Sugarcane Farming, Rural Livelihoods and Land Reform in the Mpumalanga Lowveld, South Africa

UoM administered thesis: Phd

  • Authors:
  • Paul James


This thesis is a study of the ways in which sugarcane farming and land reform contribute to rural livelihood formation in the Mpumalanga Lowveld. Sugarcane Farming is a major industry in the region; the crop is grown on over fifty thousand hectares of irrigated farmland supplying two sugar mills. Farming is broadly split between a small scale sector comprising approximately 1,200 small scale growers (SSGs) and a large scale sector of commercial farms. Since democratisation the sugar sector has undergone major structural changes as a result of land reform. Currently over sixty percent of the land used to grow sugarcane is black-owned making the sector one of South Africa’s land reform success stories. This thesis investigates the ways in which sugarcane farming both at the SSG level and through land reform contributes to the formation of rural livelihoods. Fieldwork was conducted for a ten month period across the 2013 growing season. Over fifty semi-structured interviews were conducted in addition to a SSG production survey that was completed as part of a broader research project. Access to production and financial data for over one hundred SSGs was also obtained. This data forms the basis for the analysis contained within the thesis. Small scale sugarcane farming is argued to be in a period of recurring crises as a result of shocks to the production system and the decreasing viability of small scale plots. The crisis is manifested by low levels of productivity high levels of debt. Second, two trends are emerging in response to the crisis. Accumulation from below has accelerated during the crisis as relatively successful SSGs have capitalised on the crisis to purchase land from less successful SSGs. Concurrently, a coalition of interests have sought to restructure the small scale sector from above through the creation of cooperatives and the appointment of professional farm managers. The thesis argues that these two trends are contradictory and, as such, restructuring from above presents a threat to continued accumulation from below. Sugarcane farming is found to have had a broadly beneficial effect on the livelihoods of SSGs in the pre-crisis years. Many farmers interviewed identified farming as the way in which they had been able to improve their material wealth and the prospects of their families. Key issues identified included the ability to build relatively large houses, purchasing vehicles, maintaining herds of cattle and educating their children. The livelihoods of SSG households have been impacted by the crises in the sector. However, the effects of the crisis have not been experienced uniformly. While a large number of SSGs experience constrained incomes, a smaller number have increased the size of their farms and their incomes. Household histories of SSGs are presented as a series of vignettes from which findings are drawn. Land reform has been dominated by restitution through the Greater Tenbosch Land Claim that constitutes over ninety percent of all land transferred to black ownership. Restitution land is farmed under a number of models including joint venture farming, direct leases to commercial farmers, and the appointment of farm managers by the trusts involved. There are a number of intended livelihood benefits intended for land restitution beneficiaries including payment of dividends, employment opportunities and enterprise development. The research found that dividend payments had either been lacking or irregular owing principally to governance problems within the trusts. Meanwhile, employment opportunities were few relative to the number of beneficiaries as were opportunities for enterprise development. As such, it is argued that the benefits of land restitution have, to date, been few and available to a narrow segment of the beneficiary population. Evidence on market-led land reform was more limited as a result of its peripheral role in the land reform process and a lack of willingness of some beneficiaries to participate in research. Existing evidence suggested that production levels were high on medium scale farms but a combination of opaque management structures and limited incomes. Evidence was also found of governance problems similar to those in restitution programmes.


Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date31 Dec 2017