Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Starve, the beloved country

How things have changed since the ANC took over. Hundreds of thousands of farm workers have lost their livelihood and the number of commercial farmers has decreased alarmingly.
Happy farm workers on a day at the Durban beach 1988.

September 28 2008 at 12:00PM

By Heather Dugmore

Farmer's Weekly editor Chris Burgess is hoping the post-Mbeki government will recognise the food production crisis in South Africa for what it is: a national emergency.
"This is not a fight between racist farmers and disenfranchised black people. It's a national crisis; it's a fight for the economic survival of our country," says Burgess, who has been the editor of South Africa's leading English-speaking farming magazine for the past eight years.
As an editor and as a son of the land (his family farms in Indwe in the Eastern Cape), Burgess candidly describes what is happening to farmers and food production in South Africa.
'When you can't farm any more, that's Zimbabwe'
"We are heading for a catastrophe and the cracks are already showing because our government under President [Thabo] Mbeki did not treat food production as a national priority," he says.
Food production the world over is of primary strategic importance. Countries such as India and China are buying up vast tracts of land in Africa and other parts of the world with the sole purpose of producing food for their people.
"They recognise that if you don't produce your own food and support your farmers, you open yourself to extreme political and economic insecurity," he explains.

Yet South Africa, with its rich agricultural history, is doing the opposite and making it as hard as possible for our farmers to survive.

"The state should be providing an enabling environment for farmers - from jacking up infrastructure to providing better research and development - much like the Australians and Kiwis do," he says.

'We run the risk of running out of food'
"Instead, it seems the state is doing its level best to drive away commercial farmers with threats like the Expropriation Bill, while emerging farmers have to try and get by on their own in a very competitive environment, without the benefit of, at least, experienced extension officers."

Couple this to the fact that large tracts of agricultural land are going out of production through unmanaged land restitution, and the consequence is that food production in South Africa is falling at an alarming rate.

"This year we changed from a nett exporter of food to a nett importer. For years we ranked among a handful of nett exporting countries in the world," Burgess continues.

"What this means is that we are now importing more food than we are exporting and that we are now dependent on the supply and largesse of other countries. It's extremely worrying, especially at a time of such high food prices worldwide."

Lulu Xingwana, until this week the minister of agriculture and land affairs, has been at the helm of food production in South Africa.

"She has proved spectacularly ill-equipped for the job and what astonishes me is that Mbeki just watched and did nothing even when he could see that food production and land reform were on a downward spiral in her hands."

On the subject of land reform and land restitution, Burgess calls it "a disaster".

"Everyone agrees that restitution in principle is correct and morally right, but the implementation of it so far has been a disaster. There are huge problems, both from an administrative and skills transfer perspective. Land affairs and the Land Claims Commission simply don't have the capacity to get the job done properly, and continually blame farmers to cover their deficiencies.

Problems include:

# "The verification process of land claims, which is often dubious and which undermines the integrity of the process.

# "If there is a land claim on your farm, the banks aren't keen to give you credit, even if you have had the title deeds since 1810, so you battle to operate. In many cases you might as well bugger off and wait for your money until the state finally gets round to its paperwork, which, even with willing sellers, can take more than two years to do the transfer when a private sale takes about four months.

# "Emerging farmers need intensive support and guidance. Farming and food production require years of experience. If you make a mistake in farming, it's extremely unforgiving and takes two to three seasons to correct. You have to know what you are doing or you will go under in a very short time.

"Yet our minister of agriculture believed it [was] a good idea to scour the ranks of the young and unemployed to fill posts for the agricultural extension programme. This is not a job-creation programme, it requires highly qualified and experienced people to assist and support our food producers."

Most farmers, black and white, are now looking to Jacob Zuma to rectify the disaster and respond to farming and food production as a priority. "Especially after his surprise visit to the grain farmers' annual congress, where he warmed to the 'boere' after being asked questions in fluent Zulu," says Burgess.

"It might be wishful thinking, but the fact that he has cattle and speaks the language of farmers bodes well. Hopefully, he will appoint people who understand the agricultural economy," says Burgess. "There are people of substance and competence in this field, but they are never given a chance to make their mark. They get transferred or removed or accused of being too close to the white farmers."

He cites Masiphula Mbongwa, the former director-general of agriculture, and Mohammad Karaan, the former vice-chairman of the National Agricultural Marketing Council, as two cases in point.

Mbongwa voiced his concerns about food security and had a good understanding of what was happening in commercial agriculture. He was transferred to the war room on poverty in the presidency.

Karaan had constructive, forward-thinking ideas about marketing agricultural products overseas, but he didn't last "because he was seen as too outspoken", Burgess explains. He is now dean of the faculty of agrisciences at Stellenbosch University.

"In short, politics always get in the way of food security in South Africa. Instead of embracing experience and building on the strengths of our institutional memory, we destroy it on the grounds that it's apartheid memory or apartheid-supporting memory or just not the right ideological hue."

The emerging farmers are suffering the most from this, Burgess adds. "Hell, they've been hit by a double whammy. Trying to cope with the volatility of trade liberalisation, while dealing with a department of agriculture that doesn't have any capacity to support them. What chances do these guys have?

"It has also many times been proved that you cannot simply give people farms and expect them to perform. The successful emerging farmers we have interviewed for Farmer's Weekly all have one thing in common: they have personally invested in their farms.

"If you just hand over a farm, fully stocked and equipped to people, any people, and they don't have to pay anything or to take any personal risk, then the chances are high they won't value it as they should and make sure it succeeds.

"To farm successfully you need to be an economist, a scientist, a marketer, an ecologist and a human resources manager, all rolled into one. Running a farm is far more complex than anyone living in the city can appreciate."

On top of this, farming is financially rather thankless. In terms of return on investment, it is one of the lowest in the economy at just over 10 percent.

"It's a difficult profession and you have to be mentally tough to be a farmer," adds Burgess. "You have to be able to survive droughts; to run out of water and grazing and still remain optimistic when everything is dying around you. By contrast, when things are going badly in the city, you can still escape for a cup of coffee in Hyde Park. On a farm there is no escape. You live with what is happening around you, night and day.

"You also live with your neighbours and, unlike in the city, their success directly affects you. If your neighbour's animal husbandry isn't up to scratch, and his sheep get scabs, your sheep are going to be infected too. For practical reasons and for goodwill reasons the farmers help each other because they all need farming in South Africa to succeed.

"I've seen plenty of projects where white commercial farmers are helping emerging black farmers get off the ground. Yet white farmers continue to be painted as intransigent racists who don't want to share anything. While there certainly are racist white farmers who do themselves and the country no favours, if you go into the country, you will see many farmers, black and white, supporting each other because that is how people survive.

"The problem is that farmers are no good at public relations. They are at the coalface of what is happening in South Africa, which is why they don't always espouse the liberal niceties of chief executive officers of companies whose closest interaction with communities on the ground is a social investment programme run by someone else."

Public relations or not, the message is loud and clear. Agriculture in South Africa is crying out for leadership and support. If it doesn't happen, the big question is whether we will go the same way as Zimbabwe.

"The answer is 'yes' and 'no'," says Burgess. "In fact, in some ways we have already gone the way of Zimbawe. South African farms are being 'invaded' by criminals who steal, murder and thrive on lawlessness in a land where it is mostly pointless calling the police.

"Crime is so bad in the Free State along the Lesotho border that the farmers have appointed George Bizos to represent them in the constitutional court. Their case against the state is that it is not protecting its citizens from roving bands of foreign bandits who murder, steal their stock and wreak such havoc that they can't farm any more.

"When you can't farm any more, that's Zimbabwe.

"We also have official farm invasions here through legislation like the Mining Act, which makes an absolute mockery of property rights.

"With an official piece of paper, mining operations can install themselves on your farm and start mining. They don't need your consent, they don't need to pay you for your farm and once your ground water is polluted, it's not their problem.

"It's happening all over the country with enormous environmental implications and no one seems to care. It's happening on our farm in Indwe, where they are putting up a power station and starting to mine coal."

The Burgess family has borne the brunt of land dispossession since the apartheid era, when the Nationalist government dispossessed them of their farm at the time to include it in the homeland of Transkei.

The "no Zimbabwe" aspect is that South Africa is so diverse and our agriculture is so complex that it is unlikely we would have what Burgess calls "the same cataclysmic explosion as Zimbabwe faced with mass invasions of farms".

"Our situation is less obvious and more of a 'white ant' effect, where everything looks okay on the outside but it is being eroded from within by mismanagement."

The solution, says Burgess, is to wake up and draw on the expertise at our disposal.

"We undoubtedly have some of the best farmers, researchers and agriculturalists in the world with more than enough expertise to turn things around. We have to start drawing on this expertise and we have to start supporting and respecting our farmers. They play an incredibly vital role in keeping our society stable.

"Without them we run the risk of running out of food and then we will start experiencing instability such as we have never known."


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