Farming could breathe life into mining towns

Eskom and Sasol are both undertaking green projects that may revolutionise South African electricity production and fuel consumption. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Eskom and Sasol are both undertaking green projects that may revolutionise South African electricity production and fuel consumption. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Buyambo Mantashe, Business Development Manager, Agri enterprises
The nexus between mining and agriculture for the economic development of mining towns is often understated. Buyambo Mantashe, Agri Enterprises business development manager, argues that agriculture should be part of the planning for mine closures well in advance to buffer the impact on communities.


The important role of mining in the development of South Africa cannot be stated enough.

Numerous towns such as Johannesburg, Boksburg, Rustenburg and, more recently Kathu, have been built on the back of mining. Since the first diamond was discovered in the 1860s, the mining industry has impacted South Africa’s mining towns. This has resulted in the livelihoods of their populations becoming exclusively reliant on mining operations for their economic activity and existence. 

Needless to say, the economic sustainability of many of these towns becomes improbable when mining activity inevitably declines. It is, therefore, crucial that all stakeholders, led by mining companies and the government, proactively think about creating alternative economies that ensure these towns remain economically active beyond the life of the mines.

There is no single solution to mine closures, but the relationship between mining and agriculture makes agriculture an attractive and viable solution.

The relationship between the two industries is often symbiotic and controversially competitive, depending on the situation.

However, using agriculture to build a sustainable alternative and circular economy in these towns will allow the economy to preserve jobs that have been created by the mining economy’s activity. Secondly, agriculture is a key foreign income earner for the economy and its linkages to other economic sectors make it a vital alternative sector for mining towns.

Employment in agriculture

Quarter one statistics on agricultural employment in South Africa indicates that the sector employs approximately 792 000 workers. This indicates that the sector is a significant employer within the economy. The agricultural sector, similar to mining, is labour-intensive and from a socioeconomic point of view this, too, makes agriculture an attractive option for mining towns. 

Jobs in agriculture are mostly suitable for low and semi-skilled workers. Therefore, reskilling mine workers to take up jobs in agriculture can ensure a smooth transition.  

Source: Agbiz (2021)

Agricultural activity is suitable in most of South Africa’s mining towns. The parallels between the two sectors would enable employment sustainability and creation of new jobs in the economy.

Agriculture as foreign income earner

In 2020, South Africa’s agricultural exports amounted to US$10.2 billion, which is a 3% increase from the previous year. This is the second-largest level after the record exports of US$10.7 billion in 2018. The exports were primarily underpinned by large domestic agricultural output, which was supported by favourable weather conditions.

This highlights agriculture as a vital earner of foreign income in the South African economy and this would allow minimal disruption from the foreign income often earned by mining companies. Foreign income can contribute to both factor productivity and income growth in host communities, therefore emphasising the need to keep these mining towns economically active.

Source: Agbiz (2021)

Investments in the sector, such as the expansion of irrigation capacity and building of fixed structures, could deliver high financial returns. Agriculture has critical value chain linkages to the rest of the economy. Beyond primary agriculture, the value chain linkages can attract investments to these towns.

The need to think ahead

The nexus between mining and agriculture for the economic development of mining towns is often understated. Increasingly vital, for economic and social considerations in these mining towns, is the need to create sustainable opportunities after a mine closure.

These socio-economic issues are challenging to address as they deal with human perceptions, hopes and expectations, as well as the fundamental matters of skills, jobs, local beneficiation and sustained quality of life. 

There has been an indication that some stakeholders are starting to think about the need to create alternative economies and revitalise previously prosperous mining towns. Mining companies are realising the need for such interventions and the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), through funding from Agence Française de Développement (AFD), highlighted that there is a need for timely planning for mine closures. 

Therefore, this is an important process that companies and towns alike ought to undertake early in the life of a mine to avoid negative environmental, health and socio-economic legacies. Mine closure planning should be linked with planning frameworks of local governments, such as integrated development plans (IDPs), local economic development (LED) plans and spatial development. 

Agriculture therefore can be the solution to these mining towns, as the fundamentals of these two sectors is extremely related and can ensure sustainability.

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