The promised presidential investment in agriculture needs to heal the land and its people

ReStory narrator: James Blignaut

[This article was first published by The Daily Maverick. The article can be found here:]

Will the pledged investment in South Africa’s agricultural sector restore the country, return the sense of belonging and ignite dignity? Will it heal the land and its people? The answer lies in the soil.

The party bus

The week of 4 November: the week in which every dark cloud in South Africa turned green and that with a golden lining. The Presidential Investment Conference was shadowed by a triumphant team, Siya Kolisi showcasing the golden hardware – sharing their gold in the country of gold where gold is rarely shared. A euphoric wave of optimism propelled the green party bus forward – a bus fuelled by an expectant hope that “if they can taste gold, so can I”. This bus represents the weaving together of multiple stories galvanised by the desire of a team, an underdog, to succeed, and an iron will to achieve. Succeed they surely did, and so can I. Nobody is thus a nobody. Nobody is too poor not to perform, or to excel and to join the party bus.

While every cent of the pledged R363-billion raised during the Presidential Investment Conference is highly commendable and should be praised and gratefully received, does it distil the same optimism? Does it carry the message that nobody is a nobody and that all can excel to great things? The realities of the unemployed graduate, the township kid, the grandmother caring for an extended family are far removed from MTN’s R50-billion, Exxaro’s R20-billion and Toyota’s R2.4-billion pledges. These pledges, and the deeds converting them into action, as necessary and essential for the economy as they are, are but numbers – and even nonsensical ones at that – for most people that followed the green party bus. But wait, there is perhaps one exception…

R12.9-billion pledged for agricultural development. This pledge, even though only 3,5% of the total, speaks to the hearts and minds of most people in the country.

(South) Africa 

What is Africa? Is it a place? An idea? A myth-filled mirage? Or more than these combined? 

What if Africa is that tender, sub-conscious, yet very real and very powerful relationship between people and the land – the African soil – stretching over many generations? This relationship is so undefined it cannot be captured in a single word or contained in a bottle – yet, if threatened it unleashes a maelstrom of devastating fury – just watch the news.

Like the sunset, the daily news is but a replication of the same, though never and nowhere alike. It tells us that Africa is leaking: leaking beauty, morals, values, identity, leadership, hope, resources and, importantly, a sense of destiny, and has been doing so for decades. Tolerant and tenacious as the relational system can be, equally tragic is the forgetfulness of that which defines Africa. Forget that Africa is defined by a deep-seated people-land relationship and do so at your peril; the news is but a stark reminder that Africa has become relationally disconnected. 

Herein lies the message: While Africa’s future is relationally connected to its past, its past had always been connected to the land – and so is its future – land is the currency of Africa’s heartbeat

Removing me from the land degenerates my being.

Destroying the land mutilates my relationships: current, past and future.

Healing the land restores my relationships: current, past and future.

Reconnecting me with the land regenerates my being.

Within a South African context, there is an urgent need to meaningfully reconnect people with the land, yet to remain practical given the context and demands of the 21st Century. Reconnection does not imply dividing the country into a myriad of meaningless and economically bankrupt units. It does, however, mean the deliberate restoration of a sense of belonging and dignity

Invest in the soil

Will the pledged investment in South Africa’s agricultural sector restore the country, return the sense of belonging and ignite dignity? Will it heal the land and its people? 

Many of the answers to these questions must sit, quite literally, in the soil. 

If the investment is used to enrich, yet again, a few while using conventional agricultural practices, then the dismal outcome of the investment would be no, it will heal neither the land nor its people. It will only contribute to more soil erosion and the use of more deadly chemicals and the gold will once again not be shared. 

If the investment is used to advance what has become known as regenerative agriculture and do so in a manner that will be inclusive of as many people as possible, then many will be able to ascend the green party bus. This will imply that money cannot be locked up in sterile assets but must be used to facilitate prudent resource management. The core principles of regenerative agriculture are depicted in Figure 1 below. A key component in regenerative agriculture is the (re)integration of livestock in crop production and veld managed systems. This is due to the beneficial impact of both manure and urine on soil health as well as saliva in stimulating plant regrowth. 

Regenerative agriculture promotes biodiversity, water infiltration and the working with system-wide ecosystem processes that are highly conducive for agri and other forms of tourism in addition to the provision of the essential starch and protein for the people. This system works on many levels generating a flow of resources in myriad ways and places.

Various studies have indicated the beneficial impact of regenerative agriculture in healing the land and its people. Soil organic carbon can increase at rates between 0,1% and as much as 1% per year when regenerative practices are used, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere while increasing system-wide resilience. If this is applied to South Africa’s grasslands, savannah and cultivated areas, under different assumptions as per Table 1, then the value of the carbon sequestered can vary between R8-billion and R80-billion; to compare – the total GDP of the Agricultural sector in 2018 was R74.2-billion. 


Dear Mr President, thank you for travelling to Japan giving our team vuma. Thank you for lifting the cup and for helping them to bring it to the land of gold. Thank you for your unrelenting effort to develop the country and to make it better for all. Thank you for tuma mina

Apply the principles of regenerative agriculture in a shared manner to build up the country from its foundation, the soil. Regeneration, restoration and resilience are not just words, but together they form the practical pathway to healing the land and healing the people. DM

James Blignaut is Professor extraordinaire attached to the School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University and honorary research associate attached to the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON). The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the institutions he might be associated with.