Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing

South Africa Table of Contents

South Africa has a broad and well-developed agricultural sector and is a net food exporter in most years. Agricultural production, reflecting the sector's increased mechanization and commercialization, increased throughout the twentieth century. As mining and manufacturing industries expanded at a faster rate, however, agriculture's share of GDP declined from about 20 percent in the 1930s to about 12 percent in the 1960s and to less than 7 percent in the 1990s. The impressive range of crops--including almost every kind of food crop, as well as fibers, medicinal herbs, and components of cosmetic fragrances--reflects the country's diverse terrain, climate, and ecology. The agriculture sector provides for most domestic needs, and South Africa exports corn (maize), wool, sugar, peanuts (groundnuts), tobacco, and other farm products (see table 13, Appendix).

About 15 million hectares, or 12 percent of the land area, is under cultivation, and about 10 percent of this is under intensive irrigation. Agricultural production has suffered from cyclical droughts since the seventeenth century, and probably even earlier. Generally, the best rainfall is in the Western Cape and along the coast of KwaZulu-Natal. The rest of the country is relatively dry, and much of the arid Northern Cape is suitable only for grazing sheep (see fig. 16).

Under apartheid-era legislation until 1994, white farmers, who owned only 2 percent of the farms, controlled more than 80 percent of the arable land. White-owned farms averaged 1,300 hectares in size, whereas black farms averaged 5.2 hectares. Because nearly 80 percent of the population was restricted to less than 20 percent of the land, most black farmland was severely overused, leading to soil erosion and low productivity. As a result, many black farm families were supported by at least one person engaged in nonagricultural employment. The need for agrarian reform--broadening land ownership and increasing overall productivity--was one of the most serious issues facing the government in the mid-1990s as the inequities of apartheid were being reduced.

The government regulated both the production and the marketing phases of commercial agriculture through the early 1990s. Government-appointed marketing boards purchased important consumer crops--such as milk, corn, and most cereals--at fixed prices and sometimes subsidized consumer prices as well. Crops destined for further commercial processing--such as tobacco, wool, oilseeds, and dried fruit for export--also had to be sold through a marketing board, although producers generally received market value for these crops after the board sold the pooled national output. The only crops freely traded were fruits and vegetables sold at local markets. The government began to reduce the role of the marketing boards in the mid-1990s, and officials hoped to eliminate them entirely by the end of the decade.

Agriculture suffered serious effects from the chronic high inflation and debt that eroded other sectors of the economy in the early 1990s. Input costs (fertilizers, machinery, etc.) rose by 10 to 20 percent in some years; farm debt had reached R17 billion in 1992, more than four times the amount owed in 1980. Farmers also had witnessed deterioration in the terms of trade in farm products; for example, the amount of corn that had to be sold to buy a farm tractor increased from about 191 tons in 1984 to 347 tons in 1990. Moreover, South Africa faced reduced harvests as a result of severe drought in the early 1990s, forcing the government to spend vital foreign exchange on food imports.


Cereals and grains are South Africa's most important crops, occupying more than 60 percent of hectarage under cultivation in the 1990s. Corn, the country's most important crop, is a dietary staple, a source of livestock feed, and an export crop. Government programs, including generous loans and extension services, have been crucial to the country's self-sufficiency in this enterprise. Corn is grown commercially on large farms, and on more than 12,000 small farms, primarily in North-West, Mpumalanga (formerly, Eastern Transvaal), Free State (formerly, the Orange Free State), and KwaZulu-Natal provinces. Corn production generates at least 150,000 jobs in years with good rainfall and uses almost one-half of the inputs of the modern agricultural sector.

Corn production exceeds 10 million tons in good years; owing to regional drought in the early 1990s, however, production fell to just over 3 million tons in 1992, and roughly 5 million tons of corn were imported, at a cost of at least US$700 million. Both domestic and imported corn was shipped to neighboring countries to help ease the regional impacts of the drought. The drought eased in 1993, and officials estimated the 1994 harvest at approximately 12 million tons. Below-average rainfall in late 1994 again threatened to reduce corn output in 1995, and officials expected to import some 600,000 tons of corn in that year. Plentiful rain in late 1995 provided for a bumper crop in 1996.

Wheat production, which is concentrated in large, highly mechanized farms, also increased after World War II. Wheat cultivation spread from the western Cape where rainfall is fairly reliable, to the Orange Free State and the eastern Transvaal, primarily in response to rising consumer demand. But wheat harvest volumes vary widely; for example, roughly 2.1 million tons were produced in 1991 and only 1.3 million tons in 1992. Production in the early 1990s failed to meet local demand for about 2.2 million tons per year. Wheat imports in 1992, for example, cost more than US$5 million.

Other small grains are grown in localized areas of South Africa. For example, sorghum--which is native to southern Africa--is grown in parts of the Free State, as well as in the North-West and the Northern provinces, with yields often exceeding 200,000 tons. Sorghum has been used since prehistoric times for food and brewing purposes. Barley is also grown, primarily in the Western Cape. Nearly 300,000 tons of barley were produced in 1995.

South Africa produces peanuts, sunflower seeds, beans, and soybeans. Annual production of these crops varies significantly from year to year, although South Africa is usually able to meet domestic vegetable-oil needs and generate some exports. Plentiful rains in late 1995 meant increased harvests of these crops in 1996, compared to 1994 and 1995.

Fruits, including grapes for wine, earn as much as 40 percent of agricultural export earnings in some years. (Fresh fruit finds a good market in Europe because it matures during the northern hemisphere's winter.) Deciduous fruits, including apples, pears, and peaches, are grown primarily in areas of the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape, where cold winters and dry summers provide ideal conditions for these crops. Almost 1 million tons of deciduous fruits were sold fresh locally or were exported each year in the early 1990s.

Pineapples are grown, primarily in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Tropical fruits--especially bananas, avocados, and mangoes--are also grown, especially in the northeast and some coastal areas. More than half of citrus production is exported in most years. South Africa exported 40 million cartons of citrus fruit in 1994, earning roughly R1.34 billion, according to industry sources.

More than 1.5 million tons of grapes are used domestically in South Africa's renowned wine industry, which dates back to the seventeenth-century vineyards introduced by French Huguenot immigrants. More than 100,000 hectares of land are planted in vineyards, centered primarily in the Western Cape. Smaller vineyards are also found in the Northern Cape, Free State, and Northern Province. One of the noticeable signs of the end of international sanctions against South Africa was a dramatic increase in worldwide demand for South African wines in 1994 and 1995.

Sugarcane is also an important export crop, and South Africa is the world's tenth largest sugar producer. Sugarcane was first cultivated in mid-nineteenth-century Natal. Production is still centered there, but sugar is also grown in Mpumalanga, where irrigation is used when rainfall is inadequate. Land under sugar cultivation has steadily increased, and the industry estimated that it produced more than 16 million tons of sugarcane in 1994.


From the earliest times, livestock raising has been the backbone of South African agriculture. The large sheep herds of the Khoikhoi peoples on the Cape peninsula were admired and later appropriated by European settlers in the seventeenth century. The early Xhosa and Zulu societies were well known for the value they placed on cattle even before Europeans began cattle farming in the region in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. The Europeans brought new breeds of sheep and cattle to southern Africa, and from these various stocks emerged a thriving commercial livestock sector. Cattle, estimated at more than 8 million head, are found in areas throughout the country; sheep (nearly 26 million) graze primarily in pastures stretching across the Northern Cape, Eastern Cape, western Free State, and Mpumalanga.

The livestock sector produces an estimated 900,000 tons of red meat each year. For example, the industry reported that nearly 2 million head of cattle were slaughtered in 1994. Poultry and pig farms are also found across the country, although most large commercial farms are near metropolitan areas. The industry estimates that farmers own roughly 1.2 million pigs. The poultry industry, with at least 11 million chickens, reportedly produced more than 500,000 tons of meat in 1994. In addition, a small but growing ostrich-raising industry produces plumes, skins, and meat.

Wool is an important agricultural export. South Africa became the world's fourth-largest exporter of wool by the late 1940s, and is consistently among the world's top ten wool producers, with an output of about 100,000 tons in most years. Approximately 60 percent of South African sheep are Merino, which produce high yields of fine wool. The newer, locally developed Afrino breed is a wool-mutton breed adapted to arid conditions. Most wool is exported, but the domestic wool-processing industry includes wool washing, combing, spinning, and weaving.

Dairy farming is found throughout the country, especially in the eastern half, and is sufficient to meet domestic needs, barring periods of extreme drought. The predominant dairy breeds are Holstein, Friesian, and Jersey cows. The milk price was deregulated in 1983, resulting in lower prices, but industry regulations continued to enforce strict health precautions. In a system dating to 1930, all wholesale milk buyers pay a compulsory levy to the National Milk Board. This money is pooled in a stabilization fund and used to subsidize dairies manufacturing butter, skim milk powder, and cheese when a surplus exists. Fresh-milk dairies objected in the early 1990s, however, and several of them were involved in litigation to have the levy lifted.


South Africa's forests cover only about 1 percent of the country's total land area. The country never was heavily forested, and by the early twentieth century, humans had destroyed much of its natural wood resources. After World War I, the government began to establish forest plantations to grow trees for commercial use. Located primarily in the northeast and in KwaZulu-Natal, most timber plantations produce pine and eucalyptus trees. Although most wood is used for fuel, industrial uses include construction and mine props, paper products, and a variety of agricultural applications.

The country's pulp and paper industries expanded operations for export during the 1980s. About half of all commercial South African sawlogs came from state-owned plantations for use in the pulp and paper industries and in the mines. The two major paper manufacturers, Mondi (owned by Anglo American) and Sappi (owned by Gencor), spent approximately R3 billion to expand their operations during the 1980s, and in 1991 Sappi expanded even further by purchasing five specialty paper mills in Britain. Sappi was then ranked as the eleventh largest company in South Africa.

South Africa's forests produce more than 14.5 million cubic meters of unseasoned timber annually. Several hundred thousand people are employed on timber farms and in more than 240 wood-processing factories. Although South Africa could supply most of its own needs for wood and wood products, the timber industry faced problems on the export market in the early 1990s. The industry had relied on exports of pulp and paper, but falling world prices threatened profitability. In the mid-1990s, the government's Reconstruction and Development Programme calls for more than 1 million housing starts during the decade, and the timber industry is promoting the use of timber-frame houses to increase its domestic market share under this program.


South Africa has a large commercial fishing industry. More than 4,500 commercial fishing vessels licensed by the Department of Environment Affairs work its nearly 3,000-kilometer coastline from Mozambique to Namibia. The industry employs more than 22,000 people. The principal species of shoal fish caught by coastal trawlers are anchovy, pilchard, and herring. Deep-sea trawlers bring in hake, barracuda, mackerel, monkfish, sole, and squid. The most important species caught by handline are tuna, cod, barracuda, silverfish, salmon, and yellowtail. Cape rock lobsters are harvested along the west coast, and several hundred other species, along the east and the south coastline. The total catch in the early 1990s was between 500,000 and 700,000 tons each year.

South Africa exports about 80 percent of its fish in most years. Much of the rest is consumed domestically or processed into fish meal and fish oil. The industry hit a peak in the 1960s, with a catch of more than 1 million tons in 1968, but declined after that, in part because local waters had been overfished and marine resources were severely depleted. Recorded fish harvests also declined in the early 1990s after South Africa relinquished control over its former fishing territory off the coast of Namibia.

The government enforces strict conservation measures, including fishing quotas and closed seasons, to prevent overfishing and to protect the fishing industry. Since 1977 it has enforced an exclusive South African fisheries zone of 200 nautical miles. In 1983 the government reduced foreign fishing quotas, and in the early 1990s it began scaling down the rights of five foreign countries still fishing in South African waters--Japan, Israel, Spain, Portugal, and the Republic of China (Taiwan).

Much of the fishing near large ports, such as Cape Town, Durban, Mossel Bay, and Port Elizabeth, is controlled by Portnet, the national port authority, in the mid-1990s. The provincial governments supervise some harbor facilities and provide marine conservation inspectors at official fishing harbors, including Saldanha Bay, Hout Bay, and at least ten others.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress