South African agricultural R&D: Policies and public institutions, 1880-2007

Frikkie Liebenberg, Philip G. Pardey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


In South Africa, government engagement in agricultural R&D and associated technical support services dates back to at least the 1880s. Over the subsequent century and more, the growth in public support for agricultural R&D, extension and technical services has waxed and waned and the policies and public institutions directed at them have changed markedly. In the early 20th century the focus was on tapping technologies and expertise from other countries. Subsequent changes in agricultural R&D mirrored broader agricultural and economy-wide policy thrusts. The period through to the Second World War saw an expansion of the area farmed, mostly involving white farmers. During the decades immediately following the war, public R&D mainly supported intensification and promoted technological change by large commercial operators. The early 1980s heralded large structural changes in agriculture and the economy generally and policies were enacted to redistribute land to black farmers, with associated shifts in the focus of public research and extension services. The emphasis given to regional versus more centralised cum national research and extension agencies has changed dramatically as well over the decades. As food security and associated agricultural productivity concerns resurface, the R&D policies and institutions supporting agriculture are likely to be revisited, hopefully with an eye to the long-run nature and ramifications for agricultural R&D.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-15
Number of pages15
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2011

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Citing Kingwell (1990, pp.4–5) and Smit (1984, p.6), Marais (2000) notes that WKH ,QGXVWULHV $GYLVRU\ %RDUG ,$% IRUPHG LQ ³« ZDV WKH ¿UVW DWWHPSW LQ South Africa at public support for academic and industrial research …” (p.177). Liebenberg (2011) maintains that public support for agricultural R&D in South Africa (and its precursor republics and colonies) preceded the activities of the IAB by several decades. In fact, the kudos for the earliest organised and publicly supported R&D in South Africa likely rests with a range of research activities funded by and largely carried out within the Departments of Agriculture of the former Boer Republics and the Colonial government. The Cape Agricultural Journal published by the Department of Agriculture of the Cape Colony appeared in 1889 and reported on the results of research carried out by the Department as well as other scientists working in other institutions. For example, research into rinderpest – a highly contagious viral disease, often fatal for domesticated cattle – was undertaken during the 1890s by Professor Theiler, the veterinarian for the Transvaal Republic (Diesel & Fourie, 1952). In 1897, the Transvaal Department of Agriculture established a Veterinary Bacteriology Laboratory followed in 1902 E\ D 'LYLVLRQ RI &KHPLVWU\ WKDW VXUYH\HG FODVVL¿HG DQG V\VWHPDWLFDOO\ VWXGLHG WKH soils supporting South African agriculture (De Villiers, 2002). Notably, harnessing research done elsewhere to address the production problems of South African farmers (R&D “spillovers” in contemporary economic parlance) has been a feature of publicly supported agricultural research since its inception. Union of South Africa expenditure reports show that, in 1911, Professor Nuttall of Cambridge University was commissioned to investigate the causes of and control remedies for East Coast Fever.2

Funding Information:
A White Paper on Science and Technology (DACST, 1996) introduced an “innovation system” approach to science and technology policy formulation in 6RXWK $IULFD 7KH SXEOLF SROLF\ LQVWUXPHQWV WR ¿QDQFH 5 ' DOVR GUHZ DWWHQWLRQ in the White Paper. Prior to 1996, public-sector support for R&D was channelled through two Parliamentary Votes. An Education Vote involved a block grant approach to funding R&D conducted by the universities. The Science Vote had three lines of funding for R&D. One involved block funding earmarked for research carried out by the universities and managed on an agency basis by the Foundation for Research and Development and the Medical Research Council (MRC). Another involved a line of base funding for each of the statutory Science Councils. A third line of funding was a competitive funding mechanism for research conducted by private institutions. Provision was also made in the White Paper related to tracking and evaluating science. This led to the introduction of a performance measurement system for the Science Councils and the revitalisation of the then moribund series of R&D surveys. It was hoped that the new funding mechanisms would steer the Science Councils to realign their activities to the goals of the government’s Reconstruction and Development Programme, which happened to some extent, but by and large the Science Councils carried on with their core business with little substantive changes.

Funding Information:
The research supporting this paper was funded principally by the South African Department of Agriculture and the Agricultural Research Council, with additional support from the International Food Policy Research Institute, InSTePP, the University of Pretoria, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation via the HarvestChoice project. The authors would like to thank Johann Kirsten, Paul Magnuson and Michael Khan for their insights and Lidia Coetser and Erika van Heerden for their outstanding support in tracking down somettimes obscure sources of data and information.

Funding Information:
With its Science Council designation, the ARC initially operated under the policy of Framework Autonomy (introduced in 1986) funded on the basis of a baseline formula and reporting to parliament.8 Oversight of the country’s science system was formerly assigned to a Science Advisory Council reporting directly to the State President. This effectively gave the ARC large degrees of freedom LQ LWV RSHUDWLRQV RVWHQVLEO\ XQGHU WKH JXLGDQFH RI LQVWLWXWH VSHFL¿F DGYLVRU\ panels (which included industry representation) that in practice never became fully operationalised. The national policy on science, engineering and technology LQVWLWXWLRQV VR FDOOHG 6(7,V ZDV IXUWKHU UHFRQ¿JXUHG LQ ZLWK IXQGLQJ mechanisms consisting of a parliamentary grant for core funding and a competitive ,QQRYDWLRQ )XQG GHVLJQHG WR GLUHFW UHVHDUFK WRZDUG LGHQWL¿HG QDWLRQDO LPSHUDWLYHV (DACST, 1996). All non-core income generated through contract research for government departments, industry and the private sector was considered external income, and projects funded by this means were charged on a “full-cost” basis. The principle of selling (research) services to the market is enshrined in the Public Finance Management Act of 1999.


  • Agricultural research and development
  • institutions
  • policy
  • science and technology


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