The role of agriculture as a catalyst for job creation and development is outlined in the National Development Plan (NDP), the country’s road map to the elimination of poverty and reduction of inequality.
Pillars of the rural development leg of the NDP include improved and sustainable land reform, supported by increased access to quality infrastructure and services in rural communities.
This will in lead to sustainable rural enterprises and industries characterised by strong rural-urban linkages, access to local markets and financial services. With the planning and infrastructure pillars in place, the next step will be an increase in employment, coupled with development in rural areas.
The vision of cultivating sustainable rural areas, outlined in the NDP, is crucial given the legacies we face. The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform is leading in implementing the plan on rural development.
Like in all other sectors, rural communities battle the spectre of joblessness. What however compounded the challenges of rural unemployment was the 1913 Native Land Act that displaced communities from their land. Men were forced to seek employment in the mines to fend for their families. The remaining women and children were removed from the farming land.
To decisively tackle rural development we need to take into account the history of unemployment and underdevelopment in the rural areas. We need to identify the blockages and obstacles which may limit future progress.
While addressing the National House of Traditional Leaders this year, President Jacob Zuma spoke of how dispossession laws such as the 1913 Native Land Act had deprived generations of the skills necessary to survive from agriculture. He lamented that people who had been proud farmers were forced to seek alternative work after being dispossessed of their land, livestock and equipment.
“Working on the farms was thus turned into a form of slavery. The outcome of this state of affairs over generations is that our youth developed a grim view of agriculture. Those living in rural areas aspire to move out of the villages as soon as they can. We need to change the situation,” he said.
President Zuma went on to speak of the spectre of mass migration to urban areas that would leave arable and fertile land lying fallow and threaten food security.
"We are already witnesses to this phenomenon. Many fields lie untilled across the country. The NDP identifies agriculture as an economic activity that is still capable of pushing back the frontiers of poverty.
Changing this current state of affairs is crucial if we are to unlock the untapped potential that lies in the soil. The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform provides the basis of implementing rural development as envisaged in the NDP. They announced that close to 35 000 jobs had been created over a four year period due to its various initiatives.
Although these figures are encouraging, they nonetheless represent only a fraction of the potential that still lies untapped beneath the soil. If we are to fully harness the potential of rural communities, we need meaningful partnerships between government, the private sector and the agricultural community. The challenges are steep and include a historic lack of investment, limited resources, poor infrastructure and a lack of skills in rural areas.
Though the road ahead may be daunting, a spirit of renewed optimism is in the air; the 35 000 jobs created by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform stand out as a beacon of hope. These jobs were created through initiatives including building of bridges, schools, health facilities, building of roads and other activities related to infrastructure. It is hoped that this infrastructure will be the catalyst for further economic activity and help entice people to remain in, and invest in, rural areas.
Along with the push to create jobs and build infrastructure, providing workable skills to people in rural communities is essential. More than 17 000 individuals in rural areas have been trained in skills to improve their lives. Armed with their new abilities in various trades such as brick-making, road paving, construction of houses and bridges, they are now well placed to earn a living and build their communities.
These gains have been further reinforced with the enrolment of 12 881 rural youths into the National Rural Youth Service Corps (Narysec). Narysec youths are recruited from the 3 000 rural wards countrywide and are between 18 and 35 years old. This innovative programme trains young people in various disciplines that are essential in rural areas, such as waste water management, water purification, construction, electricity and agriculture.
These successes did not come without challenges such as limited budget given difficult economic conditions, structure of the economy where investments are directed into cities and away from rural areas and limited skills in the rural areas. Government has begun with a process of develop rural areas to encourage the private sector to redirect their investments to these communities.
Through its programmes and policies, the department has laid the ground for a future where rural communities and agriculture will play an increasingly important role in providing employment, while powering the economy.
For too long the land beneath our feet has been an issue that divides us, it is up to this generation to fully use the soil so that we may all reap the vast benefits it holds.
Phumla Williams is acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)