Saai welcomes assistance to farmers, though state initiative lacks insight

Any assistance to farmers during the current lockdown should be welcomed.

The fact that agriculture is excluded from the strict lockdown regulations, has created a perception that it’s business as usual for the agricultural industry. This is however not the case. Many of the agricultural value chains have been interrupted and the integrated nature of the various products that are produced on a farm – coupled with the fact that only some of these are regarded as essential products – are causing great harm to countless farms that are being operated as businesses. There are for instance many farms where fruit and vegetables or meat constitute only a part of their annual income stream and have to be supplemented by tobacco, forestry or ornamentals. All of the latter are currently being excluded from being farmed, thus jeopardising the complete viability of such farms.

The same lack of knowledge for the food system in South Africa was evident yesterday when Thoko Didiza, Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, announced during a media conference that R1.2 billion will be made available to small scale and communal farmers. While these farmers play a role in maintaining household food security in the poorest areas of the country, they contribute very little to the supply of food on shop shelves in the cities. Only R100 million have been set aside by the Land Bank for its clients in the commercial sector that have more than R126 billion in insured loans. This is hardly enough to make a scratch on the surface in assisting these farmers.

Farmers are sceptical about the department’s ability to make a significant contribution with the aid that was announced – given the department’s dismal record of corruption, mismanagement and inefficiency. There is still very little help from the state for farmers who have been brought to their knees as a result of the two year long drought. Some of Saai’s members who were beneficiaries of land reform still haven’t received the settling-in allowance that would enable them to get their farming activities off the ground, despite almost monthly visits to the department’s provincial offices.

These members are mostly small scale farmers who would qualify for assistance according to the criteria announced, but who are sceptical about the department’s desire and ability to help them. This is evident from the many enquiries Saai have received from black farmers about the farmers’ register the minister mentioned. This register should be made available on the internet for public input, since the majority of the farmers aren’t even aware of such a register.

Although the minister also referred to members of commodity and agricultural organisations, her department has shown in the past month that its national database doesn’t even include a complete list of agricultural organisations. The application and follow-up processes should be transparent and the minister should put special measures in place to ensure that the administration of this process is clean and corruption-free at all times.

These funds should be channelled to farmers who have the ability to anchor food stability in South Africa for the next six months and who find themselves being hindered by the current lockdown measures. Saai has already created an online platform where qualifying members will be assisted in submitting their properly completed applications in time. Saai will closely follow the process to enforce clean administration in the department.