Annual Forum Papers

Agricultural Employment Crisis in South Africa

  • Year: 2000
  • Author(s): Tracey Simbi; Michael Aliber

Agricultural employment in South Africa's commercial farming sector is declining at an alarming rate. During the 11 year period from 1988 to 1998, for example, the commercial farm sector shed a staggering 140 000 regular jobs, a decline of roughly 20%. Moreover, there is a trend away from employment of regular, permanent workers, and a simultaneous - though not commensurate - increase in the use of casual workers, meaning jobs of less security and consistency. If the decline in employment continues in this fashion, then the already grave problem of rural unemployment will become graver still. The purpose of this paper is to investigate the causes of this trend. On the face of it, South Africa is merely following the same trajectory mapped out by other medium and high-income countries practising predominantly land-extensive agriculture, whereby agricultural mechanisation and modernisation displace labour in response to relative changes in factor costs. However, processes in South Africa are arguably only superficially related to those in these other countries. The paper provides preliminary evidence from a survey of farm workers, as well as from a survey of institutions serving commercial farmers, that indeed the underlying logic that is driving labour shedding and casualisation in South Africa is different. The findings suggest that farmers' collective decision to shed permanent workers is in large measure being driven by 'non-economic' considerations, including above all: i) fear of losing control of one's land to resident farm workers due to new (and possible future) legislation; and ii) a sense that, because of democracy and a commitment by the state to safeguard human rights, farm workers are more difficult to manage than they were prior to 1994. The paper then reflects on the distinctive policy implications that flow from this interpretation.