A Class-Analytic Approach to Agricultural Joint Ventures in the Communal Areas of South Africa

Working Paper

STEPS Working Paper 103
July 2018

This paper engages with key debates regarding the dynamics of class formation in the former Bantustans (or ‘homelands’) of South Africa.

It is widely acknowledged that the oppressive, racially defined character of the labour regimes that emerged in the colonial and Apartheid eras, constrained rural class formation in these areas to some extent. However, a dominant ‘linear proletarianisation thesis’ has overstated class homogeneity, and its continuing influence on scholars, means that processes of incipient class formation in these contexts continue to be underestimated (Levin and Neocosmos 1989; Cousins 2010).

These debates are explored in the context of a comparative analysis of two Joint Venture (JV) dairy farms, located on irrigation schemes in the former Ciskei of South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province. These farms involve residents from the rural settlements of Keiskammahoek and Shiloh, as both landowners and workers. JVs between agribusiness companies and customary landowners are currently a core focus of government attempts to revive agriculture in communal areas. The case study presented here illustrates quite divergent outcomes when the same JV model is implemented in different rural settlements, most powerfully because of differences in the class structure of each settlement. A class-based typology assists in understanding the tensions that the JV model of capitalist farming generates in relation to household reproduction, in a class-differentiated manner.

The paper focuses primarily on a class-analytic approach, which combines Patnaik’s (1987) ‘labour exploitation criterion’ with class typologies developed for the South African context by Cousins (2010) and Levin et al. (1997). The paper argues that analysis of the nexus of relations between land and water rights and class dynamics (which intersect with other aspects of social difference in complex ways), accounts for many of the divergent outcomes evident in Keiskammahoek and Shiloh. In particular, it helps to explain the more intense intragroup conflicts that have emerged in the Shiloh case. A class-analytic approach is also significant, because it illuminates the emerging agrarian class structure that a JV intervention conditions, and thus explores the implications of the model for agrarian change in South Africa.

This paper is related to the ‘Governing the Land-Water-Environment Nexus in Southern Africa’ project.