WANDILE Sihlobo grew up in Lusikisiki in the old Transkei, a part of South Africa that didn't have any meaningful agricultural activity then, and doesn't have any now.
“What I saw while I was growing up was mostly smallholder farming, of the type where you wonder whether it is really farming or if it’s just that someone has a garden as part of a plot of land," he says.
Like many urbanised young people, Sihlobo attended school in the city and went “home" during the holidays. “Our family was scattered throughout the Eastern Cape, so I spent time in different towns: Lusikisiki, Engcobo, King William’s Town, East London and Stutterheim.
In Lusikisiki and Engcobo, small towns in the deep hinterland, he herded cattle and worked in the family fields, the “amasimi".
“Your view of agriculture is shaped by the environment you grow up in, the schools you go to and the information you have access to," he writes in his first book, Finding Common Ground.
“The first time I encountered commercial agriculture was in high school when I assisted in a community poultry project (my aunt was a member) in Ndimbaneni location in Lusikisiki. It was the first time I saw how commercial poultry projects were run in communities and how they supplied the surrounding areas."
It was demanding physical work — feeding chickens in the early mornings and evenings and selling to community members during the day. It was an eye-opening experience but did not ignite a desire to study agriculture. At that point, all the successful young people he knew were interested in accounting, education, medicine or engineering.
For the young Sihlobo, the conversation around agriculture he had been exposed to his whole life was about “the small, struggling farmer". It was only much later that he started to understand the enormous possibilities of commercial farming.
Sihlobo was 17 when, in 2008, he went to the University of Fort Hare to study commerce with a scholarship from the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants. In his residence, he met students studying agricultural sciences and one day, when he sat in on a friend’s agrarian economics class, a new world opened for him.
“It gave me a view of the industry, and I had also started reading about the issues of rising global food prices and the potential scramble for land in Africa," he writes.
“In 2008, agricultural news and discussions centred on increasing investments in Africa and land grabs by multinational companies buying up resources on the continent as global food prices were rising. For me, it was a fascinating time in geopolitics and economics. It was time to say: hold up, who’s producing the world’s food, and how is the global food system really set up? Also, what is South Africa’s place in all of this?"
Sihlobo was hooked, and quietly switched to a bachelor of science in agricultural economics and economics — something he had to explain to his parents when they suddenly saw subjects such as physics and chemistry on his university documents.
“Alice is a small rural town, and I believe this influenced the approach of the University of Fort Hare’s professors in their teaching of agricultural sciences," says Sihlobo. “The department’s philosophy during my time there was to emphasise rural development with a smallholder-centric approach.
“At the time, given my background and growing desire to see improvement in agricultural activity in the former Transkei region of the Eastern Cape, I enjoyed this focus and found it most relevant. I believe that [the] university’s commitment to rural development set the stage for my career’s future direction."
Sihlobo went on to study for a master's degree at Stellenbosch. He studied under “inimitable professors" such as Nick Vink, Mohammad Karaan and Johan van Rooyen, who had deep experience in agricultural policymaking.
“The department focused on agricultural policy, so I developed a broader perspective on agricultural issues affecting South Africa. The hours I spent studying agricultural economic history gave me a deeper understanding of how South Africa’s modern agricultural sector came about."
In his new book, A Country of 2 Agricultures, Sihlobo unpicks the “dualism" of South African agriculture.
“On the one hand, we have a subsistence, primarily non-commercial, black farming segment. On the other hand, however, we have a predominantly commercial and white farming sector that is well-resourced and has access to domestic and international trade networks."
Sihlobo has a unique way of looking at the problems and challenges of agriculture in South Africa. It is with the cold eye of an economist but the heart of someone who has been steeped in the realities of both sides of the dualism.
He grew up on the smallholder side of the circle but has worked extensively in organised agriculture as a professional, starting as an economist for Grain South Africa.
“It was an important period in my career, as I worked with experienced agricultural economists and other colleagues in the organisation. At Grain South Africa, I also began meeting with farmers — learning how the analysis of what we do in the office translates into decisions at the farm level. My job required me to have a solid view of commodity price forecasts (maise, soybeans, sunflower seeds and wheat).
In Finding Common Ground, he tells a story that says a lot about his sense of humour and his readiness to take knowledge from every source when it is offered.
“Jozeph du Plessis, a grain farmer from the North West province town of Schweizer-Reineke, was part of the Grain South Africa executive team at the time and would always keep a note of my price forecasts. This was either to congratulate me later or take me to task when they turned out wrong. This was fun, and during this grooming stage, it helped me to develop a better understanding of the fundamentals of global grain commodity markets, in addition to the broader agricultural policy work."
Chris Burgess, the editor of Landbouweekblad, says: “What makes Wandile so exceptional is that he's got such a good grasp of both commercial and emergent agriculture. Because he grew up in Lusikisiki, he's got an almost visceral understanding of the challenges that black agriculture faces, specifically in the communal areas along our eastern seaboard, where our greatest opportunity lies with cattle and livestock. Then, through his exposure at Agbiz, the agricultural business chamber, he is at the forefront of commercial agriculture and the issues affecting commercial agriculture.
“And then he's also an adviser to the president on agricultural matters, so he's got an extraordinary grasp of both realities of agriculture, that dichotomy that we have in South Africa between capital-intensive commercial agriculture and more resource-strained emergent agriculture. There's the concept of a rising tide that raises all ships, which is what he advocates for.
“One example is our red meat industry. If we can get this up to 20% of national production, it will significantly raise the domestic price of red meat. And with almost half of all our cattle being under the management of black farmers in the communal areas, the value of their assets also rises exponentially.
“With his analytical and data-driven mind, Wandile is uniquely positioned to bridge the two worlds and shine a light into the complexities of South African agriculture, which in many respects is the best in the world."
While at Grain SA, Sihlobo became involved in the Agri-sector Unity Forum (ASUF), which represents all major agricultural unions. He was part of the secretariat of a land reform working group where he gained “first-hand exposure to how South African agricultural leaders approach land reform" and the dilemmas and challenges involved in forging a unified voice from a wide range of stakeholders.
Here again, he straddled the dualism. In Finding Common Ground, he explains the value of having worked in this space.
“Policymaking involves bargaining, negotiating, trying to get everybody together, and trade-offs. It is invaluable, when advising policymakers in agriculture, to anticipate people’s possible reactions to whatever view you are proposing and to find different ways of communicating it to people. For this reason, being able to relate to and reflect on different sides of the arguments or perspectives of people is a huge strength in the agricultural policy space.
“I worked with the big commercial farmers while I worked at Grain South Africa — including some conservative white farmers, but also conservative black subsistence farmers and black commercial farmers. I took the time to listen to what informed their concerns and ways of thinking, and I walked away with much more than just a position for or against them.
“Similarly, for someone young who, let’s say, is from Stellenbosch, who has never spent time in the former Transkei or the rural parts of KwaZulu-Natal, the whole world in those places is new. The way of farming will seem strange. But if you have been to those places, it is easier to relate to both sides and the broader world of farming. When you approach people with a certain mindset, you can easily assume you know how they feel about an issue. But when you begin to have a conversation, you learn where they’re coming from.
“I believe this equipped me for engagements in agricultural policy going forward. I acquired a much softer understanding of the human and psychological sides of why people think the way they do. This is important since in South Africa, because of the painful history of colonialism and apartheid, one can never divorce agriculture from the political economy."
Sihlobo later became the lead agricultural economist at Agbiz, and his appointment to the 10-member panel advising the president and cabinet on land reform and agriculture policy means he straddles another dualism, this one between successful commercial agriculture and what he refers to as “the political economy". Politics.
Bridging two worlds
There are numerous reasons for South Africa's two agricultures, going back to the 1913 Land Act, “which marginalised black Africans, disallowing the ownership of land, to other discriminating agricultural policies, such as farmer support programmes that favoured white farmers in the years that followed".
He writes: “Having worked with the commercial farmer, as well as the smallholder farmer, I have a sense of the challenges each group faces, and as I think about development, it helps me to consider what needs to be put in place so that these worlds can one day merge."
In A Country of 2 Agricultures, Sihlobo spends time with farmers all over South Africa, understanding the intricacies of individual cases and weaving them into a framework for how the black farming segment, in particular, can be grown and bolstered.
“I wrote the book firstly to try to elevate the discussion about agriculture into the everyday public conversation because it’s a vital sector for the economy that carries enormous growth potential, and yet we put it at the periphery of the conversation instead of bringing it to the centre as we do with mining or finance. That is why I tell the stories of and conversations with individual farmers. But then I also make the point that to close the dualism in agriculture, we need to grow the South African agricultural pie. It's not simply a case of taking from one and giving to the other.
“Key to growing the pie is the roughly 2.5-million hectares of under-utilised land in South Africa. We must consider how to select the best beneficiaries to put on that land, what financial and infrastructure support is needed, and, of course, dealing with the municipal problems that impact successful farming. In essence, I am saying we can create a new class of black farmers, not by not taking out the white farmers but by co-creating and co-supporting the black commercial farming sector so that we will close this gap over time.
“At the moment, the output of the black commercial sector is only about 10%, and that needs to be improved, not only by the transfer of land but by taking those 2.5-million hectares and seriously putting in the necessary support and seeing how do you then increase the output on a commercial scale."
Having grown up in the deep rural areas of the old Transkei, Sihlobo keenly understands the difference a thriving agriculture sector could make there.
“The National Development Plan of 2012 makes the point that we could generate a million jobs in the Eastern Cape. But we could do the same in the other frontiers, like Limpopo and KZN. It is right that our focus should be on those areas, and my focus is largely on that."
* A Country of 2 Agricultures, by Wandile Sihlobo is published by Tracey McDonald Publishers and costs R185 at Loot.
Pan Macmillan published his first book, Finding Common Ground, which costs R234 at Loot.
♦ VWB ♦
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