It is day 314 of South Africa’s covid-19 lockdown – a pandemic that has shaken the world to its core.
But much like a mountain the Agbiz chief economist remains unmoved at seeming defeat by the mist.
Today, despite the lockdown, his alarm still went off at 05:00 whereafter the hip-hop-loving financial expert did a 30-minute workout on his stationery bike while catching up on the news on his iPhone.
He scrolled through Twitter to see what his nearly 37 000 followers, including cabinet ministers Tito Mboweni, Ronald Lamola and Barbara Creecy, were up to since he last checked. And for breakfast he simply had full-fat, plain yoghurt.
“My lockdown routine is roughly the same (as every other day), except that I don’t drive to the office, but walk to my desk,” Sihlobo says.
Usually you’d find him in his office at the Grain Building in The Willows, Pretoria by 07:00 at the latest. The lockdown has the added benefit that he can play his favourite hip-hop tracks as loudly as he wants.
Everyone who knows Sihlobo knows that he’s a big Nas fan. Much like the rapper, he too started his career at the very top, and many years later he’s still at it.
His favourite song is “Patience”, a 2011 collaboration between Nas and Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley.
The lyrics and music video of “Patience” are equally haunting with Nas rocking a crown on a dome, spitting fire: “Scholars teach in universities and claim that they’re smart and cunning. Tell them find a cure when we sneeze and that’s when their nose start running…”
Sihlobo says, “The song is timeless and the message is so rich. I listen to more storytelling and rap music, like Nas, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Talib Kweli and Stogie T.”
While he may not be in Nas’ world, he has certainly focused on bettering himself and improving the circumstances of those around him.
He is only 31, but his work in agricultural economics has already taken him to places he could never imagine growing up in the former Transkei.
First Ramaphosa appointed him to his ten-member land reform advisory panel who navigated a volatile discourse in 2018 and 2019.
Now he is also a member of the presidential economic advisory council tackling economic and development challenges.
“When I was reflecting on the preface of my new book, Finding Common Ground: Land, Equity & Agriculture, and also when I wrote a chapter for (another book), For the Love of the Land, I realised that I have been blessed,” said Sihlobo in an exclusive Farmer’s Inside Track podcast interview now available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
He has been breaking barriers in a sector that has traditionally been closed off to black people.
“The timing for me was particularly right, if I can say that. I have also been blessed by running into people that have opened a number of doors for me. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was a lot of effort from my side although I have had to work a little bit harder. I have been lucky to run into these spaces…”
Taking up space
Of course, Sihlobo has been able to unapologetically take up space in a predominantly white sector because he also pulls his weight.
He has a BSc (Agricultural Economics) from the University of Fort Hare and a MSc from Stellenbosch University. His Master’s thesis explored the competitiveness of South African maize exports.
This has made him a hot commodity with his first employer, Grain SA, where he credits the CEO, Jannie de Villiers, for his mentorship.
Nearly five years later, in 2016, Sihlobo joined Agbiz as the head of economic research and later as chief economist. Here Dr. John Purchase, the CEO, “has really opened up the table (allowing me) to exercise whatever intellectual work I was putting on the table”.
Sihlobo believes, however, that all people – regardless of their race – have an obligation to excel so that it would be easier for those who are next in line.
“If you are a black person in these spaces, there is traditionally that preconception that there aren’t a lot of black guys out there.
“If there’s only a few of you in a space, you have to try and do whatever you can very well to open doors for other people to follow through. Or maybe others can see you and say, ‘Ok, we will bring more people like him…’”
His work in Mzansi’s agricultural sector has been most rewarding. In 2018 Agricultural Writers SA named him the Agriculturalist of the Year. The following year he was featured in the Mail & Guardian’s eminent 200 Young South Africans in Business and Entrepreneurship edition.
Mzansi post covid-19
Working in the agricultural sector during the lockdown has proven to be particularly challenging, says Sihlobo.
“For those of us in essential services it’s really been a difficult period. There were a lot of glitches on the system, so we all had to work a little bit more. While one might have anticipated that the self-isolation period would be quiet, it is actually busier than other days. But anything for delivering services in the food sector…”
However, as an eternal optimist, Sihlobo is already thinking about ways to help take the country forward through progressive agricultural reform post covid-19.
He reiterates, “Now, comparing to years back, yes, on a policy proposition there has been some heightened debates happening in the country, but we are at an even better stage of actually understanding each other and having a bit of appreciation of the value that each person brings to the food sector.”
Once the covid-19 dust settles South Africa has to come to terms with now being in recession due to its ailing economy.
THE COUNTRY also has to deal with the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality.
Sihlobo has comprehensively studied the complexities of land reform in South Africa dating back before 1994.
“If you look at the earlier work done by the World Bank and (agricultural economists like) prof. Johan Kirsten, Dr. Johan van Zyl, prof. Nick Vink and a number of scholars… The issue of expropriation surfaced again in 2000, but it is only now that it has intensified.”
The young mover-and-shaker also emphasises that Mzansi’s agricultural sector is “highly capital intensive”.
He says, “Anything that is not attracting capital to the sector is not advisable. My book tries to persuade people to say, ‘Let’s look at other options besides expropriation without compensation that can effectively deliver land reform with minimal disruptions on the sector.’”
In Finding Common Ground: Land, Equity & Agriculture he proposes a fast-track plan with two vehicles to address potential pitfalls.
This is a virtual “land depository” and a land reform fund to which those with interest, expertise and wealth can contribute, and from which those who need can draw.
Finding Common Ground: Land, Equity & Agriculture, published by Pan Macmillan, is available at bookstores. It can also be bought as an e-book for Kindle or from Rakuten Kobo. The book is a selection of key articles from Sihlobo’s regular Business Day column, covering the many challenges and opportunities within South Africa’s agricultural sector.