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The recent signing of the Agriculture & Agro-Processing Master Plan is a positive step in getting all role players moving in the same direction to ensure inclusive agricultural growth in SA. While agriculture, land reform & rural development minister Thoko Didiza has acknowledged that further engagement is required on some aspects of the plan, she should be praised for her leadership of this critical intervention given the centrality of food security to the wellbeing of our nation.  

Despite there being some disagreement on certain proposals in the master plan, all stakeholders recognise the importance and value of developing and executing a plan of action to make the agricultural sector more competitive and inclusive. The sector is an undervalued contributor to the SA economy. In addition to providing the country with life-sustaining food, it employs more than 800,000 workers and contributed almost R200bn to GDP in 2020. It is this sector that provides many of the desperately needed jobs in SA’s rural communities, and it contributed $12.4bn in export revenue in 2021. 

However, this critical sector is plagued by a number of serious barriers to growth and existential threats. This includes policy proposals that threaten the sector’s future viability, as well as practical constraints like poor access to infrastructure, which are throttling its immediate potential to generate greater revenue and create more jobs for the country’s nearly 8-million unemployed.

In this context, the master plan provides a framework and a forum within which stakeholders can collaborate to address these challenges. Perhaps the greatest impediment to effective problem solving in most endeavours is the problem of stakeholders working in silos. Undoubtedly, both the sector and government are committed to promoting the growth and greater inclusivity of the sector. Yet these potential partners are frequently working against each other in trying to achieve the same objective. This is the type of problem the master plan is designed to solve, and it appears to have catalysed renewed excitement within the sector to work more collectively to tackle the sector’s challenges. 

As the adage goes, the first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge that there is a problem. To this end, the master plan represents a comprehensive analysis of the issues facing the sector. Finally, we have a diagnosis of our problems, a forum to address them, and a road map for going about this monumental task. The strength of this diagnosis is that it has come about through two years of consultation, capturing the concerns of all stakeholders and ensuring that we are all invested in solving these problems together.  

But it’s not enough to know what to do; we need a why, and the master plan captures this in the form of an agreed vision of the future of the sector. Together, the signatories to the master plan have identified a shared commitment to building an “inclusive, competitive, job-creating, sustainable and growing” sector.

As a country and a sector, we want to address the unequal access to opportunities that continues to characterise SA by making the sector more inclusive. This means more than redistributing the pie; it means growing the pie and creating more opportunities to absorb SA’s large unemployed working-age population. This can only happen if the sector is globally competitive, and these benefits will only last as long as the industry is sustainable.  

While we celebrate these strengths, it is equally important to acknowledge and address some of the threats to the successful implementation of the plan, and the weaknesses we must shore up to realise the full potential of this platform to transform the sector. 

It is difficult to overstate the importance of workers to the success of the agricultural sector. While much attention is paid to developments like the future automation of work, the fact is that workers have always been the backbone of the sector and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. And with SA’s history of poor protection of workers the sector is especially mindful of the need to address the legacies of the past to ensure a better present and brighter future for the workers that hold up the sector. 

It is essential that the master plan signatories continue to engage with labour to ensure the inclusion of their perspectives in the formulation of sector-wide solutions. The success of the plan will not only be measured in contribution to GDP and export revenue earned, but also in the number of workers employed in dignified conditions and South Africans lifted out of poverty. This result can only be achieved with the partnership and contribution of workers’ representatives in the implementation of the plan. 

Furthermore, master plans are not self-executing, and if the vision of the agriculture master plan could be implemented by one group alone it would already be done. Ultimately, it will only succeed to the extent that all the sector’s stakeholders can come together and co-operate for the betterment of the country. We all need to lean into this plan and push until the work is completed.   

If we can do this, the master plan promises to deliver a better future for SA’s farmers and workers, providing food security for the country, opportunities for emerging farmers and greater revenue for investment in service delivery and the development of our communities. 

In a country that has endured as much as SA has, and in which many plans are made but few are ever realised, pessimism is an understandable response to another set of plans. But the commitment the agricultural sector’s stakeholders have shown to the compilation of this plan is a hopeful sign that the government, farmers and other social partners can agree on priorities for co-operation, to create a sustainable and inclusive industry that we can be proud to leave to the next generation of SA farmers. 

• Van der Rheede is executive director at Agri SA.


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