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Research article2024Peer reviewedOpen access

Social drivers and differentiated effects of deagrarianisation: A longitudinal study of smallholder farming in South Africa's Eastern Cape province

Fischer, Klara; Johnson, Elin; Visser, Vernon; Shackleton, Sheona


South Africa's smallholders have progressively become disengaged from farming despite their lack of alternative livelihood options, resulting in the deepening of rural poverty. Farming's reduced role in rural livelihoods represents a wider trend of deagrarianisation seen across contexts and geographies. While most literature on deagrarianisation focuses on its economic dimensions, this paper places the social and cultural dimensions of farming at the centre of its analysis to understand why smallholders are becoming less engaged in agriculture. Drawing on Habermas's concept of the colonisation of the lifeworld and on ethnographic fieldwork in four villages in South Africa's Eastern Cape Province, we show how local social cohesion in farming has been undermined by a series of oppressive state policies. Recent agricultural development interventions have not managed to break with this trend, but instead continue to undermine social cohesion and reciprocity. The impacts of this loss of social cohesion in farming have been most severe for the poorest households who seldom plant their fields today. Based on our findings, we suggest that agricultural development programmes should aim to build on smallholders' appreciation of agriculture, their remaining connections to the land and their sense of solidarity, rather than focusing exclusively on stimulating the development of individual entrepreneurs.


Africa; Agriculture; Deagrarianisation; Habermas; Lifeworld

Published in

Journal of Rural Studies
2024, Volume: 106, article number: 103200