An institutional analysis of South Africa's new cooperative act : evidence from selected case studies in KwaZulu-Natal.
Cooperatives are a means through which farmers may gain economic power by reducing unit transaction costs associated with production, marketing and distribution of products. In South Africa, cooperatives are promoted as a means of advancing economic development in rural areas through empowerment, development of income generating activities, improvement of human resource capacity, and increased savings and investment. The new Cooperatives Act 14 of 2005 was enacted in August 2005 to promote the role of cooperatives as organisations for pro-poor development in South Africa and to increase their chance of survival in the economy. This study uses a New Institutional Economics (NIE) framework to analyse the Cooperatives Act and its worth as a vehicle for promoting pro-poor development. A hypothetical cooperative, predicated by the new Act, was analysed using the NIE to identify institutional problems likely to constrain the collective efforts of small producers. A case study approach was then used to analyse three production cooperatives in KwaZulu-Natal that were registered post August 2005 and still operational in 2008. Interviews were conducted with individual members, directors and project managers (where applicable) between May and July 2008. Open-ended questions provided the flexibility needed to explore the institutional roots of problems identified by respondents. Free-rider, horizon, portfolio, control and influence problems were identified in the case studies. These problems, which stem from ill-defined voting and benefit rights, resulted in low equity investment, low investment in long term assets, a preference for current cash flows rather than future investment, and social conflict – all of which constrained the competitiveness and growth prospects of the cooperatives studied. In an attempt to mitigate these problems, two of the cooperatives shed their poorest members, a solution which is not consistent with the objective of pro-poor economic development. Additionally, two cooperatives opted to create their own rules to reward investors with capital gains - an institutional arrangement that is not permitted by the new Act. It is concluded that the new Act should be amended to give cooperatives greater flexibility in their institutional arrangements. In particular, cooperatives should be allowed to issue tradable equity shares that offer benefits proportional to shareholding. If these tradable equity shares carry voting rights and are offered to non-patron investors, aggregate voting rights conferred on these non-patron investors should be capped to prevent loss of control by patron members. It is further recommended that the same level of start-up support should be made available to all producer groups that formally register their business, regardless of the business model chosen, and that member empowerment should be an essential requirement for registration and public funding. Keywords: Agricultural Cooperatives, Cooperatives Act, New Institutional Economics, Case Study
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