economic classes, understood in terms of social relations. At the same time, social stratum exist within class categories and there is class mobility from one category to another.

This gives us the following broad categories:

1. the petty bourgeoisie, consisting of professional, salaried individuals such as lawyers, bureaucrats, extension officers, etc.

2. petty capitalists, who achieve subsistence and attempt to accumulate through various petty commodity activities. They have access to productive assets and/or agricultural land and they hire wage labour for productive activities. This category includes, for example, small farmers, brick-makers, taxi-owners, and shop-keepers.

3. worker peasants, consisting of wage workers, current or historical, who also have access to productive assets and agricultural land. Wages contribute to agricultural and/or non-agricultural forms of petty commodity production. They may hire wage labour periodically, but they rely mainly on self-employment.

4. allotment-holding wage workers, consisting of people with access to residential land and a small plot. They are primarily dependent on wage labour and pensions for survival, but also engage in agriculture on small allotments and other forms of petty commodity production. Labour tenants are a subset of this class.

5. the rural proletariat, consisting of landless or near landless people, who also have some access to off-farm wage income. This class is stratified internally in terms of access to the labour market. It includes farm workers, permanent and seasonal. Because of the limited access to land, agriculture is constrained (endnote 4).

It is important to emphasise that these classes are understood as being flexible relational categories, which are internally stratified. Moreover, these classes refer to the position which people occupy within the social structure of production, and not to how they see themselves. They can only become classes in the true sense when organised through political practice. National liberation political practice and discourse has historically not organised rural people into classes. It has engaged with them, by and large, as an oppressed mass.

Gender relations and social differentiation

Gender relations should not be confined to the relationship of women to capital. Gender relations also involve the relationship of women to capital, household relations, and state/female relations. The development of capitalism has led to the renegotiation of economic relations between individuals, especially between men and women, at the level of the household and within the broader labour processes. Rural women are not homogeneous, there are significant economic and other differences between them.

Capitalism and racial oppression destroyed the capacity of rural households to produce the means of subsistence. Wage employment provided some relief, but has largely been undertaken by males through a process of labour migration. Women were largely left out or restricted to less lucrative seasonal or domestic employment in the countryside. This changed patriarchy and contributed to social differentiation through unequal access to wages which generated gender struggles within the household.

Many males opposed their wives' involvement in income generating activity. Similarly, strugglesover the wages of migrants arose as women accused their men of wasting money on beer, tobacco and women. Many women do not even know how much their husbands earn. Some women do not have access to or control over any money, and many with access to cash are involved in trading or petty commodity production rather than receiving remittances from absentee husbands. A significant proportion of allotment holding wage worker and rural proletarian households are headed by women. Many of these women have been compelled to join the rising number of casually and seasonally employed rural women wage workers on surrounding white farms or on large-scale bantustan state and parastatal plantations.

Within the bantustans, women have little or no control over the production process, since they lack the ownership of the necessary resources for production, including the means of production (land and implements) and control over labour power. The ownership of assets is an important source of power and authority in the rural household, and this is one reason why men are able to exercise control over decision making and the lives of females.

Labour power is another important dimension of gender relations in the rural household, Women and children's labour power is commanded and controlled by male heads. At the same time, women's work tends to be undervalued, because much of it is reproductive work. Food is often produced by women. Nevertheless, there are limiting factors over women's command over food production. One of these is their lack of ownership rights over land and implements, which deprives them of the right to make decisions over crucial inputs for production. Women who have no land are possibly more vulnerable to hunger and famine, compared with their male counterparts who might secure food through other avenues such as wage labour. Women are in charge of food distribution in the household, although they still remain susceptible to hunger and malnutrition, because the male head of the household is served first. This practice is widespread throughout the Third World, with evidence that among certain social classes there are higher levels of under-nutrition among women and girls than among men and boys within households.

The patriarchal character of the chieftaincy, and its control over land, is central to discussions of gender relations under conditions of national democratic transformation. Customary land rights help to explain women's oppression in the South African countryside. Problems of landlessness generated by colonial and apartheid dispossession has meant that women are particularly hard hit. While in the bantustans, as elsewhere in Africa, women were able to derivestrategies at a local level to secure tenuous access to land, this is no solution to the problem. Under conditions of national democratic transformation, opportunities exist for a restructuring of land tenure systems which will be free from gender discrimination.

Town and country, food and the division between industry and agriculture

In order to increase profits, capitalists may increase the rate of exploitation of their workers by increasing the length of the working day - by making their workers work harder, or by reducing wages. The reduction of wages can only take place if the value of the necessities of life, primarily food, decrease. Cheap food is an important mechanism for increasing profits by allowing for a reduction in wages. But if the price of food goes up, and wages remain constant, as in many African countries under IMF Structural Adjustment Programmes, this can lead to riots.

In the name of both capitalism and socialism, many have argued that cheap food is a necessary requirement of industrialisation. This issue was central to the industrialisation debates in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. The argument for cheap food provided the rationale for forced collectivisation in the Soviet Union. The debates took the form of pro- and anti-peasant arguments. The same arguments have resurfaced in discussions on Third World industrialisation. Some argue that there is antagonism between the peasantry as a whole (producers of food), and the working class (who are consumers of food). Peasants want to sell food at high prices, while workers want cheap food. This, it is argued, undermines alliances between the working class and the peasantry.

Policies based on this kind of reasoning have generally led to rural poverty which inhibits the growth of an internal market required by a growing manufacturing industrial sector. Cheap food policies hurt poorer social classes of peasants and agricultural workers most. This is because farmers will cushion their profits by reducing wages, while poor peasant households will have to intensify the exploitation of their wives and children in order to compensate for lower food prices.

In SA, colonial and apartheid agrarian development has led to a virtual self-sufficiency in food production of major foods (endnote 5). But most food is produced on the approximately 55,000 white-owned farms, whose development has been supported by massive state subsidies and support systems. Within the former bantustan territories, on the other hand, colonialism and apartheid generated a dependence on food purchase by the majority of people whose own food production was whittled away by land dispossession and oppression. During the 1980s, the apartheid regime reduced subsidies and support mechanisms for white agriculture through trade liberalisation and deregulation. This brought sections of capital into conflict with organised white agriculture. This intra-white struggle over white agriculture brought little benefit to poorer black consumers. In fact, it brought higher food prices as consumer subsidies were reduced and then abolished in 1991.

The apartheid regime and organised agriculture undertook specific measures during the 1990-4 transitional period which guaranteed the future prominence of white agriculture, primarily through the massive drought relief programme of R3,4 billion. This prevented foreclosure and abandonment of white farms, while maintaining land market prices. Collectively, these measures have undermined the scope of a land reform programme. At the same time, food prices spiralled upward and the regime's abolition of the bread price subsidy was followed by the attempt to impose VAT on basic foods, a measure partially defeated by the COSATU-spearheaded campaign of 1992. For the first time the regime allocated some funding to drought relief measures in the bantustans, although its belated and limited action was largely ineffective.

The Government of National Unity has continued the liberalisation and deregulation of agriculture through the NP-controlled Department of Agriculture [this was written before the recent announcement of the NP pull-out from the GNU, and the appointment of the ANC's Derek Hanekom as both Land and Agriculture Minister -ed.]. Maize marketing has been partially deregulated (in May 1995), ending the historic monopoly of the Maize Board, while the maize milling industry has argued that without government intervention, the consumer price of maize meal may rise by 40% over the year. Food price formation is complex and involves farmers as well as other economic agents who handle the crop on its way from the field to the consumer. SA's food economy is characterised by a high level of monopoly throughout the food chain, with the potential to exercise market control and set prices.

Those most vulnerable to food insecurity are often various classes of the rural poor. Some argue that food insecurity stems mainly from a lack of purchasing power. This implies that food security must be secured through employment. This may be true to some extent, but the role of land reform in generating food security should not be dismissed. Some people present themselves as advocates of better diets and food security for the urban poor, when in fact their real agenda is to protect existing white commercial farming and under-mine serious land and agrarian reform. This agenda is linked to arguments that black people are unable (or unwilling) to become commercial farmers, or that only the wealthier, "more viable" segments of black farming are worthy of support.

What needs to be borne in mind is that the urban poor are frequently rurally connected. They may be retrenched farm workers, who in the face of landlessness live in squatter settlements of urban areas. They may be migrant workers with ongoing rural connections. While I do not suggest that all of the urban poor have land demands, it is likely that the food security of many could be met through land reform which recognises that poor urban and rural social classes pursue multiple livelihood strategies in which food production for consumption could play an important role. Alternative production systems, such as co-operatives, with the necessary support mechanisms and market access, could raise productivity allowing for lower urban food prices. They could also expand the internal market for industry and lead to a more balanced development between rural and urban areas.

Democracy and affiances in agrarian struggles

If the transition in SA is ultimately guided by a new bourgeois alliance, then the prospects for meaningful land agrarian reform are remote. On the other hand, if national democratic reconstruction becomes a genuinely "people-driven" process, then socialism can be placed on the agenda. National democratic transformation led by the popular masses provides the minimum condition for a socialist advance.

Despite the central role of forced removals and land dispossession in our history, land has often been neglected by the national liberation movement. This partly results from conceptions of development in SA in which the role of industrialisation and the creation of a working class has been given the major priority. Capitalist development has been equated with industrialisation, urbanisation and proletarianisation.

In the 1980s the United Democratic Front and the MDM were unable to raise the level of rural organisation to constitute a revolutionary challenge to the bantustan system. At the same time, the trade union movement under the aegis of COSATU was unable to make a serious impact on the organisation of farm workers. This meant that the national liberation struggle was driven mainly by urban based struggles. In the rural areas, residents' associations and youth congresses became the major vehicles of organisation and resistance. Resistance to chiefs in some areas was not linked with the land question and the legal hold which the "tribal authority" exerted over land allocation.

After the ANC was unbanned a National Land Commission was established. It began to draft policy through the establishment of Regional Land Commissions. They were responsible for policy work through the 1991 National Conference in Durban to the National Policy Conference held in Johannesburg in 1992. After this policy conference, however, the National Land Commission began to disintegrate. It was brought under the ANC's Department of Economic Planning as the Land and Agriculture Desk. Steps were taken in late 1993 to revive the commission with its regional structures, but by then links with local level structures had weakened. Nevertheless, a progressive, albeit contradictory policy guideline was developed, and the RDP sets out a programme of land reform based largely on these principles.

The entrenchment of private property rights in the Interim Constitution threatened to maintain the status quo in land ownership. A large demonstration of rural people outside the World Trade Centre in September 1993 warned all negotiating parties not to ignore the land demands of rural people. These demands were echoed by the NGO sector through the National Land Committee (NLC) at the Community Land Conference in Bloemfontein in February 1993. The conference also discussed the possibility of forming a rural social movement.

This is consistent with the RD's commitment to a people driven process, but there are obstacles to the realisation of this in practice. One is that most of the ANC leadership has moved into parliament together with some of the most skilled trade unionists and NGO workers. This has led to a leadership vacuum within civil society which undermines prospects for the evolution of a successful popular participatory development strategy. It has also opened up sources of antagonism between leadership and rank and file.

These contradictions surfaced at the NLC's Community Land Conference of February 1994, which saw civil society sending a clear message to the ANC that it was devoting insufficient attention to rural issues. A significant resolution emerging from the conference was the restitution of land at nocost to communities who had fall-en victim to forced removals. A major strategic and policy problem faced by the ANC since its unbanning has been to establish a mechanism for acquiring land, while simultaneously acknowledging that the denial of bourgeois property rights to blacks was central to colonial and apartheid forms of oppression. This contradiction has posed a dilemma around property rights for the movement, and it has created tensions between an emerging petty bourgeois leadership and its mass base.

Strategic tasks: a socialist perspective

The central task of a socialist party is to identify which social classes and categories in the rural areas will support a socialist advance beyond (bourgeois) national democracy in tackling agrarian questions. During national democratic transformation new class forces will assert themselves, and class alliances formed through the tripartite alliance will be central in determining the form of our bourgeois democracy in the post-apartheid era.

In the countryside, black classes who have been historically denied opportunities for accumulation will now have them. In cases this will lead to extra-economic coercion, often through the local state and/or the institution of the chieftaincy. This trend was established under the system of "indirect rule" imposed by the apartheid state where forced labour, forced contributions and forced removals were imposed by apartheid's indirect rulers on the mass of the rural population. Through the negotiations process and electoral alliances, chiefs will resuscitate power and influence lost at the end of apartheid. Under these conditions, extra-economic coercion and gender oppression will thrive. While a socialist perspective cannot be imposed from above on rural people, they should be supported were they have whittled away the chieftainship through their own struggles.

A major obstacle to state delivery of land and agrarian reform is the separation of the Land and Agriculture ministries, under ANC and NP leadership respectively [written before their recent amalgamation under a single Minister - ed.]. A real danger is that mechanisms designed in the Land Ministry will deliver land without the necessary agricultural support services to sustain development on the land. To some extent, the Directorate of Settlement Support within the Land Ministry is designed to deal with this problem, but this needs to be coordinated closely with the Agricultural Ministry's Broadening of Access to Agriculture Thrust (BATAT) programme for small farmers. This programme runs the risk of "adding on" petty capitalist black farmers to a largely intact core of white farmers with a monopolycontrol of agricultural productive and marketing activities. While black farming in all its forms must be supported, there needs to be an alternative capable of eroding the monopoly power which white farmers exert over agriculture.

Discussions of the monopoly power of white farming become academic in the absence of a genuine popular alternative to the current status quo, and support for "emerging black farmers" on its own does not constitute an alternative. Such an alternative should he built on an alliance between different segments of the rural proletariat on white farms and in former hantustans. It must also involve the development of a vision of alternative systems of production based on forms of cooperation.

Legislation enacted by the Minister of Land Affairs does open up the space for democratic advance, but again this will require organisation on the ground to realise this. The Restitution of Land Rights Act provides opportunities for people to access land through non-market means. The other leg of land reform, land redistribution, largely under World Bank influence, will take place through the market. Market mechanisms are largely rejected by the people on the ground who have experienced land dispossession. A spread of the land market is likely to increase the vulnerability of poor and marginalised rural social classes and benefit emergent petty capitalists and worker peasants. Market land reform, as seen in Zimbabwe, will take a long time and will not deliver substantial land to many people.

It is, therefore, important to devise mechanisms within civil society to ensure people file viable land claims to the Land Claims Commission. National democratic transformation has converted political activists into professional politicians whose work-loads often render them unable to work with communities on the ground as they did in the past. A culture of political activism needs to be rekindled and organised formations like the SACP have a central role to play in this.

"Capacity building", "empowerment" and "participation" have all become buzzwords of mainstream development in SA, but they often conceal top-down forms of policy formulation, planning and project implementation. The World Bank and other agencies of international and national capital have successfully used the language of participation to legitimise their position of market-led reform. The SACP must build organisational structures on the ground in rural areas to input into the development forums created during the transitional phase and by provincial governments. Input should be based on a clear political agenda of development, combined with local knowledge and perspectives of the most exploited on development.

If organisation is systematic and sustainable, then new land reform legislation can be tested to its limits, and if need be amended to deal with demand. The Land Ministry has presented a vision of demand-driven land reform. The problem with this conception is that it ignores the necessity of people's needs being converted into demands, a process which requires organisation. A key role for the SACP is to organise campaigns to develop alliances between groupings of the most exploited and oppressed rural strata. Common demands need to be identified and, where possible, linked to urban working class demands.

Land redistribution through the market as envisaged by the Department of Land Affairs will allow, through grants and subsidies, poor social classes to access land. This will enhance their food security, and help combat poverty. But it also creates the potential for a pooling of subsidies and for groups of people to access large areas of land if they can develop cooperative strategies of farming. This could lay the basis for alternative production systems. To succeed, however, this requires the development of capacity, organisation and the inculcation of socialist values. The organisational challenges posed by these are enormous, but they are essential tasks for a socialist party.


1. This article draws extensively on earlier work conducted with both Michael Neocosmos and Daniel Weiner.

2. This argument draws heavily on the work of Mahmood Mamdani, "Extreme but not exceptional: towards an analysis of the agrarian question in Uganda", Journal of Peasant Studies, 14 (2), 1987.

3. Ruth First, Black Gold: the Mozambican miner, proletariat and peasant, Harvester, 1987.

4. See Richard Levin, Ray Russon and Daniel Weiner, "Social Differentiation in SA's bantustans", in Levin and Weiner (eds.), Community Perspectives on land and Agrarian Reform in SA, Chicago, 1994.

5. This section of my argument draws extensively on Henry Bernstein, "Land and food in SA's agrarian question", in Levin and Weiner (eds.), No More Tears... Land Struggles in Mpumalanga, SA, Trenton, Africa World Press (forthcoming).

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.