The dawn of the new democracy in South Africa brought in its wake the discourse of rapid change and systems transformation unfamiliar to many of her citizens. This paper examines the public sector agricultural extension system and the challenges it faces in the young democracy. Challenges facing public sector agricultural extension in the Northern Province of South Africa are rooted in the history of African smallholder farming, institutional arrangements, structural adjustment programs, the policy framework, new clients, and the reorientation of the agricultural extension system. Statutorily mandated to serve the poor subsistence farmers, the public sector extension system has to be transformed to meet not only the current policy framework, but to adequately serve the “emerging/commercial” farmers. Structural adjustment programs and their implementation continuously determine the delivery capacity of the system. Meanwhile, the morale of stakeholders is declining in this era of transformation.
Drawing from a review of literature and personal experiences, we suggest that the public sector extension service is overwhelmed with the new changes. However, there are educational lessons embedded in the province’s “farmer first” principle, implemented through decentralization of management authority, application of participatory extension approaches, and strengthening institutional capacity of African smallholder farmer organizations. The implications of the adjustments programs are discussed.