Eyeing the future: A man prepares to occupy land near East London. Picture: MICHAEL PINYANA/ DAILY DISPATCH
Eyeing the future: A man prepares to occupy land near East London. Picture: MICHAEL PINYANA/ DAILY DISPATCH

The land debate promises to be a hot election ticket as the nation prepares to head to the polls in 2019. As the propaganda and hysteria mount around this emotive topic I propose we consider a more utopian approach to land reform.

It all hinges on one important question: "How can the country’s agricultural land be placed not into the ownership of a few, but to the service of many?"

To put this into perspective, back in the day my father’s vinyl collection of no more than a 100 songs was one of his proudest possessions. As a member of Generation X, copying songs onto a cassette gave me immediate access to the entire song collection of my friends. Today, I use a streaming service that provides me with more songs than I can listen to, but I own none of them.

Ownership brings with it hardship. A car costs a lot of money to buy and maintain but most of the time it doesn’t add much value. The future of personal transport will be self-driving cars based on a subscription service. The future brings the promise of owning fewer things but with the benefit of many more.

Now back to my argument on contemporary agriculture. The poorer people are, the bigger proportion of their money they spend on food, and the more likely they are to be part of the informal economy. If I believe the rhetoric of South African politics, we should focus our efforts on this unfortunately still large social group.


I propose we start the discussion with a most desirable outcome: to provide the country with cheap, maybe free, food, delivered to people’s doorsteps.

Communities, in their different forms, could arrange for the production of crops based on what they want (grain, vegetables, and so on) and the quantities in which they want them. Comparative data about how much food one needs for a comfortable diet is available to avoid unreasonable demands.

These demands should be quite stable over time and vary mainly due to cultural differences. Agricultural producers would compete to fulfil this wish list of food. Why? Because the agreement that they will feed these people will grant them access to land.

Those producers who show they will feed the most people come first to choose from the available land. Priority is always given to the producer who can feed the most people with the land or use the fewest hectares to feed the same number of people. This would ensure competition and would reward those who produce most efficiently — also the right use of technology.

Who are the producers? Farmers, co-operatives of farm workers, international organisations — whoever wants to use the land to feed the people.

To ensure producers also have a financial incentive, the producer will get access to additional land (as a percentage of the land to provide food) on which they can farm cash crops or more value-added produce such as citrus. The land would be given free of charge.

The producers must show they can feed people and arrange transport and distribution. Such a door-to-door delivery will provide employment to community members. Not only would the benefit be a cheaper and better food supply, but also the opportunities that arise along the distribution chain.

What I am proposing is not socialism. There is no state deciding for the people what they want, and the state is not awarding the contracts to a preferred producer as we see now with service delivery. Arbitration courts would settle disputes between communities and producers, and award compensation if the promised food delivery was not delivered. A reckless overpromising can be avoided through comparing the suggested food production with the achieved productivity of past years.

Times of technological developments and economic uncertainty have never been good times for social utopias. Still, when we speak about restructuring the agriculture of the country, we should use this opportunity to think about solutions for food provisions that are radically different to our current systems. After all, what do we have to lose?

Thurner is research chairman: innovation in society, at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.