Jacob Zuma – Agriculture�s unlikely champion

Jacob Zuma, the newly elected president of South Africa�s ruling African National Congress (ANC), is hardly the commercial farming sector�s first choice for president.

Issue date: 14 March 2008

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Jacob Zuma, the newly elected president of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC), is hardly the commercial farming sector’s first choice for president. He swept to power at Polokwane, with the backing of Cosatu and the SA Communist Party, sparking fears of a left-wing takeover among conservative hardliners and fuelling fears among moderates and the agribusiness lobby that he planned to ditch SA’s prudent fiscal policy in favour of populist policies that would result in capital flight and disinvestment. Moreover, his highly publicised rape trial which ended in his acquittal and his pending corruption trial have done him few favours in the eyes of landowners. But since his victory in December, Zuma has worked hard to convince big business and fearful whites and foreign investors that he has no intention of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

With Zuma heading the ANC, there will be a new emphasis on job creation and upliftment of the poorest of the poor – key demands of his left-wing allies. But he has made it clear that he has no intention of abandoning market mechanisms and policies that have served the South African economy well in the past. He has also emphasised that there is a role to play for everyone eager to make a constructive contribution to SA’s wellbeing, be they black or white, big business or labour. In a wide-ranging interview with Farmer’s Weekly, on the eve of his visit to the Grain SA congress in Bothaville, Zuma emphasised the need to put farming back at the top end of the country’s priority list, along with crime and education, now that the foundation blocks of reconciliation and a growing economy have been laid by his predecessors Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.

A farmer himself who lost more than half his herd during a crippling drought at his rural homestead in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal, he believes he has a deep understanding of the risks and needs of the sector and the crucial role it can play in alleviating crippling poverty in SA’s rural backwaters, while ensuring the nation’s food security. He wants more targeted and vigorous state support for the sector: non-performing civil servants to be fired and replaced with a more competent and committed cadre; squabbling local politicians impeding progress to be dealt with; and the agricultural potential of former homelands to be unlocked. The key message he wants to bring across to commercial farmers is that the ANC welcomes contributions from those with the interests of the country at heart – that they will be listened to and their concerns taken into account when the party makes policy decisions.

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He expects disagreements on issues such as property rights and the ANC’s quiet diplomacy policy towards Zimbabwe. But the door is open for farmers to debate any issue with the ANC – from affirmative action to farm murders. Zuma insists he’s not shying away from grappling with rising racial tensions in the platteland, or glossing over real fears and concerns of both farmers and farm dwellers. He believes the ANC’s mistake was to wait too long to confront these issues honestly, and that his visit to Bothaville, shortly after the racist video incident was exposed at Free State University, demonstrates his party’s commitment to finding common ground in the most polarised of atmospheres.

On a lighter note, Zuma fondly remembers how Farmer’s Weekly magazine was the favourite read of ANC prisoners on Robben Island – especially our Hitching Post page, which gave many hours of amusement. Zuma declined to be drawn on speculation that he planned to marry two more wives, or which of his wives would be considered SA’s first lady should he become the country’s president. He’s adamant that becoming president of South Africa won’t stop him from singing his favourite liberation song, “Umshini Wami”, or from being the proud owner of a De la Rey CD.

Jacob Zuma is reaching out to the farming community. He’s keynote speaker at this year’s Grain SA congress, forging relationships with influential farmers throughout SA, and heeding the cries of impoverished smallholders in the former homelands who’ve been left out of the country’s economic boom. Stephan Hofstätter and Chris Burgess asked the ANC leader what SA’s farmers could expect from a Zuma presidency.

Agriculture has not been a top priority for the ANC government since it came to power in 1994. Will this change under a Zuma presidency?

Agriculture has always been part of ANC policy, but perhaps we didn’t pay sufficient attention to it at first because we focused on industry. But economic growth cannot exist without agriculture. It’s a critical component of the economy. But it’s a question of timing. It’s crucial to decide when to emphasise what. I believe we have reached a stage in our democracy where we have got to pick up [different] things for emphasis. Immediately after 1994 ANC policy was very concerned about reconciliation. [Nelson] Mandela led this. When Mandela left, the new president, [Thabo] Mbeki, had to prioritise economic fundamentals, to grow the economy. I think that has been done and the economy has grown. Agriculture was part of what Mbeki was doing, but have we emphasised it sufficiently? That’s what we will be looking at now. Other critical issues are crime and education. Agriculture falls in the same category.

Can we expect more direct support for farmers under a Zuma presidency? More vigorous campaigning for a better deal for SA farmers at international forums?

(Laughs). Under the president of the country after Mbeki – which may be Zuma or may be someone else – I think that support will be there. Food security is crucial, and I do believe we need more emphasis on this issue.

Performance at government departments and parastatals like the Land Bank is very poor – and there appears to be little political will to fix the problem. Will you consider it a priority as president to get rid of officials not doing their jobs and replace them with top performers?

It can’t be right for non-performers to be left unattended to. If you are given a task or a job to do, you have got to do it. I think we need to act. The kind of problems you have come across in the sector tell me we haven’t been acting to deal with this. For example, at the Land Bank there are problems. Why couldn’t we resolve these problems quickly, and deal with the matter? I believe a leader who sits too long in one position becomes dangerous to him or herself. That is why there’s an accepted principle of reshuffling. If you have ministers who become almost like traditional leaders in their department we have a problem. Part of what the president should do is supervise. And supervision of government is to ask if people in charge of a particular department are performing. You can see in two to three years when there is non-performance, and then you have to act. One of my difficulties is the attitude among some civil servants who command enormous power to take decisions. Take the issue of crime: if a particular programme you have followed doesn’t produce results you must do something [else], otherwise you are defending a programme instead of doing something better. In agriculture this area [of non-performing civil servants] needs more attention. As you correctly say, emerging farmers are complaining, the old farmers are complaining, and everybody else, so there must be something wrong, and we must do something, to ensure that instead of complaining, these people are producing food.

Many of SA’s former homelands have great agricultural potential, yet there’s little farming going on. You come from such an area yourself. What do you intend to do to ensure these areas flourish?

Just two weeks ago I was sitting in my home village [Nkandla] discussing this very issue. People are not working the land. We need to review the rural development programmes, with people who understand the rural areas. There is a lot you can do to make the land productive, and we must encourage people to do this. More people are ready now because unemployment has forced them to look to the land. I believe government can do more.

So your emphasis will be on developing these areas?

Absolutely. It’s crucial to deal with unemployment. People are flooding into cities, creating more informal settlements. We have got to find ways to address this problem, which includes farming. Government has good programmes on paper, but often fails to implement them. Often local political struggles cause them to fail.

Will you wade in with a big stick to sort this out?

You want the president of the ANC to be called a dictator? (laughs) Jokes aside. I’ve raised this issue. It’s an ongoing debate in the ANC. We have wonderful policies but our problem is implementation. The best [leaders] are always taken to the national level, the second best to the provinces. At the local level, where the actual implementation of policy takes place, we have people who have the least [ability]. We need to turn it around – the best people must be deployed where implementation actually happens, people who carry authority. No-one at national level can tell me to go to hell at Nkandla. That can change the manner in which things are done. Precisely because of the importance of these areas, you cannot leave them to the councillors only. You must ensure that the national authority intervenes to remove the political competition that undermines good progress.

You told the Financial Mail debate was needed on labour regulations. Does this include minimum wages for farmworkers?

In South Africa we have a first-world and second-world economy. The regulations deal with the first economy, and the second is left behind. What happens to the poorest of the poor, who can’t even get the kind of job that meets the bar [of a minimum wage]. I say we need to open up the debate, or we will forget those who are down there.

Why does the president of the ANC want to attend a farming congress in the heart of the maize belt – not really your party’s constituency?

My decision is informed by the ANC. The ANC has always fought for all of us in SA to live together. That’s one of the fundamental policies of the ANC. That is why we fought the separation of the South African people in the past. We fought for people to come together. We belong to the same country.

Are you implying there should be a time limit on affirmative action?

Not necessarily. It’s important to discuss this subject. If there’s disagreement, let us disagree so that we can clarify where we disagree. With affirmative action and BEE there is a history which must be taken into account. For decades, if not centuries, we had a deliberate disempowering of people in this country. Not allowing them to be part of anything. If you have this colour, you are not allowed to do this particular type of job or stay in this area. Many of them would complain, “We lost our land.” It has left a legacy in the mind. To undo that can’t be an overnight affair. So I doubt we can set a deadline. It’s about how we resolve the issue so that, gradually, it is no longer an issue. But it’s also wrong to say [whites] shouldn’t raise their concerns that they are being displaced. I have always said Afrikaners occupy an important part in the history of South Africa. In terms of making contact with African communities, conflicts and understanding the landscape of SA. They established the first republics and perfected the colour bar, apartheid. If we talk about the negotiations in 1990, it was the Afrikaners’ approach that was engaged in the discussion. Once the agreement was done, SA became democratic. I don’t buy the view that says the Afrikaners are not important, that they are a minority. They will remain an important part of the history of this country.

So they remain central to any solutions going forward?

Absolutely. Given recent racist incidents, like the video demeaning black staff made by white students at Free State University, do you think we are making progress in working together? Yes, we are. It’s just that success stories aren’t being published. I have met people – Africans and Afrikaners – who are serious about working together. If you consider where we come from, we’ve made enormous progress. Those kinds of incidents get such prominence because they are a warning to us. But there are other things, like crime, that have not helped us progress in this area.

You have mediated in conflict zones before. What would you do as president to diffuse racial tensions?

We have not addressed that issue from the beginning. We took it for granted that things would solve themselves. We have the farm dwellers, workers and farmers sitting there and not have intervened at the right time to smooth these relations. A farm dweller assumes once he’s free his situation will change automatically. But [economic realities dictate] it can’t happen. We need interventions, a vehicle that produces interactions with the farmers. Because of where we come from, we need to find agreed processes to deal with this. We must understand how we deal with this psychologically. We need an agreement which helps leadership on both sides, at all levels, understand how to handle the matter. We did not attend to this in time.

What do you expect from farmers?

They must come to the party, to say: this is what we can offer, this is what we believe you guys can offer. I was near Vryheid the other day and found farmers have been saying to the local government, “We want to help the emerging farmers to grow. What can we help with?” That’s what we are expecting. People must say: this is the expertise we have, what can we do?

Many white farmers feel marginalised for political reasons. Will they have grounds to feel differently under a Zuma presidency?

The very fact that I’m going to the Free State to address the farmers shows that we are committed to engagement. It’s not unexpected for people to feel marginalised but we all have to work at it. To digress a bit, I defended the song De la Rey and I still do. People were saying the Afrikaners want to go to war. They are calling for a leader, a general. It’s not true. In 1994 everyone blamed the Afrikaners, even those who were not involved in apartheid. It was natural that they would sit back then and say: don’t contribute, we will watch these fellows fail. But after a decade they are saying: we are South Africans and are here to play a role. We can’t be blamed for apartheid all the time and do nothing, we are here to stay and need a leader to tell us what role we can play. De la Rey was the best general – brave and clever. No one should blame me if I sing about King Shaka. I’m not saying the Zulus must attack everybody. Critically, in this sector, we must say: how do we deal with the farming community a decade after freedom. They [white farmers] have got to say: what is it we can do for our country? Let us forget about prejudices and decide what we can do. That’s why I am engaging with farmers, to say: give your best to our country.

How will a Zuma presidency solve the Zimbabwe crisis?

The Zimbabweans have to produce their own solution. But I believe the coming elections are the beginning to resolving Zimbabwe’s problems. For the first time Zanu-PF is not speaking in one voice. [Presidential challenger Simba Makoni] comes from the top leadership, and is being supported. That will solve the problem. No outside solution can be found. We did the best we could, under the circumstances. Better than anybody. Others just criticised. We engaged with both sides. They are beginning to find a solution for themselves.

So President Zuma’s approach to Zimbabwe would be no different from President Mbeki’s?

No. It’s an ANC position, one we took very deliberately. We had deep discussions on this and decided we can’t criticise from a distance. We must engage. We will continue to do so. When I was in Texas, some fellows said, “Why don’t you invade Zimbabwe, you have a powerful army?” I said, “We can’t do what you did in Iraq. We need to talk to these people, they are our neighbours.” Even now, when they are going into elections, they talk to us. What is happening now begins to bring a solution.

In Zimbabwe property rights were trampled on. What is your position on property rights for farmers?

Our approach has not been like Zimbabwe. And we are not going to change it. No-one is going to have his land taken away overnight. The question of restitution has its own difficulties precisely because of our respect for property rights. That’s why the willing buyer, willing seller policy is under discussion. Even where government has the right to take a particular action [like expropriation], it has not done so, precisely because we need to deal with this issue in the right way.

Will SA under Zuma have less respect for property rights than under Mbeki?

That is an ANC policy. It can’t be an individual’s policy. But there is no issue that can’t be discussed. If there are people who feel we need to look at property rights, let us debate the matter and see what cogent arguments have been put across.

And farmers will be listened to in these discussions?

Absolutely. Solutions are not found without discussion. |fw *This is an edited version of the interview.