Wandile Sihlobo: From land reform to job creation, here's how we should boost SA's small towns | Fin24
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Wandile Sihlobo: From land reform to job creation, here's how we should boost SA's small towns

May 28 2019 06:00
Wandile Sihlobo

Phumulo Masualle, former Premier of the Eastern Cape, pencilled an essay in 2017 calling for the revitalisation of rural, small towns.

In short, he argued that the demise of South Africa’s rural small towns stems from the lack of economic opportunities and declining quality, owing to poor infrastructure and a lack of new private investment – in turn partially constrained by a reluctance to transfer excess public land and tenure issues, among other factors.

I thought of Masualle’s essay yesterday after a short visit to Cradock in the Eastern Cape for a farmers’ meeting. Thank goodness the town doesn’t precisely fit Masualle’s description of the situation in other small rural towns.

The only factor that differentiates Cradock from some small rural towns is its vibrant wool, beef, dairy, fruit, lucerne, and mohair industries. The commerce and services that occur in the city centre are one way or another linked to the health of the agricultural businesses, which in the recent past have not been smooth sailing.

From climate change to land reform

Drawing from conversations with farmers in the region, these are among the factors that keep some farmers up at night: climate change, biosecurity, water regulations and – last but not least – land reform.

Fortunately, most of these matters are within the regulators' or government’s control – and I hope the above-mentioned parties will continue to have close cooperation with organised agriculture groups while pursuing the necessary transformation objectives.

All-important land and water

As I noted in my previous writings, my hope is that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s new administration will articulate a clear and lasting policy framework on land reform and water rights.

This will not only encourage investment, but also bring restorative justice. It would further ensure that underutilised land in the former homelands – as well as some land-reform farms – would be brought into full production to boost growth and jobs.

This would be a step in the right direction; that is, towards revitalising small, rural towns.

More independence

But it would also be crucial in the process to focus on beneficiation of some of the agricultural products, particularly in the former homelands' small towns, where the only economic activity seems to be retail, on the back of remittances and government social support finances.

So, to former Eastern Cape Premier Phumulo Masualle’s proposition of revitalising rural small towns, I would present the following.

It should start with the revitalisation of agriculture, and in the process, enticing agribusinesses to expand operations to such towns. Then, it should focus on beneficiation. This could provide much-needed jobs and keep small towns alive.

Wandile Sihlobo is a South African agricultural economist. He is on Twitter: @WandileSihlobo



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