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WISDOM DOESN’T GET EXPLAINED, ACTIONS DISPLAY IT: AGRICULTURAL REFORM IN SOUTH AFRICA MUST BE LED BY GOVERNMENT

Introduction

Sometimes – what you want others to see you as at times differs to what they actually see you as. Let me the give the benefit of doubt and argue that such depends on the side from which the observers seat. A case in point is a ‘call it 6 or 9’ written down in-between two highly intelligent and qualified persons. When asked what is the number each see the answers will be two different and both correct answers. The arbiter of the correctness of the responses needs to be placed in a neutral position to see the reason why both are correct. The issue I want to share my thoughts on is an argument that agricultural development and transformation need to be driven by the private sector for it to succeed. It is an argument that needs to be engaged because it suffers from a number of unrealistic expectations or over simplified assumptions. I must declare, from the on-set, that I believe in the work of markets and that they be allowed space to self-correct when disturbances occur. However, I am not blind folded to the reality that sometimes these markets do not spontaneously respond and often operate in a way that is not always predictable to some of the actors in their space because they are not always perfect. The aspect of disadvantaging some actors to the advantage of others is what often give space for government interventions. Knowledge and wisdom cannot be equated to mean the same think as they are indeed different. There are many market actors and not all of them are in good sink with the drive to get smallholder farm businesses to the main stream.

Impumputhela and intomi – we need not to be lost in translation

As a village folk, I had participated in a play called impumputhela. In short, the main actor of such a play gets blind folded by the other actors and be asked to blindly try to catch any of the other members who are not blindfolded. As a result, a lots of fun gets enjoyed by the other actors while the main actor tries his/her best to catch one of them. Normally, it is either luck or acts of sabotage on the part of other members that the main actor will succeed. As the main actor you are blind folded and expected to catch someone who is not and yet the expectation is that you have to achieve the objective. Smallholder farmers are unfortunately subjected to the same experience that the main actor of impumputhela gets subjected to and expected to deliver. Unlike the play, smallholder farmers life and experiences are not a play and these farmers have that as their lives not the short-lived experience of the blind folded main actor. I have not outlined all the rules of impumputhela as that is not the aim of this piece, but I just used it to drive a point home. We, those of us with access to media, must avoid the temptation to behave like the other actors in the impumputhela play (mess up with the main actor’s experience). This then brings me to another experience I had of iintsomo (singular – intsomi).  

Intsomi – like the impumputhela I spent a better part of my childhood lessoning to iintsomi (unfortunately I do not know what it is called in English). Literally Intsomi could be described as short stories that are often shared by older persons to young children. The aim as I understand is knowledge sharing through stories of animal’s livelihood (among themselves and interactions with people). Some of the animal’s inn many of those I still do not know today (igongqongqo and mvolofi). In many of iintsomi I heard there are acts of sabotage, stereotypes and extreme sharpness about these animals. For an example jackal in all the intsomis I heard is portrayed as a smart animal but what is always problematic about its smartness is that it always comes at the expenses of other animals. There are animals that are portrayed as stupid because the fall for the sabotage stories of smarter animals not because on their own they are stupid. I say all these stories of ezintsomi because I am of the view that smallholder farmers livelihood somehow gets to be interpreted by the actors in what that will not benefit them.

Wisdom and theoretical contrasts are different

South Africa’s agriculture is divided into the commercial and smallholder (including subsistence). This is not a feature that came from natural selection, it came from policies that were designed to help the one side (commercial) and not only leaving the other to survive on its own but to destroy it (smallholder). The point is that this divided has been there since it was created, and the wisdom of the beneficiary did not come out as the collective wisdom to help redress the situation. It is also through that there are some commercial enterprises (few) that have played their part is assisting the smallholder to catch up. There have been efforts by organised groupings to help these smallholders to but the modalities of the assistance at time leave a lot to be desired. Those with access to media need to be careful in allowing the hunter to describe the history of its hunt (Achebe argues that, should you do that such history will glorify the hunter even in instances where the hunter has blundered).This then brings me to something I learned about 20 years or so.

Prof BJ Bester of the University of Fort Hare (at the time I was there – late 1990s) used to cite for his policy teaching the work of Dr L Brown on social systems approach to development as the basis on which to conceptualise development. Prof Bester always argue that for development to have a meaning impact to all the actors and be achieved it needs to have three components. The components are not mutual exclusive and are complementary in nature. The three components are:

  • Contextual dimension: the prevailing circumstances on the ground regarding the matter at hand need to be fully understood. A simplistic view of smallholder farmers is that of farmers whose efforts are constrained by the way in which the nature and extent of business set up environment. This among others include a normal that criminalises the given features of smallholder farmers and put prerequisites that are impossible to achieve such as private ownership of land in communal set-ups. Instead of the system showing its agility by providing innovative solutions it calls for collateralisation of land as if all successful countries have land that is privately owned. The contextual misalignment disqualified private actors to be real custodians of the reform.
  • Aspiration dimension: The aspirations of smallholders can be simplified as wanting to have big and profitable enterprises and most importantly access to productive land. The preconditions to big and profitable is access to markets. These aspirations get reduced to nothing because the formal system is a system built by persons who have personal relations and whose conducts requires certain conditions. These conditions are not necessarily in close synchrony with the aspirations of smallholder farmers. The aspirations of smallholder with respect to land access is not the mostly shared aspiration of private sector because as a fixed asset this land unlike maize is not being produced it has to change hands. The aspirational contradictions disqualify the private sector as a driver of reform. The prospective beneficiaries cannot be the custodians of this reform either.
  • Abilities dimension: The private sector is able to run businesses and granted they have the abilities. The smallholders still need to be assisted to build the necessary expertise to help build their abilities. However, not all smallholder farmers are constrained by abilities to become big and profitable. The context becomes the challenge. This means, the fact that you are able does not mean you aspire to help and therefore disqualifies the private sector argument.

Concluding remarks

The new wisdom in the private sector portrayed by those who believe that agricultural reform to include smallholder farmer need to be private sector driven is concerning. This new wisdom seems to suggest that the historical mistrust between the two does not exists. Let us avoid the using impumputhela to disadvantage smallholder farmers neither using the best threats of jackal as the much-needed features of smallholder farmers. Private sector is very sacrosanct in agricultural reform but surely not the ideal custodian of the reform because it is entangled in the quagmire (exclusion of smallholder farmers). You do not need the hunter to explain hunts experiences – the hunter knows the experiences of the hunter not the hunted.

Article by: Mr Bonani Nyhodo

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Mzansi Agriculture Talk or its members.

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