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Have South Africa’s commercial farmers declined from 120,000 in 1994 to 38,000? DA MP’s claim is misleading

This article is more than 3 years old

  • The claim that there were 120,000 farmers in South Africa in 1994 has been quoted by a number of different organisations, but none of the supposed sources, including the Institute for Race Relations and Agri SA, could confirm it. 

  • Experts and lobby groups pointed to censuses on agriculture carried out by Stats SA. But these counted farms, not farmers, of which there were under 60,000 recorded in 1993.

  • What “commercial farming units” are recorded has also changed over the years. In the early 1990s, no data was collected from the former homelands, and since 2002, only farms registered to pay VAT are counted.

Violent attacks on South African farms have again been in the headlines, following the murder of a young farm manager in early October 2020.

Four weeks before Brendin Horner’s death, the country’s parliament debated farm murders at the request of the official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA). Dianne Kohler Barnard, a DA member of parliament, spoke of “the recent scourge of farm attacks and murders of farmers and farmworkers”.

She claimed that due to this “from 120,000 commercial farmers, we are down to 38,000”. 

Is there evidence to show that the number of commercial farmers in South Africa has fallen as much? We checked. 

‘Widely quoted’ statistic

Kohler Barnard told Africa Check that the figure of 120,000 commercial farmers was for 1994. She said it had been “widely quoted”. 

In particular, she pointed to a 2015 policy brief published by Farmers Weekly, an agricultural magazine in South Africa. 

In the article, the publication said the brief was written for the Transvaal Agricultural Union of South Africa (TLU SA) by Frans Cronje. He is the chief executive of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a research and policy organisation based in Johannesburg. TLU SA is an organisation that advocates for farmers in the country. 

When Africa Check contacted the IRR, analyst Gabriel Crouse first said that the figure of 120,000 commercial farmers in 1994 seemed “excessive”. 

Asked in follow up questions for Cronje how the figure in the Farmers Weekly brief was calculated, Crouse said he was “unable to confirm precisely how”.

Figure linked to Agri SA

The same figure has previously been credited by the media to a study conducted by Agri SA, a federation of agricultural organisations.

In 2012 the Sowetan newspaper reported that there were 37,000 commercial farmers that year, down from 120,000 in 1994. It attributed this statistic to then Agri SA deputy president, Theo de Jager. But De Jager, who is now president of the World Farmers’ Organisation, told Africa Check this was incorrect. 

“There was no such a study in Agri SA between 2006 and 2014, while I was involved on an executive level,” he said. 

The organisation’s current director, Kobus Visser, was also not aware of the statistic or the existence of such a study. 

Stats SA recorded 57,980 farming units in 1993

Agri SA told Africa Check that Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) was the most reliable source of farming statistics. The national agency’s data was also recommended by the TLU SA and the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape.

However, Stats SA’s data provides figures on the number of commercial farming units – not farmers.

Itani Magwaba, the agency’s chief director of structural industry statistics, directed Africa Check to the 1993 census of agriculture. It recorded 57,980 commercial farming units. (Note: Farming units in former homelands, areas designated for black people by the apartheid government, were excluded.

According to the census, a farming unit consisted of one or more separate farms that were operated as a single unit. “Farming” was defined as the cultivation of crops, nurseries, plantations, the breeding of livestock and productions of animal products for “commercial purposes”.

Farmers and farms don’t align

The 1993 census of agriculture noted that the number of farming units did not represent the number of individual farmers. A single farming unit could be operated by more than one farmer and one farmer could operate multiple farming units.

Bennie van Zyl, general manager of TLU SA, couldn't say how many commercial farmers there were in South Africa, in 2020 or in 1994. 

“Nobody can say exactly what the reality is because there isn’t any research being done to give the exact figures.”

Because of these limitations, Prof Johann Kirsten, the director of the Bureau for Economic Research in South Africa, cautioned against estimating the number of farmers in the country.

"It’s better to refer to farming units or households and not to farmers because there’s no way anybody – a member of parliament or Agri SA – can estimate the number of farmers." 

40,122 farm units recorded in 2017

What about Kohler Barnard’s claim that there are currently 38,000 commercial farmers? She told Africa Check it was based on the number of farming units from Stats SA’s 2017 census of commercial agriculture

“Being slightly out of date, the number has decreased slightly, reflecting farmers leaving the country, or, for example, selling or simply abandoning the farm during the prolonged drought,” she said.

But in her response to us, she took farming units from the census to mean the number of farmers. As experts have explained, the census does not contain data on the number of farmers. 

The census estimated there were 40,122 commercial farming units in 2017. This referred to enterprises registered to pay value added tax (VAT). The number of farming units had increased slightly since 2007, when it stood at 40,079 units

While the number of farming units may have changed since 2017, Africa Check could not find a reliable estimate showing that the figure was now 38,000. 

Different definitions of commercial farm

The commercial agriculture censuses have been based on the number of VAT-registered farming units since 2002, according to Stats SA’s Magwaba.

The bureau of economic research’s Kirsten said the 2017 commercial agriculture census likely underestimated the number of farms earning an income from agriculture, because farms might not be registered to pay VAT.

In comparison, Magwaba said the 1993 census was based on a register of all commercial farms, not just those that were VAT registered. He was unable to comment on the implications this had for comparing the data between 1993 and 2017.

Conclusion: Claim cites unsubstantiated 1994 figure and misrepresents official data

A South African member of parliament claimed that the number of commercial farmers in South Africa had decreased from 120,000 in 1994 to 38,000 in 2020. 

Data on the number of commercial farmers in South Africa, currently or in 1994, is not available. Experts told us the best data came from the country’s commercial agricultural censuses, which contained estimates on the number of farming units

The data, from the national statistics office, showed that there were 57,980  commercial farming units in 1993. The latest census put the figure at 40,122 in 2017. It is not clear if the two years can be compared due to the different definitions of “commercial farm” used. 

We rate the claim misleading. It cites an unsubstantiated figure for the number of commercial farmers in 1994 and then compares this to farming units in 2017.

Africa Check contacted Kohler Barnard to explain our findings. She said she would review our research and use it to inform her statements on the issue going forward.

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