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Country profile - South Africa

south africa

South Africa's agricultural sector is characterised by a dual economy, comprising well developed commercial farming, with established supply chains, and smallscale subsistence-based production. Agriculture contributes a relatively small share of total GDP (2.6%) but is important in providing employment and generating foreign exchange from exports.


Over the past 20 years, the agriculture sector has seen a move towards large-scale intensive farming, as well as a shift from the production of low-value food crops, such as wheat and milk, to high-value export products, including deciduous fruit, citrus and game. As a result the country became a net importer of food for the first time in 2008. Between 2010 and 2011, the value of agricultural exports increased by 10 per cent, from US$4,630 million to US$5,100 million. In 2011, citrus fruit, maize, wine, grapes, apples, pears and quinces were the most important export products in terms of value.

Cereals have been the mainstay of South African farmers for generations and have accounted for more than 60 per cent of farmed acreage since the 1990s. The country has emerged as the largest maize producer and exporter in Africa. At the end of 2011, maize was grown on 2.86 million ha, with a further 605,000 ha planted with wheat. Sorghum (69,000 ha) and barley (80,000 ha) are the other main cereals grown. However, according to FAO, South Africa is also one of the world's largest producers of chicory roots (3rd), grapefruit (4th), green maize (5th), pears (8th), castor oil seed (10th), fibre crops (10th), and sisal (11th).

The agriculture sector has seen a move towards large-scale intensive farming (© WRENmedia)
The agriculture sector has seen a move towards large-scale intensive farming
© WRENmedia

Most of South Africa's land (69%) is suitable for grazing and so livestock farming is its largest agricultural sector. Cattle are concentrated in the eastern, wetter regions of the country, while sheep are largely farmed in the drier western and central areas. The cattle herd has increased by about 6 million head since the 1970s, and now stands at about 14 million, but total grazing land has declined due to expanding human settlements and crop farming and forestry. As a result of overstocking, land is at risk from becoming degraded, and with 90 per cent of the country defined as arid or semi-arid, land degradation could lead to desertification.

Around 600,000 tonnes of fish are caught each year. In some cases almost the entire catch is exported e.g. rock lobster, squid and tuna. It is estimated that 27,000 people are directly employed in the sector, with an additional 81,000 indirectly employed. Fisheries are most important in the Western Cape, where fish products constitute the third most important export product. There is not much scope to increase production, which is threatened by declining fish stocks. The aquaculture sector, however, is expanding focusing primarily on abalone, oysters and mussels.

South Africa's forests are spread over some of the poorest areas in South Africa and therefore play a significant role in terms of poverty eradication. Forestry covers about one per cent of South Africa's total land area and contributes about one per cent to GDP. The main challenges facing the sector include forest fires, pests and diseases, limited research and development, a shortage of skills, a lack of funding, and degradation.

Agriculture is allocated the largest proportion of South Africa's available fresh water (© John MacRobert/CIMMYT)
Agriculture is allocated the largest proportion of South Africa's available fresh water
© John MacRobert/CIMMYT

According to WWF, water availability is the single most important factor limiting agricultural production in South Africa. Agriculture is already allocated the largest proportion of South Africa's available fresh water, with about 63 per cent going to irrigation. However, WWF has warned that the water situation is likely to become dire as a result of climate change and rapidly increasing demand from other sectors of the economy. Only 1.5 per cent of the country's land is under irrigation but this produces 30 per cent of the country's crops. WWF has warned that South Africa has no surplus water and yet farmers would have to double their use of water by 2050 if they are to meet growing food demands using current farming practices.

Supporting smallholders

Most farmers (approximately 2.7 million) are engaged in subsistence agriculture. Insufficient government support in rural infrastructure, finance and agricultural expertise has been blamed for declining productivity. It is often difficult for small farmers to be certified or to make deals with big retailers because they are unable to satisfy standards for consistency and quality. HIV and AIDS also has significant ramifications, including a decrease in land cultivation and productivity and loss in skills, a focus on less labour intensive crops, and a decrease in women's agricultural productivity as they take on a greater care-giving role.

In 1913, the Natives Land Act excluded the country's black majority from land ownership: just 13 per cent of land was set aside for black people who comprised about 70 per cent of the population. The African National Congress (ANC) introduced a land reform measure in 1994, dubbed 'willing seller, willing buyer', but only a small amount of land has been transferred. The government originally aimed to redistribute 30 per cent of land by 1999, but shifted this target to 2014: to date only 8 per cent has been redistributed and the target date has been put back to 2025. However, the 100th anniversary of the Act has put pressure on the government to take a tougher approach to land reform; although the ANC is also wary of undermining the country's successful commercial farming sector.

Most farmers are engaged in subsistence agriculture (© Claudia Ringler/IFPRI)
Most farmers are engaged in subsistence agriculture
© Claudia Ringler/IFPRI

Since 2009, the ANC has put more emphasis on supporting small-scale farming to increase productivity, incomes and household food security. The National Development Plan has proposed integration of smallholders into existing commercial value chains as a key objective in rural areas. Climate-smart agriculture is also being encouraged as a way to improve productivity, make yields more resilient to climate change and increase carbon storage on farmland. The ANC is also directing resources to smallholder farmer support programmes, extension services and market access support.

A historic lack of investment, limited resources, poor infrastructure and a lack of skills in rural areas are just some of the hurdles that the agricultural sector has to overcome in order to be a catalyst for job creation and development. But there are some promising signs. The trend of job losses in agriculture has been halted, with a reported rise of 87,000 jobs between the second quarter of 2011 and the fourth quarter of 2012. The country had also become a net importer of food, but this has also been reversed. Deals with supermarkets to help smallholder farmers become prosperous entrepreneurs have been struck and the government has made a number of agreements with several countries in the region to boost regional agricultural trade.

Statistical information
  • Country: Republic of South Africa
  • Capital: Pretoria
  • Area: 1,219,090 sq km
  • Population: 48,601,098 (July 2013 est.)
  • Population growth rate: -0.45% (2013 est.)
  • Life expectancy: 49 (2013 est.)
  • Languages: IsiZulu (official) 23.82%, IsiXhosa (official) 17.64%, Afrikaans (official) 13.35%, Sepedi (official) 9.39%, English (official) 8.2%, Setswana (official) 8.2%, Sesotho (official) 7.93%, Xitsonga (official) 4.44%, siSwati (official) 2.66%, Tshivenda (official) 2.28%, isiNdebele (official) 1.59%, other 0.5%
  • Inflation: 5.7% (2012 est.)
  • GDP purchasing power parity: US$592 billion (2012 est.)
  • GDP per capita: US$11,600 (2012 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 2.6%; industry: 29.3%; services: 68.1% (2012 est.)
  • Land use: arable land: 9.87%; permanent crops: 0.34%; other: 89.79% (2011)
  • Major industries: mining (world's largest producer of platinum, gold, chromium), automobile assembly, metalworking, machinery, textiles, iron and steel, chemicals, fertilizer, foodstuffs, commercial ship repair
  • Agricultural products: maize, wheat, sugarcane, fruits, vegetables; beef, poultry, mutton, wool, dairy products
  • Natural resources: gold, chromium, antimony, coal, iron ore, manganese, nickel, phosphates, tin, rare earth elements, uranium, gem diamonds, platinum, copper, vanadium, salt, natural gas
  • Export commodities: gold, diamonds, platinum, other metals and minerals, machinery and equipment
  • Export partners: China 14.5%, US 7.9%, Japan 5.7%, Germany 5.5%, India 4.5%, UK 4.1% (2012)

Date published: September 2013


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