Getting it right on the communes

Aging subsistence farmers in the Sterkspruit district are reluctant to farm commercially. They shared their reasons, including small herds and resistance to moving, with Dohne Agricultural Development Institute researcher Wiseman Goqwana. Roelof Bezuidenhout reports.
Issue date: 10 July 2009

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Aging subsistence farmers in the Sterkspruit district are reluctant to farm commercially. They shared their reasons, including small herds and resistance to moving, with Dohne Agricultural Development Institute researcher Wiseman Goqwana. Roelof Bezuidenhout reports.

there are many obstacles to improving livestock production in communal areas. A major one is that farmers seldom agree with advisors about what’s best. For example, plans to reduce animal numbers tend to fail because advisers overlook critical aspects of traditional local production systems. Wiseman Goqwana of the Dohne Agricultural Development Institute at the Eastern Cape Department of Agriculture in Stutterheim conducted a study in two communal farming communities in the Sterkspruit district. This is one of the most severely degraded areas in South Africa in terms of soil erosion and invasion by unpalatable shrubs. Wiseman found that stock-reduction strategies would benefit only a small number of communal farmers, because herds are already small, and on average the livestock owners are older and can’t earn money from sources other than livestock.

In an article published in the African Journal of Range and Forage Science, Wiseman says government and other stakeholders shouldn’t see traditional systems merely as a cause of land degradation, characterised by low production, and representing missed opportunities for commercialisation. The underlying problem is that livestock owners form only a small proportion of the total population in communal areas. Most own less than eight cattle, average about 60 years old and are often reluctant to scale up to commercial farming.

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Wiseman explains that commercialisation may not be the right approach to satisfy household cash needs, as most already subsist on government welfare grants. To them, their animals serve mainly as insurance during hard times. These farmers aren’t necessarily enthusiastic about suggestions that bigger communal farmers should be helped to move out of villages to become commercial operators, and reduce livestock pressure. “Many livestock owners weren’t prepared to take this option,” Wiseman points out. “Some claim birthright to the communal areas and therefore feel no obligation to move. Some older livestock owners felt this approach should be tried on the younger generation, who could more easily adapt to private and commercial livestock farming. Other farmers say improving veld management and carrying capacity should be considered, before encouraging those with large stock numbers to apply for aid to move away.

Most farmers owning more than 16 cattle pleaded for increased government support including veterinary services and more camps. They described existing services as inadequate and non-responsive to the needs of the people. State interventions, they say, always arrive late when disease is already out of control. Some farmers also pointed out a lack of winter or drought feed. “They didn’t necessarily mean government should provide feed, but the purchase and availability of supplementary feed was a problem,” says Wiseman.E-mail Wiseman Goqwana at
[email protected]     |fw

What many think should happen next

Non-farming stakeholders taking part in the Goqwana survey, like municipalities, traditional leaders, LandCare and the National Emergent Red Meat Producers’ Organisation (Nerpo), all had different views on the situation. They thought solutions to the area’s farming problems lay in:

  • Getting livestock owners to generate income.
  • Educating communal farmers in commercial methods.
  • Introducing livestock marketing facilities so those who want to sell animals aren’t forced to accept poor prices. Local sales, although apparently providing the best prices, are limited to sales for funerals, traditional feasts and other ceremonies. Regular auctions with more buyers would increase competition and improve prices. Liveweight scales would help determine the price of live animals.
  • Using better bulls and better-adapted breeds.
  • Building “fattening camps” to finish livestock, thereby improving prices.
  • Setting up irrigated systems for forage production.
  • Rotating grazing camps to improve veld condition and reduce
  • soil erosion.
  • Encouraging the youth and women to farm, as most farmers are over 60.

Bucking the trend?
In the Gunge Village in the former Transkei, Farmer’s Weekly met up with livestock farmer Mxolsilise Dayimani, who runs 80 Ngunis on communal land. In an interview, Mxolsilise, his wife Nonikile and fellow farmers Mandla Fundulile and Robson Mvumbi said they want to expand their farming operations, but the Department of Agriculture was unwilling to help, as they only support community-driven projects. Their attitude stands in stark contrast to the findings of Dohne researcher, Wiseman Goqwana.
They’ve tried to rally community members to take part in farming projects, says Mxolsilise but most don’t want to farm.

“Not all of us are farmers and interested in agriculture,” says Mandla. “It’s impossible to get someone to farm if they don’t want to. Even when a project is started in a community, it receives no back-up monitoring, training or advice from the department on how to manage it. In this entire area we don’t even have an extension officer from the department. They donated a tractor for ploughing, but it serves the entire ward and has been out of service for the last two seasons. The department always promises us projects, but to date nothing has happened.”

According to the group the problem facing them is a cultural one. “The people of today aren’t the same as in the past,” adds Mxolsilise’s wife, Nonikile. “We no longer help each other out by, say, weeding land and trading produce. That life is finished – we now buy food in shops. Ubuntu no longer exists. This modern way has destroyed our culture, which in turn has destroyed our agriculture.” Today, social grants are by far the greatest source of income in communal areas.

“In the past we had structure, says Robson. “A village’s tribal authority received tractors and implements and decided where and when the equipment would work and how the project profits would be shared. Its decisions weren’t questioned and we trusted they were made in the best interest of the community. This tribal authority doesn’t exist in this form any more. Nobody is in charge, no-one can make a decision and that’s why I think there has been this decline in agriculture.”
Mxolsilise explains, “Our children go to school and leave the area to chase a modern life and they don’t know how to work cattle or plant cabbage. I’m too old to look after too many cows by myself.”

Infrastructure is also a problem for agricultural development. “One time I planted 10ha of cabbage that rotted on the land and was eventually eaten by livestock, because I couldn’t afford to hire a truck to take them to the market. This bought land should be monitored to make sure it’s producing to potential,” adds Mxolsilise. Asked about their opinion on land reform, Mandla says there’s no sense in giving land to someone who doesn’t know how to farm or to someone who can farm, but lacks the capacity and enough money to make the farm viable.

All these problems have left these farmers with a dim view of agriculture’s future. “Nothing is going to happen with agriculture and the future generation is going to go hungry because it doesn’t know how to plant,” says Nonikile.