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No evidence South Africa’s population of commercial farmers dropped from 120,000 in 1994 to 38,000 in 2020

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The number of commercial farmers in South Africa has fallen from 120,000 in 1994 to 38,000 in 2020, claims a message posted on Facebook in September 2020. 

“According to Transvaal Agricultural Union (TLU) In 1994 there were 120,000 Commercial Farmers in South Africa. Today in 2020 there are 38,000 Commercial Farmers.”

The message says the drop is because farmers are leaving South Africa, implying that the exodus is due to farm attacks. 

“The threat against a farmer trying to feed the nation, and himself is huge. Rural areas have been left high and dry while police focus on urban areas as their priority,” it reads.

“The ruling South African ANC government will not do anything to condemn or stop #farmattacks and #farmmurders, farmers are on their own.”

Has South Africa’s population of commercial farmers gone from 120,000 in 1994 to 38,000 in 2020? We checked. 

Claim by Democratic Alliance MP

Africa Check has explored this issue in depth in a recent report on the same claim by Dianne Kohler Barnard, a member of parliament for the Democratic Alliance opposition party.

We contacted the TLU – Transvaalse Landbou Unie, in Afrikaans – who recommended data from state agency Statistics South Africa. Several other organisations also referred us to the agency.

But Stats SA provides data on the number of farming units, not the number of individual farmers. 

Its 1993 Census of Commercial Agriculture recorded 57,980 farming units while its 2017 census recorded 40,177. The 2017 figure was a slight increase on the 2007 census, which recorded 40,079 farming units

The number of farming units may have changed since 2017, but we could find no reliable estimate that the figure now stands at 38,000.

‘Nobody can say what the reality is’

The Stats SA 1993 census notes that the number of farming units does not correlate with the number of commercial farmers. This is because one farmer can operate multiple farming units and more than one farmer can operate a single farming unit. 

TLU general manager Bennie van Zyl told Africa Check that he could not say how many commercial farmers there were in South Africa, either in 1994 or today.

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

There are also differences in how the data for the two censuses was collected. The 1993 census was based on a register of all commercial farms, but excluded black farmers living in the former apartheid homelands. The 2017 census, 24 years later, was based on enterprises registered to pay VAT, value added tax. 

Prof Johann Kirsten, director of the Bureau for Economic Research in South Africa based at Stellenbosch University, told Africa Check this meant the official statistics probably underestimated the number of farms, as they excluded commercial farms not registered to pay VAT.

“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,” he said

Agri SA is another union of South African farmers, not to be confused with the TLU.

The TLU did not say that the number of commercial farmers in South Africa had dropped from 120,000 in 1994 to 38,000 in 2020. Data from Stats SA provides figures on the number of farming units, not commercial farmers, and indicates that there were just under 60,000 units in 1994 and 40,177 units in 2020.

The true number of farmers is unknown, as multiple farmers can operate one farming unit and one farmer can own multiple farming units. 

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