Conceptualising sustainable rural livelihood development in South Africa as an extension of sustainable development planning: a research and overview article

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Conceptualising sustainable rural livelihoods in the South African context as an extension of sustainable development requires an understanding of what the concept entails, how sustainable rural livelihoods derive from it, and its significance to South African circumstances. Based on a review of the relevant literature, the article endeavours to provide a working definition of sustainable development and sustainable rural livelihoods, with its attendant measurables. This, in turn, informs the conceptualisation of sustainable rural livelihoods in a South African context. 

Sustainable development is a concept that emerged from the basic-needs approach to development (Cole 1994b:228) and which has gained increasing importance in the development debate since the early 1970s. However, there is still no consensus regarding a definition for this concept and there is a proliferation of studies concerning sustainable development and its related issues. As many researchers have rightly pointed out, the concept of sustainable development has different meanings for different individuals (Howarth 1997:445; Asikainen, Brites, Plebańczyk, Rogač Mijatović and Soini 2017:5). As such, it is essential from the outset to ensure that the concept as it emerges in sustainable rural livelihood development is placed and discussed within the relevant framework. For the purposes of this article, sustainable development refers to a fertile livelihood for successive generations that take place within the capacity of ecological, social and economic systems of a society. In particular it supports the definition of sustainable rural livelihoods as sustainable development taking place in a particular spatial context (rural environment), with the components of people (socio-political and ecological), tangible assets (ecological and economic) and intangible assets (economic and socio-political) that give a significant meaning to it within a specific time frame. 

Ascertaining the achievability of sustainable development (and sustainable rural livelihoods as its derivative) as an objective of urban and regional planning approaches requires the establishment of relevant and suitable indicators. The use of pure economic growth indicators has already been deemed insufficient in addressing poverty alleviation and the concomitant improvement of living conditions (Korten 1992:13 and Goldsmith 1977:129). In order to measure sustainable development more reliably, the current analytical and design frameworks at different levels therefore need to be radically altered (Magnaghi 2005; Goldsmith 1972:12; Bueno 2010:43). This has led to the creation of a specific discipline dedicated to the comprehensive and intricate nature of appropriate indicators to measure sustainable development, namely sustainomics (Munasinge 2009:22–3). In practice it is essential to use these appropriate benchmarks and frameworks in the implementation and measurement of sustainable rural-livelihood development.

Although sustainable development has been an integral part of the South African policy and legal framework since 1992 (Kotze 2014:16) it does not necessarily take into consideration the livelihood strategies of rural communities. While the policy and legal framework emphasises the usual sustainable development approaches to economic growth and the improved management of natural resources, the vast majority of rural populations focus more on survival strategies in their livelihoods (especially the poorest of the poor). Baumgartner (2004:17) argues that rural development should rather be aimed at supporting rural communities as they continually adapt their survival strategies in order to create a more sustainable livelihood. In addition, sustainable rural livelihood planning within the South African context requires an awareness of the significant differences between various types of rural areas. The specificity of the different spatial, social and economic contexts within sustainable rural-livelihood development supports a strategic rural planning approach that centres on the view of life of the relevant rural community (Munasinge 2009:225). Rural livelihoods, however, do not occur in isolation from urban livelihoods in South Africa, and the sustainability strategies of the two are intimately linked (draft Integrated Urban Development Framework 2014:5). This supports the context-specific approach to sustainable livelihood development, as there is no one perfect sustainable development strategy that can be applied to create sustainable communities in South Africa, no matter where they are on the urban-rural continuum. 

The various aspects that are important for rural livelihood development are summarised by Dale's developmental measures (2004:2–3), namely: economic; social; dependence on independence (i.e. the extent to which choices can be made with regard to living conditions themselves); marginalised versus integrated state; degree of freedom of crime; degree of spiritual satisfaction; and whether there is a developmental mindset (a person's perception of his position and available opportunities on individual, household or community level within society). These aspects have a unique meaning for rural communities in South Africa, such as for land tenure issues and the economic and economic interaction in rural former homeland areas, particularly in terms of civil pensions, urban dependence, the role of local production and the place of local/periodic markets (Nel and Hill 2000:230), and require a sustainable development approach that takes this into account. There are also specific gender issues that need to be incorporated into any approach towards sustainable rural livelihood development: firstly that of increased access for women to social grants and support; secondly, enabling women to participate in planning and implementation processes; and thirdly, access to resources (Government of National Unity [Die Regering van Nasionale Eenheid] 1995). The main issue currently affecting sustainable rural livelihood development in South Africa is that of access to land-use rights. In this regard, government institutions have a decisive role in the way in which the distribution of resources (especially land rights) takes place (Cole 1994a:4). However, the way in which this division takes place must be carefully considered, since ill-considered, hasty and large-scale land reforms can be economically disastrous (Clayton 1983:21), as is clearly evident in the cases of Puerto Rico (Trigo 2007:64), Venezuela (Naím and Toro 2018:130) and Zimbabwe (Chipenda 2018:140). 

Sustainable development and, consequently, sustainable rural livelihood development, will always be relevant topics for analysis, as these affect people's lives on a daily basis. In Africa (and therefore also in South Africa) it is essential to note that sustainable development will be achievable only if poor and marginalised communities are specifically included in the process and if the improvement of the quality of life of these communities is prioritised (Pelser and Van Rensburg 1997:164). Rural women are an especially vulnerable group and suffer most from poverty in these areas (Government of National Unity 2015). Although there are several challenges in determining sustainable development and sustainable rural livelihood development in the South African context, there is an emerging set of practices (both proven and exploratory) that provides a solid baseline from which to start (Gause (red.) 2007:14). This baseline can be utilised to resolve systemic impediments to sustainable development in South Africa, both general and specific. The key issues that should be addressed in each of the three environments of sustainable development in order to achieve sustainable rural livelihoods in South Africa are the creation of opportunities for women to participate in planning and implementation processes (socio-political environment), a well-considered resource accessibility plan, especially with regard to land use and ownership rights (economic environment) and the integration of land and water resource management to protect the viability and carrying capacity of agricultural land (ecological environment).

Keywords: rural South Africa; sustainable development; sustainable rural livelihoods; sustainanomics; urban and regional planning


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