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July 10, 2008

South African commercial farmers angry, frustrated and insecure

by Max du Preez

There is an old classic cartoon that has been used for decades in different societies. It pretends to be a gallery of the particular country's cabinet. There's a picture of a wolf subtitled minister of sheep, a crocodile who is minister of goats, a fox who is minister of chickens - and the next picture is of an actual minister with his/her actual portfolio.

I would like to propose a cartoon like that right now for our minister of agriculture. The most critical part of her portfolio is commercial agriculture, yet she hates white farmers and badmouths, taunts and threatens them whenever she has an opportunity.

Yes, emerging small farmers are another important part of her job. But in a time of great fear of food insecurity, she cannot afford to alienate and undermine commercial agriculture. In any case, she has not done much for emerging farmers either.

Commercial farmers are not exactly having a great time right now. Apart from a hostile, irresponsible minister of agriculture, they are faced with massive increases in the price of diesel - a commodity they use vast amounts of. Their products have to compete with those produced by farmers in the United States and Europe who receive huge state subsidies.

And if that's not enough, the ANC is hell-bent on pushing through legislation that would make it possible for the state to expropriate farms at prices that can't be challenged in court. Farmers have simply stopped investing in their farms since the Bill was put on the table, which could soon have dire consequences for food production.

Throw into the mix the fact that the Land Bank is paralysed and in perpetual turmoil - the latest chairman, Themba Langa, recently resigned after four months in the job. The bank has not had a CEO in a year - the acting CEO appointed last year, Phil Mohlahlane, left under a cloud within a few months.

Add one last ingredient: the incompetence and red tape of those responsible for land reform, which have been camouflaged the past few years by veiled threats of land seizures and invasions in reaction to white farmers' "intransigence."

This has led to commercial farmers as well as those desperately in need of agricultural land feeling angry, frustrated and insecure.

So this is the state of the sector of our economy which employs many millions of marginal people with limited skills, which is the key to the stability of the areas outside the big cities, and which produces the food South Africans need to survive at a time when food security is regarded as one of the greatest crises of recent years.

If minister Lulu Xingwana had any sense of responsibility, she would be spending her every spare minute trying to figure out how we could stabilise and reassure our agricultural sector so we can guarantee the continued employment of millions of farm workers and sufficient and affordable food.

Has anybody mentioned to the minister that our economy is fast sliding into recession?

But it's not all Lulu's Folly. Organised agriculture is the one glaring example of how business should not interact with government, and at the same time a glaring example of what can happen when there is no sound relationship between business and government.

Commercial agriculture should publicly divorce itself from right-wing political organisations, even from moderate groupings like the Freedom Front Plus and Solidarity.

It should counter perceptions of commercial agriculture as a bulwark of Afrikaner nationalism. Agriculture is business, period.

Agriculture should stand on its own and approach government with an open and honest plan to establish a mutually beneficial relationship in the interests of food stability and of progressive employment of millions of vulnerable people.

Agriculture should launch its own aggressive campaign with government co-operation to advance land reform and to establish more emerging farmers on the land.

As importantly, organised agriculture should start realising that every time an individual farmer beats up a farm worker or kicks a family of farm workers off the land, the resentment among the majority of South Africans increases a few notches.

It is time we heard the voice of organised agriculture every time this happens.

There is another crucial element to the story of the affordability of food that needs to be stressed in a commentary like this: the supermarkets which handle more than 90 percent of food retails.

We are overwhelmed every day with full-page advertisements of the latest price cuts and specials and amazing deals by supermarket chains. Some supermarket bosses even declare they plan to spend many millions to help South Africans afford sufficient food.

Will you please, at the end of the next financial year when the same supermarkets boast about their fabulous profits, remember how they bragged about cutting their profit margins to almost nothing?

The supermarket chains must face the fact that, with the looming recession and massive increases in food prices, they can no longer carry on with business as usual.


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