Don’t be afraid – engage with government

Agriculture minister Senzeni Zokwana tells Denene Erasmus that farmers need not fear radical land reform policy changes because the government will never force them to abandon their farms.

Don’t be afraid – engage with government
Agriculture minister Senzeni Zokwana Photo: Denene Erasmus
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What have you learned about farmers and the farming sector during your first nine months as agriculture minister?
I’ve found that our farmers are not always easy to deal with, but it’s possible to find common ground when you allow debate. I’m sure that when I came on board they had their own views of what I would do in this role, but I refuse to judge anybody on the basis of what I read in newspapers. We have to engage and build understanding and trust and I’m happy to say that most of the farming unions are willing to work with us [government] if we are prepared to listen to their concerns and engage with them in an honest way.

I’ve also found the uneven competition between our farmers and their counterparts in Europe striking. There, the farmers are subsidised by their governments; in South Africa farmers receive no subsidies. As a result, European farmers can afford to produce under harsher conditions, whereas our farmers, when faced with disaster, have no one to turn to.

There has also been a lack of interdepartmental cohesion, especially between the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) and related departments such as rural development and land reform, and environmental affairs. As departments we have to make sure that we appreciate and understand each other’s policies, so we can engage in implementing these policies where they overlap with DAFF’s policies.

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There has been much criticism from the agriculture sector about land reform policy proposals such as the 12 000ha cap on agricultural land holdings and the 50/50 plan which suggests that farmers should give half of their farms to farm workers. What is your view on the impact that these proposals have had on confidence in the sector? Can you understand that it is making farmers feel insecure?
This is not supposed to cause discomfort among farmers. Some of these policy suggestions were made against the background of knowing that some of the bigger farmers have chunks of land that they don’t produce on. You find that a guy has five farms and maybe he is farming only on two or three. What we [government] are trying to figure out is how to spread land ownership in a way that is justifiable, but not in a way that will create panic.

That is why we speak of compensation for land – meaning that no farmer will lose his or her land without compensation.It won’t help to be afraid; farmers must rather engage with government through their organisations. I’ve also seen some progressive farmers, like the farmers in Ceres who formed the Witzenberg Partnership, who out of their own volition have started land reform projects in their areas.

In this case, I respect farmers who, instead of being afraid, are coming forward with their own proposals.Being afraid will not change the situation, but being proactive and engaged will make sure that we [government] understand the situation from the farmers’ perspective.

 

 

A survey conducted by Agri SA showed that 94% of farmers felt government was not supportive of farmers and the sector, and 74% of farmers even felt government was being hostile. Are you surprised by this feedback, and what can you say to that 94% who believe they do not get enough support from government?
As the department of agriculture, I believe we are doing what we can to make sure farmers are supported. One of the reasons we have created international attaché offices in most of the European countries, at very high cost, is to ensure we can retain and grow export markets in Europe. We’ve had many meetings with ambassadors on the export and import of our goods. In November last year we signed two important memorandums of understanding with China to ensure access for our apples and maize to that country. If government didn’t care about the plight of our farmers we would not be spending money and time to secure markets.
 
What I think farmers must be made aware of is that when government passes legislation or makes a policy proposal that makes them uncomfortable, it doesn’t help them to become despondent and angry. There is no way government will make laws that aim to drive farmers off of their farms. Government is also concerned about farm murders; one is one too many. We must find a solution to deal with the criminals that target farms. We don’t want farmers to feel vulnerable and alone.
 
Farmers’ unions like Afasa have criticised government for not delivering on farmer support and development programmes such as Fetsa Tlala. This programme is already failing to achieve its targets. Will government consider working more closely with the sector to achieve the goal of putting one million hectares of underutilised land under production by 2018 as promised by the Fetsa Tlala programme?
One of the challenges has been the high cost of production. Input costs in some provinces are worrying. The cost to produce a hectare of crops in the Eastern Cape is much higher than producing a hectare in Limpopo. We have to look at the possibility that contractors in some provinces may be charging inflated prices.

I’m going to talk to Agri SA about visiting farms where farmers are using no-till production practices so that we can learn from that, because using no-till will help reduce the cost of production considerably. We’re also realising as government that we’ll not win this battle [helping smallholder farmers become commercially viable] if state input is not increased. We must look at providing some sort of subsidy.

In his State of the Nation address, President Jacob Zuma announced that R2 billion would be spent this year to establish 27 agri-parks. Have you identified where these parks will be and who will drive this programme?

The aim is to integrate agriculture with the work of the district councils to target poverty-stricken rural areas and the smallholder farmers there. The 27 districts have not been identified yet; this work will start now at the next MINMEC (Ministers and Members of Executive Councils) meeting.

The programme will be driven by DAFF and the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, but we will not be able to drive the programme only from head office; we’ll have to work together with the provincial departments and local authorities.
What has been a weakness is that DAFF has made decisions as head office without properly involving the provincial and regional structures and local communities.

The design of these agri-parks will be informed by the type of agricultural production that takes place in an area – the idea is for farmers to use the agri-parks to access markets and inputs or sell produce directly.

At a recent pre-SONA community engagement meeting, you said “extreme poverty, appalling inhumane living conditions and exploitative conditions of employment which are generally associated with the lives of farm workers cannot be allowed to continue”. Have you seen any farms where farm workers live and work under these conditions?

At that meeting in De Doorns (see Farmer’s Weekly of 20 February, pg 16) we heard people who work on farms telling about horrible working conditions. I can’t visit every farm so sometimes I have to depend on what people tell me. But before that meeting we visited two farms in De Doorns. The one had excellent working and living conditions for workers.

If all farmers can work with what means they have towards the standard that we witnessed on this farm in De Doorns then we’d have a much better farming community that gave workers confidence and the chance to live a good and decent life. Conditions were also good at the second farm we visited but improvements can be made – especially to the packhouse – to improve working conditions.

The meeting at De Doorns again made me realise we need more dialogue between all stakeholders from organised farming and farm worker unions. We also need to focus not only on the working and living conditions of permanent farm workers who live on farms, but also on the needs of seasonal workers who require off-farm housing and employment during the off-season.

Contact Makenosi Maroo, Chief Director of Stakeholder Relations and Communications at DAFF, on 012 319 6787 or [email protected].

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