When state help worked

I’ve been going on recently about the Ministerial Interim Committee Report (MICR) on restructuring fresh-produce markets. I’ve not been too complimentary, because I see the whole thing as a political document with a political agenda. Readers will know that I don’t believe politics and the boardroom can mix.

But that’s only one aspect. The MICR talks about the need to upgrade and modernise markets. Now, that’s where I do support it wholeheartedly, and there’s a sort of precedent to guide us on this. I’m always a little nervous about referring to anything that came out of the previous political era in case some wag accuses me of supporting that time or even being “racist”.

But I’m not talking politics here.There were two things that the current political dispensation inherited from those times. One is the financial protection that all farmers enjoy who sell their fresh produce through a registered market agent. This is a unique innovation not found anywhere else in the world.The other takes us back to the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the government came under pressure from farmers and others to do something about the markets.

They were mostly in an appalling state and needed serious upgrading. Eventually the government, always keen to pander to the agricultural vote, established the Commission for Fresh Produce Markets within the agriculture department to help municipalities erect new markets.

The commission was disbanded after it had served its purpose, but during its tenure it provided soft loans municipalities to build their markets. Under the strong (some said “dictatorial”) leadership of “Oom” Piet Venter, a former Cape Town market master, the commission made sure the money was spent according to prescribed standards and was eventually repaid.

There was an orderly, controlled process that eventually saw the establishment of t nine new markets. They were state-of-the art for those days, but now, 35 years and more down the line, they’ve slipped back to being mismanaged and are hopelessly out of step with modern fresh-produce marketing requirements. We don’t know what the proposed Fresh Produce Markets Development Agency has in mind, but if they start tomorrow – and I’m being generous with my estimate – it’s going to take a good five years, probably more, before one new, state-of-the-art market sees the light of day. – Mike

Cordes (e-mail [email protected]).