Over 80% of the total land area is available for farming, but only 13% is cultivated. Many areas suffer from erratic rainfall and soil erosion; cultivated land is not expected to exceed 15% in the future because of these adversities. Only 8.6% of cultivated land was irrigated in 1998. The worst drought of this century in southern Africa resulted in near to total crop failure in 1991–92. Many farmers subsequently abandoned the countryside for urban areas. After many years of dry weather, South Africa had abundant rainfall in the 1995/96 growing season. Except for rice, tea, coffee, and cocoa, the country is typically self-sufficient in essential food production. The average annual growth rate of agricultural output was 0.6% during 1990–2000. Agriculture contributed an estimated 3% to GDP in 2001.
The principal crop is corn ("mealies"), which is grown mainly on the plateau of the Orange Free State and Transvaal. Some 27% of the sown area is planted in corn; output totaled 7,712,000 tons in 1999 (down from 10,136,000 tons in 1997). Wheat can be grown only in winter; production of wheat totaled 1,561,000 tons in 1999. An indigenous sorghum ("Kaffir corn") is used to make beer and is also an important source of protein. Less important, but planted in considerable quantities, are the other winter cereals—barley, oats, and rye. Potato production totaled 1,701,000 tons in 1999.
Sugarcane, indigenous to the Natal coastal belt, was grown before World War II (1939–45) in quantities sufficient to export. Increasing domestic demand after the war absorbed the total output, but with a rise in production and an expansion of the capacity of sugar mills, South Africa became a large sugar exporter. Sugarcane production totaled 21,248,000 tons in 1999. Deciduous and citrus fruits, some of them exported, are also profitable. Vegetables, peanuts, sunflower seeds, groundnuts, soy beans, coffee, ginger, tobacco, cotton, and various types of fodder plants are used domestically. Wine is an important product; over 90% of it is consumed locally. In 1999, 1,554,000 tons of grapes were produced.