Technological change and employment in South African agriculture : the case of maize harvesting in the Western Transvaal

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Changes in the choice of technique in the harvesting and delivery of maize and weeding, the causes of these changes, and their consequences for employment and unemployment, were investigated. Data was collected for 61 farms in six magisterial districts of the Western Transvaal for the period 1968-1981. In 1968 about 30 percent of the crop was being harvested mechanically; by 1981, 95 percent. Sacks, in which almost half of total output was being delivered to depots in 1968, had, by 1977, been almost completely displaced by bulk handling. From 15 percent of the total crop area of 1968, weed sprays were being applied to 95 percent in 1981. There was an increase of about 75 percent in the average surface area of farms, and more than a doubling in the average yield per hectare. The greatest part of most of these changes occurred between 1973 and 1977. The causes of changes in the choice of technique were sought both in theory - neo-classical and historical-materialist - and in empirical evidence. A growing shortage of men but not of women, the convenience and controllability of combine-harvesting, and economies of scale generated by the increasing size of farms, were all important causes. But the cost advantage of mechanical over hand-harvesting on all except the smallest farms is what appears to have been crucial. For various reasons, this was not fully exploited until the middle '70s. Exogenous developments in technology, rather than changes in relative factor prices, should be seen as the fundamental cause of changes in harvesting techniques. Seasonal workers were still employed to glean after combine-harvesting and to hoe spray-resistant weeds, but whereas in the late '60s seasonal harvesting teams consisted typically of a comparatively large number of workers from black rural areas, mainly adults - women in the majority - and a few children, by the late '70s they were composed of a comparatively small number, most of whom were the wives and children of permanent farm workers, living on white farms. Between 1968 and 1981, the number of seasonal jobs per 1 000 hectares of maize fell by about 70 percent in harvesting and delivery, and by 60 percent in weeding. Rough estimates show total seasonal employment to have fallen from about 105 000 to 43 000 annually, the mechanization of reaping being the most important single cause. The employment of permanent workers in harvesting and delivery declined by almost 50 percent per 1 000 hectares, enabling the total number of workers to contract from about 30 000 in 1969 to 25 000 in 1976. Since 1977 employment patterns have stabilized. Though few men appear to have become unemployed because of changes in technology, women from black rural areas, chiefly in Bophuthatswana, have generally not been able to find other jobs. The real wages of permanent workers rose by 150 percent between 1970 and 1981, while those of seasonal workers increased only marginally. Changes in both wage and employment patterns have greatly narrowed the distribution of agricultural income.

Bibliography: pages166-179.