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:

From a Network of Public Silos to International Food Speculation

In the last months we have spent many hours traveling across fields and towns throughout the grain production areas of Catalonia and Aragón in Spain. During this fieldwork we have come across many empty and abandoned silos and granaries, which got us wondering about the changes in agri/culture that have lead to their fall into disuse. These silos are typically huge concrete constructions (frequently being the highest buildings in the area) and are located in producer cooperatives or in villages. They are also now often adorned with magnificent stork nests.


In the Spanish State, there is the Grupo de Investigación Silos y Graneros (a research group on silos and granaries) devoted to studying these constructions as rural historical heritage. This group promotes the restoration of these buildings as both an opportunity for creating new uses for them (e.g. as storage spaces for different products or as public equipment, business incubators or museums) and thus revitalising the local economy of rural areas.

The Spanish network of silos and granaries was created during the Franco dictatorship, with the aim of storing the grain harvest and thus, assuring its supply for the population and alleviating market irregularities by guaranteeing prices for farmers. A total of 663 silos and 275 granaries were built between 1945 and 1986. They were built to shorten the distances between farmers and storage facilities and between storage facilities and flour mills. At the beginning of their existence, these Spanish silos were only storing wheat, but later were also used to store other grains and legumes. During those initial years, a monopoly of silos and granaries was established with the idea that the Franco regime could control both grain production and consumption. Several years later, this collection of storage infrastructures was renamed to the National Network of Silos and Granaries and was reformed to manage the national stocks. The inclusion of Spain into the European Union in 1986 marked the beginning of the decline of these public silos and the transfer of their management responsibilities to regional governments.


The current situation shows an almost complete abandonment of the public silos and granaries (with only 142 of them still active). The old network of public silos has now been replaced by the construction of new private silos and granaries owned by multinational companies operating within the international commodities market. As one of our interviewees explained, not only has the cereal been privatised, but also now the control of the information regarding grain stock levels. This has catalysed certain speculation processes dominated by an oligopoly of companies connected to investment and pension funds. According to Olivier de Schutter, the special rapporteur of the United Nations for the Right to Food, these companies are behind the speculative bubble that resulted in the devastating food crises of 2007/2008 and 2010/2011. In fact, international agricultural prices doubled during the period between 2002 and 2013.


Price volatility relates to multiple complex factors, such as the rise in demand for resources from the so-called emerging economies and from changing political situations (both in the short term but also linked to long term factors such as climate change). Factors such as the interdependence of energy and agricultural prices, and the expansion of agrofuels, have made speculation by investment funds possible, which have increasingly started to shift their investments into the agricultural sector after the crisis in the real estate market.

As a response to this situation, the European Parliament agreed to reform the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (Directive 2004/39/EC) (MiFID) that regulates the financial services in the markets of the European Union. The new agreement aims, among other goals, to limit speculation on raw materials by investors and to impose sanctions for breaches. These aspects were positively viewed by a number of civil society organisations seeking to limit food speculation. However, many other aspects of the Directive remain highly criticised, such as the designation of member states as the competent bodies to set these limits, despite the threat of downward competition. It is also uncertain what the impact of these agreements will be if the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) is approved. If this happens, it may involve a weakening of trade and investment regulations as well as a lifting of obstacles to food speculation by the financial sector.

These abandoned silos therefore tell us interesting stories about the shifting culture of agriculture over time and its increasing entanglement in the investment and speculation practices of international actors and markets.