Address by President Thabo Mbeki at
the Opening Ceremony of the 23rd Africa Regional Conference
of the Food and Agricultre Organisation: Sandton Convention
Centre, Johannesburg, 4 March 2004
The Director-General of FAO, Dr Jacques Diouf,
The Independent Chair of Council, Mr Aziz Mekour,
Your Excellencies, Members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Ladies and Gentlemen:
I would like to thank you most sincerely for giving
me the opportunity to address this distinguished gathering
today. On behalf of the government and people of South
Africa, I extend a very warm welcome to all of you.
It is indeed an honour for South Africa to join the
African family of nations in hosting, for the first
time, this seminal 23rd African Regional Conference
of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
In his book Globalisation and its discontents,
the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz,
The Developing countries must assume responsibility
for their well-being themselves
What is needed
are policies for sustainable, equitable, and democratic
growth. This is the reason for development. Development
is not about helping a few people get rich or creating
a handful of pointless protected industries that only
benefit the countrys elite; it is not about bringing
in Prada and Benneton, Ralph Lauren or Louis Vuitton,
for the urban rich and leaving the rural poor in their
Development is about transforming societies,
improving the lives of the poor, enabling everyone to
have a chance at success and access to health care and
education. This sort of development wont happen
if only a few people dictate the policies a country
There must be broad participation that
goes well beyond the experts and politicians.
(Penguin Books, London 2002. pp251-2.)
Most of us participating in this Conference belong
to what in some literature is described as the political
class. We are part of the political leadership of our
countries and continent. One of our responsibilities
is precisely to ask the question that Stiglitz tries
That question is what is development! In this
context, I trust that we would not find it too difficult
to agree with Stiglitz that development is about
transforming societies, improving the lives of the poor,
enabling everyone to have a chance at success and access
to health care and education, and so on.
I trust we would agree that it is not about helping
a few people get rich or creating a handful of pointless
protected industries that only benefit the countrys
elite; that it is not about bringing in Prada and Benneton,
Ralph Lauren or Louis Vuitton, for the urban rich and
leaving the rural poor in their misery.
We have gathered here to consider the challenges of
the agrarian revolution in Africa. Writing about India,
Ismail Chaudhury (Agrarian Revolution Revisited)
said: Industry being the sole and prime concern
of the government authorities everywhere, political
parties now pay less attention to the peasant question.
The official policy of pacifying the rural aggrieved
is to distribute doles under pompous schemes, not land
(the) curious world of (the) revolutionary strategy
(even of revolutionary parties), peasants have no role
to play other than to participate in voting.
We, for our part, dare not follow the Indian example,
if Chaudhury is correct in his assessment of the attitude
of the Indian political parties. We cannot afford to
pay less attention to the peasant question, seeing these
peasant masses as nothing more than voting cattle to
return our parties to power, with no other role.
Where Stiglitz has said that there must be broad participation
in defining the development agenda, going well beyond
the experts and politicians, the African peasant must
be included within this broad participation. The objective
situation on our continent and the tasks we have set
ourselves within the context of the African Union and
its development programme, NEPAD, make it imperative
that we focus on the peasant question, working together
with the African peasant masses.
According to one paper on Africas Agrarian
Transformation, 80 percent of Africas population
is rural. This peasant population includes 70 percent
of those on our continent who fall within the category
of those who are extremely poor and undernourished.
The figures reflecting the incidence of poverty between
the urban and rural African populations confirms the
higher levels of poverty among the rural masses. Some
relevant figures show that:
In 1991, in Tanzania 20 percent of the urban population
suffered from a standard of living below the National
Poverty Line, while the figure for the rural population
was 50 percent. The respective figures for Zambia in
1993 were 46 and 88 percent. Those for Mozambique in
1997 were 62 and 69 percent.
The 1990 figures reflecting the size of the labour
force in agriculture compared to the labour force as
a whole, also emphasise the importance of agriculture
and the rural areas. The figures for Malawi, Mozambique,
Tanzania and Zambia respectively were 87, 83, 84, and
75 per cent.
In the book, Can Africa Claim the 21st Century?,
the World Bank has this to say about the role of women
in African agriculture:
Women play a big role in Africas agricultural
production, performing 90 percent of the work of processing
food crops and providing household water and firewood,
80 percent of the work of food storage and transport
from farm to village, 90 percent of the work of hoeing
and weeding, and 60 percent of the work of harvesting
Despite their importance in agricultural
production, women face disadvantages in accessing land
and financial, research, extension, education, and health
services. This lack of access has inhibited opportunities
for agricultural investment, growth and income.
You are, of course, familiar with all the facts and
figures about African agriculture that I have cited.
But I referred to them to emphasise the centrality of
the peasant question in the struggle for the renewal
of our continent.
When we say we must achieve a better life for all our
people, the overwhelming majority of these are the peasant
masses. When we say we must alleviate and eradicate
poverty, we refer first and foremost to our people in
the rural areas. When we speak of changing the conditions
of the working people for the better, we are referring
principally to those who work in agriculture. Similarly,
when we talk about gender equality and the emancipation
of women, our victory can only be won when such emancipation
encompasses the rural women.
We quoted Ismail Chaudhury of India as saying: industry
being the sole and prime concern of the government authorities
everywhere, political parties now pay less attention
to the peasant question.
In their 1997 paper entitled Explaining Agricultural
& Agrarian Policies in Developing Countries,
Hans P. Binswanger and Klaus Deininger wrote:
The literature describing urban bias (Lipton
1977, 1993) provides qualitative evidence that government
investment has often favoured the rural elite and the
urban upper and middle classes rather than the small
family operator. (p19).
Joe Stiglitz has said that development is not about
bringing luxury goods for the urban rich and leaving
the rural poor in their misery.
The Kenyan novelist and writer, Ngugi wa Thiongo put
this matter more starkly when he said:
In the economic sphere, wherever the new (post-colonial
ruling) class ensures control of the management of the
national wealth by external Western financial factors,
they do, in the political sphere, also find new trust
in western governments. Their own people on the other
hand are not to be trusted. The masses, the entire working
people, became the enemy. Ethnic divisions, to weaken
any concerted efforts against the neo-colonial order,
are actively pursued. They begin to view their own society,
their own history, their own efforts, their own skins,
with the same kind of eye and result that we saw articulated
in the literature taught in the colonial classroom.
A political characteristic of the neo-colonial order
is its discomfiture with the masses and its distrust
of local initiatives in everything. It measures its
success by now effectively it can reproduce and maintain
the colonial order in everything from economics to culture.
(Literature & Society in Writers
in Politics, James Currey, Oxford. 1997).
Binswanger and Deininger also explain the disempowerment
of the rural masses, making it difficult for them to
challenge the new masters. They write:
Agricultural producers are separated by large
physical distances, which make communication difficult,
unless infrastructure such as roads and telecommunications
systems is well developed. Furthermore, since
agricultural activities are seasonal, the potential
for concentrated collective action is limited to the
slow seasons. These limitations are most pronounced
for peasants and other small producers who are widely
dispersed, produce a variety of heterogeneous goods
for home consumption and the market, are lacking education
and access to infrastructure, and lack strong social
The differences in income and wealth generated
by discrimination and differential accumulation of social
capital in turn reduce the political action potential
of the groups suffering from discrimination. (p27).
When Ngugi speaks about the masses and the working
people he says we, the new ruling class,
do not trust and see as the enemy, he is also talking
about these disempowered people in the rural areas,
who constitute the majority of the masses and the working
people. And if he is right, obviously we, this new
ruling class, work from our capitals, our urban
areas, to reproduce and maintain the colonial order
in everything from economics to culture.
I am certain that those of us present in this hall
who are part of the African political class, will deny
that we are the kind of political animal described by
Ngugi was Thiongo. But in a sense, we have a responsibility
and a task to ensure that the agrarian programmes we
elaborate and implement, rather than what we say, prove
that we are not the creatures Ngugi sought to denounce.
In the book we have cited, the World Bank says:
Though Africas agriculture has responded
to limited reforms, it remains backward and undercapitalised,
the result of centuries of extractive policies. Recapitalising
the sector will require maintaining and improving price
incentives (including by encouraging competitive input
markets), channelling more public spending and foreign
aid to rural communities (including for local infrastructure),
and tapping into the savings potential of farmers. These
changes are also needed to create incentives to reverse
severe environmental degradation. Public-private partnerships
can make a contribution, including in agricultural research
and extension, where a regional approach would also
help. And wider access to OECD markets for agricultural
products would make a big difference at some
$300 billion, subsidies to OECD agriculture are equal
to Africas GDP. (p4).
What we had done and not done was criticised more boldly
by Binswanger and Deininger, who wrote:
group of countries, including Argentina,
Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and many other
countries, also had agrarian structures dominated by
family-farms. However these countries discriminated
heavily against agriculture by maintaining overvalued
exchange rates, industrial protection, and export taxation.
In addition, they provided little support to agriculture,
and the support they did provide went primarily to relatively
inefficient, but politically powerful large producers.
Except in regions with especially favourable agricultural
conditions, agricultural output has not kept up with
population growth, and rural poverty has increased sharply.
Although many of these countries have recently initiated
macroeconomic stabilisation programmes and structural
reforms, they are reforming agricultural policies, with
some notable exceptions, only slowly. (p7/8).
The centuries of extractive policies to which the World
Bank refers, which have left African agriculture backward
and undercapitalised to this day, include the colonial
period. We must therefore accept that during the years
of independence, we have not done the things mentioned
by the World Bank, including the allocation of sufficient
resources to agriculture, the development of the rural
infrastructure, reducing input costs to the agricultural
producers, attending to agricultural research and extension,
and so on.
To that extent Ngugi was correct to observe that Africas
political class has been content to oversee the reproduction
and maintenance of the colonial order, at least in the
area of agriculture.
For instance, we ourselves know that our budgetary
allocations to agriculture have been very low. To worsen
the problem, World Bank and other international transfers
to African agriculture have also declined over time.
During the years 1992-97, the World Bank support amounted
to $322.1 million annually. By 2000, this had declined
to $173.5 million.
We also know that because of our neglect of agriculture,
paying less attention to the peasant question, as Chaudhury
put it, dependence on imported food has also increased
quite significantly, further entrenching our position
as net importers of food.
In 1990 our food exports amounted to $6.9 billion,
with imports standing at $12.7 billion. By 2000, our
food exports had increased to $7.9 billion, while imports
jumped to $15.2 billion.
I would like to believe that the Comprehensive Africa
Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP) and other
decisions that our continent has already taken, including
the African Water Vision 2025, and others that are on
your agenda, seek to break with a colonial and post-colonial
past that has produced the African agricultural crisis
which you know very well, elements of which we have
To that extent, we can say that, however belatedly,
we have drawn the African roadmap that signifies that
we are determined to break away from the neo-colonial
route that Ngugi wrote about. Accordingly, we can say
that we are at one with Joe Stiglitz when he says that
development is about transforming societies, improving
the lives of the poor, enabling everyone to have a chance
at success and access to health care and education,
and extricating the rural masses from the misery of
poverty and underdevelopment.
The remaining and perhaps more difficult task is to
ensure that we implement our decisions. Put briefly,
this means that we have to work hard and consistently
to guarantee the success of the African agrarian revolution.
In the first instance this is a political rather than
a technical task. It is about ensuring that we break
with a tradition that has marginalised African agriculture
and the peasant masses from our domestic, regional and
continental transformation processes.
It is about ensuring that as a political class, we
recommit ourselves to the objective of advancing the
interests of the masses, the working people of our country,
that Ngugi said we do not trust and treat as an enemy.
It means that we must see ourselves and act as revolutionaries,
determined to fight against and defeat the inertia and
social forces that will inevitably work to ensure that,
practically, we treat the decisions we have taken as
mere paper decisions we can forget as soon as this Conference
comes to an end.
It also means that we must refuse to treat the peasant
masses in our countries and continent as mere objects
of policies decided by an elite, striving to ensure
their active and conscious engagement in a people-driven
process of change.
Perhaps the first thing we will have to do, is to inform
these peasant masses about what we have decided, addressing
them in their native languages. We must also encourage
them to have their say as to what they think of our
plans and programmes, committed to the view that, as
Stiglitz said, that there must be broad participation
that goes well beyond the experts and politicians.
In his book, Development as Freedom, another
Nobel Laureate in Economics, Amartya Sen says:
Hunger relates not only to food production and
agricultural expansion, but also to the functioning
of the entire economy and
the operation of political
and social arrangements that can, directly or indirectly,
influence peoples ability to acquire food and
to achieve health and nourishment. (Oxford University
Press, Oxford. 1999. p162).
The Strategic Framework for IFAD 2002-2006
takes these ideas further when it says:
Poverty is not only a condition of low income
and lack of assets. It is a condition of vulnerability,
exclusion and powerlessness. It is the erosion of (the
peoples) capability to be free from fear and hunger
and have their voices heard.
I am honoured to have had the opportunity to speak
at this important Conference attended by African revolutionaries,
who are dedicated to the strategic task to end the vulnerability,
exclusion and powerlessness of our peasant masses, determined
to ensure that they are liberated from fear and hunger,
and that their voices are heard loud and clear.
I declare the 23rd African Regional Conference of the
Food and Agriculture Organisation open and wish you
success in your deliberations.
Issued by The Presidency on 4 March 20004