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South Africa Table of Contents

South Africa


From the earliest times, livestock raising has been the backbone of South African agriculture. The large sheep herds of the Khoikhoi peoples on the Cape peninsula were admired and later appropriated by European settlers in the seventeenth century. The early Xhosa and Zulu societies were well known for the value they placed on cattle even before Europeans began cattle farming in the region in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. The Europeans brought new breeds of sheep and cattle to southern Africa, and from these various stocks emerged a thriving commercial livestock sector. Cattle, estimated at more than 8 million head, are found in areas throughout the country; sheep (nearly 26 million) graze primarily in pastures stretching across the Northern Cape, Eastern Cape, western Free State, and Mpumalanga.

The livestock sector produces an estimated 900,000 tons of red meat each year. For example, the industry reported that nearly 2 million head of cattle were slaughtered in 1994. Poultry and pig farms are also found across the country, although most large commercial farms are near metropolitan areas. The industry estimates that farmers own roughly 1.2 million pigs. The poultry industry, with at least 11 million chickens, reportedly produced more than 500,000 tons of meat in 1994. In addition, a small but growing ostrich-raising industry produces plumes, skins, and meat.

Wool is an important agricultural export. South Africa became the world's fourth-largest exporter of wool by the late 1940s, and is consistently among the world's top ten wool producers, with an output of about 100,000 tons in most years. Approximately 60 percent of South African sheep are Merino, which produce high yields of fine wool. The newer, locally developed Afrino breed is a wool-mutton breed adapted to arid conditions. Most wool is exported, but the domestic wool-processing industry includes wool washing, combing, spinning, and weaving.

Dairy farming is found throughout the country, especially in the eastern half, and is sufficient to meet domestic needs, barring periods of extreme drought. The predominant dairy breeds are Holstein, Friesian, and Jersey cows. The milk price was deregulated in 1983, resulting in lower prices, but industry regulations continued to enforce strict health precautions. In a system dating to 1930, all wholesale milk buyers pay a compulsory levy to the National Milk Board. This money is pooled in a stabilization fund and used to subsidize dairies manufacturing butter, skim milk powder, and cheese when a surplus exists. Fresh-milk dairies objected in the early 1990s, however, and several of them were involved in litigation to have the levy lifted.


South Africa's forests cover only about 1 percent of the country's total land area. The country never was heavily forested, and by the early twentieth century, humans had destroyed much of its natural wood resources. After World War I, the government began to establish forest plantations to grow trees for commercial use. Located primarily in the northeast and in KwaZulu-Natal, most timber plantations produce pine and eucalyptus trees. Although most wood is used for fuel, industrial uses include construction and mine props, paper products, and a variety of agricultural applications.

The country's pulp and paper industries expanded operations for export during the 1980s. About half of all commercial South African sawlogs came from state-owned plantations for use in the pulp and paper industries and in the mines. The two major paper manufacturers, Mondi (owned by Anglo American) and Sappi (owned by Gencor), spent approximately R3 billion to expand their operations during the 1980s, and in 1991 Sappi expanded even further by purchasing five specialty paper mills in Britain. Sappi was then ranked as the eleventh largest company in South Africa.

South Africa's forests produce more than 14.5 million cubic meters of unseasoned timber annually. Several hundred thousand people are employed on timber farms and in more than 240 wood-processing factories. Although South Africa could supply most of its own needs for wood and wood products, the timber industry faced problems on the export market in the early 1990s. The industry had relied on exports of pulp and paper, but falling world prices threatened profitability. In the mid-1990s, the government's Reconstruction and Development Programme calls for more than 1 million housing starts during the decade, and the timber industry is promoting the use of timber-frame houses to increase its domestic market share under this program.

Data as of May 1996

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South Africa Table of Contents