Grain elevators and changing agricultural landscapes in South Africa

This entry carries on from the conversation started two weeks ago exploring the abandoned public silos and granaries in Spain. Abandoned grain elevators and silos are also something I began to notice in the beginning phase of my fieldwork in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. At the heart of King Williams Town is an abandoned grain silo that is now home to the Department of Sports and Recreation. Noticing this, I also became interested in the history of the old silo at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town where I am based. Hearing about the case in Spain, I became curious about the similarities and differences between the Spanish and South African histories connected to these silos.

Researching abandoned grain silos opens up a world of books, photographs and video clips related to these structures, in which they are often referred to as “iconic”, “cathedrals” or “sentinels”, towering above the various landscapes in which they found. Their tall, brooding appearance sparks a sense of curiosity and engagement and therefore in many places, just as in Spain, efforts have been made recently to re-purpose these structures. Often, they become refashioned into cultural spaces such as museums, galleries or canvasses for artists.

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Grain Silo art – Perth. See:

The Cape Town silo (also known as a grain elevator) was built as part of a networked grain storage system constructed in the early part of the 20th Century. The construction of the 57m high Cape Town grain elevator began in 1921 and was completed in 1924 and at the time was the tallest building in the city. In 1995, a year after South Africa became a democracy, the elevator was decommissioned. Over it’s 71 year life-span, the structure stored and exported wheat, yellow maize, white maize, sorghum, tapioca, soya, oats, sunflower oil cake, cotton oil cake and malt. During its life-time this building, and the country-wide infrastructure that it formed a part of, also stood witness and helped fuel the concentration of political control and power over the food system in South Africa. In this way, the situation mirrors the Spanish case, in which the state network of silos arose and were in use during a period in which political power was concentrated in a dictator rather than dispersed through a democracy

After the formation of the Union in 1910, white owned agribusiness in South Africa was supported and bolstered by a series of governmental Acts that continued into the apartheid regime. These included the 1913 Native Land Act and the 1939 Cooperative Societies Act as well as others which came together in the 1937 Marketing Act. This gave the South African state complete control over all domestic markets and trade. As a result of these laws, the industrial agri-food system was built on the one hand through land-dispossession and marginalization of black farmers from market systems and on the other hand through  subsidization of white farmers activities. Under apartheid, co-ops owned by white farmers were in essence extensions of the state – serving the National Party’s interests. White owned farmer cooperatives had rights to the market within 60km in all directions of a silo located in their vicinity.

Silo Art in Sacremento. See:

Starting in the 1970s, and increasingly into the 1980s, state control within domestic markets began to loose hold and private companies began to buy up assets. After 1994, reforms were implemented to further liberalize domestic and foreign markets. However, given the history of unequal market access, this allowed for those who had historically had access to gain a foothold and buy up large parts of the system. Today, similar to in Spain, grain handling has been fully privatized. In 1994 when farmer cooperatives became privatised, they automatically gained grain storage monopolies across vast areas of agricultural land. The largest 3 of these companies today (which now are engaged in a variety of agribusiness activities) control up to 74% of grain storage in South Africa.

The Cape Town silo formed part of a “networked landscape” of nationally built grain infrastructure developed in the early part of the 20th Century. This comprised of 2 port elevators, of which the Cape Town elevator was the first to be completed in 1924 (the other is located in Durban and another built much later in East London during the 1960s) and a further 34 smaller elevators located inland, all connected by rail. The networked system was seen as vital for boosting the country’s exports of maize. The inland elevators were “built to the same specifications; by the same builder for the same purpose; fitted by the same engineers; with the same machinery; owned and financed by the same authority; and staffed by the same labour pool” (Worth, 2005). This fleet of grain elevators continued to be run by the South African Harbour and Railways until 1963, when they were transferred t0 the maize control board and then to white farmer cooperatives under apartheid state.

In 1987 the Cape Town grain elevator was leased to the Western Cape Farmers coop. In 2001 this lease was terminated and until recently, the elevator lay abandoned. Recently, the Cape Town grain elevator site has, however, begun to be re-fashioned into an extensive set of luxury apartments and offices, a hotel and art museum and a gallery space which is set to launch in 2017. The museum is being showcased as Africa’s first Museum for Contemporary African Art. This will be know as the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) and is expected to draw visitors from all over the world. Efforts will be made to retain large parts of the original structure and preserve parts of the original machinery. It is interesting to consider how these structures that have shaped and been shaped by history, are being brought into present day use and how much of this history is referenced and remembered going forward.


The Cape Town grain silo currently being re-fashioned into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA).


Worth, D. (2005). “Gas and Grain: The Conservation of Networked Industrial Landscapes” in Industrial Archaeology: Future Directions. E. Conlin Casella and J. Symonds. New York, Springer Science and Business Media: 135-154.

Greenberg, S. (2010) Contesting the food system in South Africa: Issues and Oppourtunities. PLAAS. Available on:

African Centre for Biosafety. (2013) GM Maize: Lessons for Africa: cartels, collusion and control of Africas staple food. Available on:


Choosing Study Sites: A Visit to King Williams Town in the Eastern Cape of South Africa

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In July I travelled to King Williams Town in the Eastern Cape of South Africa to explore the different types of maize farming there, especially what types of maize are being grown at different scales and the various farming methods being used. King Williams Town is part of the former Ciskei Bantustan created during apartheid. The Eastern Cape is considered one of South Africa’s poorest Provinces and as a result has been the focus of a number of governmental supported agrarian programs.

I had never been to visit any maize growing areas in the Eastern Cape before. While I grew up on a farm surrounded by maize fields in Swaziland, I had also never experienced GM maize being grown. I was curious about what those systems looked like and how it felt to walk through a GM maize field and if it felt different from the fields I had known growing up. I have recently been excited about exploring a multi-species ethnographic approach for my PhD research within the project and have been contemplating how this approach may be used to document different maize systems. How, for example, might the human and other species’ relationships with GM maize differ from those around traditional maize, and what kinds of data collection, observations and creative methodologies could be used to explore this?

harvested field GM maize proj

During this visit to King Williams Town,  I accompanied Hilde (a masters student at the University of Cape Town who was interviewing small-scale farmers that had adopted GM maize as part of a series of government interventions in the area), while she was doing her fieldwork. The area has been and still is a site for many trial GM projects, including maize but also GM cotton and GM soya. The interviewees told different stories about their experiences with GMOs. While there were some who highlighted the GM crop failure for this season and mentioned that this had already happened with GM cotton, others attested that the GM crop was a great success.

In King Williams Town I also met up with representatives of the Zingisa Educational Project, a gender sensitive organisation based there that supports people’s organisations to lobby and advocate for pro-poor land and agrarian policies and to develop alternative models of land access and land use in favour of the rural poor, emerging farmers and the landless. For a number of years Zingisa have been involved in research concerning the spread of GM crops (including maize) in the area and in providing information about the possible effects of GMOs. They are at present mobilizing farmers to grow vegetables and grains using traditional seeds and methods and are developing a system of community seed banks. Zingisa research has shown that it is most often the case in the area that small-scale farmers do not have access to information about the GM seeds they are given through various sponsored projects. We visited two gardens where traditional maize is grown in the area of Nxarhuni. One belonged to an elderly man who farmed organic vegetables and maize and saved his own seed. The other was a community seed bank and garden that had been recently set up.

GM maize just harvested     old maize silo in KWT now dept of sprots and rec

An interview with the owner of an agricultural cooperative in the town revealed how in the past farmers would have sold maize to a centralized mill but that this had been shut down. In fact, the enormous and ominous old silo, which stands in the centre of King Williams Town (now converted into the Department of Sport and Recreation), stood abandoned as a reminder of a different time. Now many farmers in the area grow yellow maize (preferred for animal feed) which they sell directly to livestock farmers or to Epol, an animal feed company with a central storage and distribution facility located near by. The market for yellow maize used for animal feed has resulted in most farmers both small-scale and larger scale in the area focusing on planting this crop. The owner of the agricultural coop explained an important factor for the poultry industry and another reason for the choice of yellow maize: “yellow maize makes yellow eggs”. This pointed to the connections between what happens on the farm and in seed choice, with retailer and consumer preferences further down the supply chain. While the ways in which farmers sell their maize varies, in general it appears that supply chains are in a sense quite short and compact in this area relative to other parts of the country where white maize is grown commercially for human consumption, which creates longer supply chains including milling and product development stages. It could therefore be important to explore different regions and supply chains in relation to each other. The next phase of my work will involve exploring further what kinds of maize systems exist in different parts of the country and then choosing which sites I will focus on for the study going forward.