The South African Drought Goes From Bad to Worse If You’re a Black Farmer

The history of apartheid and land ownership are still affecting residents today.
Talent Cele at his farm outside Utrecht, a small town in the northwest of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, Nov. 8, 2015. (Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)
Jan 7, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

Historic droughts are taking hold throughout the world thanks to El Niño, and South Africa is one of many countries suffering through a dramatic dry spell. The drought, which came just in the midst of the dry season in summer 2015, is the worst since the early 1990s, making it the most significant water shortage for the post-apartheid nation. And much like Hurricane Katrina, this natural disaster is already bringing remaining racial inequalities to light: Many of South Africa’s black farmers are being hit particularly hard.

Commercial farming is still dominated by white South Africans, while the nation’s black farmers operate largely at a semi-subsistence level, The New York Times reported. And those smaller operations are much more precarious, according to an article in the Journal of Agricultural Science. The leader of the National African Farmers Union of South Africa reported losing 300 of his 800 cows in the last few months as a result of the dry weather. A white farmer, meanwhile, told the Times that the worst effects of the drought were owing to “bad farming practices.” He had only lost three of his 300 cows.

Poor farming or not, the drought has hurt staple crop production, and South African leaders may soon begin importing 5 million tons of corn—roughly half their supply needs for the year—if low production and high prices continue. The corn shortage is undermining low-income farmers both at home and at work. Prices for white corn, which “provides much of the caloric intake for South Africa’s lower-income households,” more than doubled last year, while the cost of yellow corn used for animal feed rose by 70 percent, according to AgWeek.

Global markets aren’t the only reason why black farmers have suffered disproportionate losses. The racial policies enacted under apartheid started with the Land Act of 1913, which restricted land ownership for black South Africans, forcibly removed over 3.5 million people from their land, and eventually gave 87 percent of the country’s land to whites—who then represented only about 10 percent of the population. One of the most major and controversial programs to reverse the effects of apartheid was an attempt at land restitution. In theory, any black South African whose land had been taken was given the right to either receive that land back or another form of “equitable redress.” The government purchased land from white farmers and gave it back to its original owners—but not all farmland is created equal.

While the transfer of land was surprisingly smooth—at least compared with what happened in Zimbabwe—whether there was enough attention paid to the quality of the land given to black South Africans, or if the government supplied them with enough support to successfully develop it, has been called into question. Only one-fifth of the land in South Africa is considered “highly arable,” making profitable farming difficult under the best conditions. The government had goals of transferring 30 percent of all agricultural land back to black South Africans, but by 2011 it had only managed to redistribute 3.7 percent.

“In general, very little agricultural activity has been happening on farmland restored via restitution,” wrote Ruth Hall of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies. Even among families who did move onto the land, people often attempted to keep their previous jobs while being farmers too. Certain communal property groups that have banded together to manage the land were so unprepared that they quickly had to sell the property to pay their debts.

Only recently are the differences in skills needed to run a commercial farm versus growing subsistence crops being recognized. Back in 2009—more than a decade into the restitution program—National African Farmers Union President Willy Williams told IRIN, “Our members face many challenges when getting started, and many of these revolve around a lack of expertise in running a modern farm. The state is responsible for providing training in this area, but it does not have the capacity to deliver it on time.”

Though drought is an area-wide problem, if there are known systemic issues affecting one group of farmers over another, the effects of the drought will hit one group harder than others. The recent history of apartheid in South Africa and land reparations programs make the differences between black and white farmers easier to see. Unfortunately, that does not mean echoes of racial or financial inequality won’t be felt in other nations suffering from the drought. In fact, the U.N., World Bank, and other major groups agree that the poor will be hit disproportionately by climate change.

The disenfranchisement of black South Africans began with land—if black farmers are given the support they need to weather the drought, perhaps land could eventually lead to equality too.