Agro-food Regimes, Rural Poverty and Social Change in Southern Africa

Household food insecurity in rural Southern Africa has its roots in policies that supported large scale commercial farming by white settlers and the creation of spatially separate ‘reserves’ for black households. Smallholder farming was discouraged, and agriculture became a livelihood adjunct to labour migration. Commercial farms evolved into sophisticated components of commodity chains increasingly dominated by large companies involved in the supply of farm inputs, agro-processing and food retailing.

Rural development policies in the region have combined support for smallholder farmers, the redistribution of some commercial farmland and tenure reform. They have not attempted to restructure the agro-food regime, and large scale farms continue to dominate. Poverty and food insecurity remain major problems. Programmes to promote smallholder production often assume the existence of stable rural populations and social structures, but rural areas are characterized by rising populations, increased pressure on resources, growing inequalities, reduced remittances, high mortality from  HIV/AIDS, and changing gender roles.

In this context, could well-conceived programmes of agrarian reform reduce household food insecurity, while maintaining the agricultural output needed to feed growing urban populations?  What are the wider implications of the profound transformations currently taking place in the structure and composition of rural households, communities and livelihood systems? These thorny questions will be the focus of debate and discussion in early 2011.

Project leader(s):
  • Ben Cousins (Western Cape)
STIAS fellow(s):
  • Henry Bernstein (London)
  • James Ferguson (Stanford)
  • Harriet Friedmann (Toronto, Mississauga)
  • Bridget O’ Laughlin (ISS, The Hague)
  • Pauline Peters (Harvard Kennedy School)

Henry Bernstein, Ben Cousins, Bridget O’ Laughlin and Pauline Peters (co-editors), special issue of Journal of Agrarian Change, on ‘Re-thinking land reform, agrarian change and rural poverty in South Africa’ (to appear, January 2013).