‘Stick to your knitting’

Well done to the organisers of the Pietermaritzburg Royal show for yet another splendid event. In its 165th year, the show manages to stay true to its character while keeping up with the times.

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Together with Farmer’s Weekly, one of its oldest partners (well over a century), the show’s annals bear testament to many a high and low of the history of South Africa’s agricultural sector. Paging through the archives of Farmer’s Weekly, one gets the sense that whether it was 1910 or 2010, farmers have rarely been happy with government policy.

The more prescriptive and autocratic the government, the more farmers have objected. Ruling parties through the ages have always done much the same thing to stay in power: cater to their constituents’ demands. If they don’t, they will soon find themselves out of a job.

Too often, land – and its ability to generate income, provide jobs and fulfil people’s deep need to own something truly permanent – becomes a political plaything at the cost of a thriving agricultural sector. When academically trained public servants, or worse, politicians, start prescribing to lifelong farmers on how to farm, or interfere with the free market, it can only end in disaster.

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Unfortunately, South Africa seems to be heading into a period of even more state interference if Minister Senzeni Zokwana’s Preservation and Development of Agricultural Land Framework Bill is anything to go by. His suggestion of prescribing to farmers which crops to grow, thereby preventing them from using their land as they see fit, will leave farmers no means to adapt to changing markets and production conditions. It’s like prescribing to investment companies which listed shares they must buy and ‘taking’ companies that don’t toe the line.

There are very few extension officers suitably skilled and experienced, and they are too few in number to cope with current workloads. As the only public servants remotely qualified to do so, how are they supposed to monitor all the country’s farms?

The only thing this legislation will achieve is to alienate even more investors, and ensure that farmers and agri-businesses hold on even more tightly to their money instead of reinvesting it. This will hamper growth in the industry and lead to more job losses. According to Agbiz and the IDC, there is a correlation between the sector’s economic output and confidence levels. The first usually follows the second. And right now, agricultural business confidence, according to the recently released Agbiz/ IDC Agribusiness Confidence Index, is in a downward spiral.

Drought and the exchange rate have played a role, but it is the present unpredictable policy environment that is the main driver of this lack of confidence. In short, the industry is in the grip of uncertainty, and the resulting inability to do any long-term planning is taking its toll across the entire agricultural value chain.

Government might think it is acting in the best interest of its voters, thereby guaranteeing their loyalty, but they forget that access to food, not land, is the most basic human need. And access to land does not guarantee household food security.

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