Generous budget, underspent funds

Will the billions of rands allocated to farmers all be allocated correctly? With our officials, don’t bet on it.

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So, another Budget speech from Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has come and gone. Although there are concerns, it seems as if most interest groups are reasonably satisfied with it. The business sector has largely responded positively to the budget, while farmers, especially smallholders, were pleased with the R6,2 billion allocation to the agricultural sector. In his speech, Gordhan reassured small-scale farmers and the fisheries sub-sector of the government’s continued support.

According to him, conditional grants made available through programmes such as the Comprehensive Agricultural Support Programme (CASP), the LandCare Programme and Ilima/Letsema had to be instrumental in the development of smallholders.
The department of agriculture is to spend more than R6 billion over the medium term on conditional grants for 435 000 subsistence farmers and 54 500 smallholder producers. This is good news.

Unfortunately, little has been said about the allocation towards subsidising those smallholder farmers who are leasing government farms through the Recapitalisation and Development Programme from the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform Development. I trust we will hear more about this in Minister Gugile Nkwinti’s budget speech.

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Incompetence at provincial level
There is, I fear, a more pressing concern: that Gordhan’s good intentions will be largely negated by incompetent implementation. To put it more bluntly, if something is not done to ensure that departmental officials do what they are paid to do, I’m afraid not all that R6,2 billion will find its way to the rightful beneficiaries. Just a few weeks ago, Afasa in North West practically begged its premier, Thandi Modise, to intervene and help it sort out the problems it faces in dealing with the provincial department.

Apparently, farmers are having difficulties with rude, unco-operative officials. In fact, some have claimed that certain officials have even exploited the recapitalisation programme by evicting farmers who have leased government farms for years and replacing them with their own friends. Immediately after Gordhan’s speech, Afasa managing director Aggrey Mahanjana issued a statement pleading with the minister to introduce tough laws to ensure speedy implementation of these programmes.

“We would like to call on the minister to take harsh action against accounting officers who underspend and delay service delivery. In our case as farmers, interventions that are not aligned to production circles are pointless,” he said. Provincial departments underspend their budgets every year. A big chunk of these unspent funds is meant for conditional grants. So, the NW Afasa’s accusations do not surprise me. A while ago, Minister Joemat-Pettersson admitted that the provinces tend to sit on the money. If government fails to hold its officials accountable, I’m afraid that not even a R10 billion budget will make a real difference to the growth of agriculture in South Africa.