Sterling leadership: Didiza leaves behind agricultural sector that is in good shape

Former minister Thoko Didiza has started in her new role as Speaker of the National Assembly at Parliament. File photo: Phando Jikelo/Independent Newspapers

Former minister Thoko Didiza has started in her new role as Speaker of the National Assembly at Parliament. File photo: Phando Jikelo/Independent Newspapers

Published Jun 24, 2024


By Sifiso Ntombela

Former agriculture, land reform and rural development minister Thoko Didiza has started in her new role as Speaker of the National Assembly at Parliament, leaving behind a sector that is in good shape.

From 2019 to 2024, Didiza led the agricultural sector, providing political leadership and strategic oversight in the implementation of policies and programmes designed to drive inclusive growth, job creation, competitiveness, export expansion and transformation.

Didiza will be remembered for her confidence-inspiring leadership, which allowed government, industry, labour and civil society to work together in building a prosperous and sustainable agricultural economy.

The Agbiz/IDC Agribusiness Confidence Index, which reflects the perceptions of the sector’s industry captains, shows Didiza was successful in implementing policies and strategies that inspired confidence and attracted investment to the sector. The index hit the 75-point mark in the second quarter of 2021, the highest level ever recorded since the index was established in 2001.

The macroeconomic indicators also affirm that the sector performed well under Didiza’s leadership, despite the Covid-19 hardships and global trade distortions caused by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Between 2019 and 2024, the agricultural value-added grew by 13.6%, creating 104 192 new jobs and thus increasing total agricultural employment to 941 390.

During the same period, agricultural exports expanded by 71%, measured in value. Underpinning this good performance were strategic interventions based on policy and legislation.

To ensure the land allocation process was clear and transparent to the public, Didiza formulated the National Policy for Beneficiary Selection and Land Allocation, which ensured that 50% of state land is allocated to women, 40% to youth and 10% to people living with disabilities. She also created a Land Donations Policy that allowed private individuals and organisations to donate land for redistribution purposes. Didiza also modernised the land administration system, underscored by a legislative review of the electronic registration of deeds and spatial land planning.

Recognising the ambiguity around the definition and categorisation of farmers, Didiza promulgated the National Policy on Comprehensive Producer Development Support, which helped to coordinate support to various farmers and ensured financing instruments, such as the Blended Finance Scheme, recognises the needs of all farmers. Didiza was a proponent of good governance and collaboration between the private and public sector.

As a result, she championed the development of the Agriculture and Agro-processing Master Plan (AAMP), which became a call to action for social partners to enhance competitiveness, growth and the transformation of the agricultural sector.

The AAMP prioritises the opening of new export markets, coupled with strengthening biosecurity controls to ensure South Africa’s image in the international markets is protected. Didiza offered political leadership to restructure and reassign certain state functions and powers between national and provincial departments, to improve operational efficiency, coordination and implementation of government programmes.

Cognisant that agriculture was just one of the strategic sectors to drive rural economic development, the former minister established the Integrated Rural Development Sector Strategy, which promoted the integration of agriculture with other social and economic sectors in rural areas. It also coordinated investments in rural infrastructure, hence a total of R1.7 billion was invested to build rural roads, bridges and skills-development facilities.

Partnering with private sector players, a total of 9 907 rural youth were trained on skills relating to agriculture, manufacturing, trade and transport services via the NARYSEC programme. Didiza also hired 5 000 assistant agricultural practitioners (APPs) to solve the shortage problem of extension officers. Unfortunately, the appointment of the APPs had to be terminated due to budget constraints as National Treasury was unable to allocate funding.

Didiza leaves the sector having successfully implemented strategic programmes such as the Presidential Employment Stimulus Initiative, which revived more than 360 000 hectares of tribal land to use for agricultural production.

Over and above the land reform programme, Didiza allocated 700 000 hectares of state land to deserving farmers. She also launched the GRATIS project, which seeks to transfer title deeds of 3.1 million hectares of land to farmers that are leasing from the state.

The former minister was a big enthusiast of commodity associations and the agricultural trusts system, and she played an oversight role through the National Agricultural Marketing Council. She ensured that statutory measures were approved, enabling funding for generic services executed by the likes of the Citrus Growers Association, Grain South Africa and the Red Meat Industry Services, among others.

As the agriculture community awaits for the new minister, it is important that the work started in the sixth administration continues, with great focus on export markets, biosecurity controls, land access, affordable financing and transformation.

At a personal level, it was an honour and privilege to advise Didiza and work with industry captains, the director-general and senior officials at the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, including its state-owned entities.

Sifiso Ntombela (PhD) is an agricultural economist. He is an elected president of the Agricultural Economics Association of Southern Africa.