The three things black farmers need

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There is something about the utter absurdity of watching President Jacob Zuma stand in front of an audience of honest, hard-working South Africans, saying things like, “Funds that are allocated for public services must be used for public services and nothing else”, and “Nobody is above the law in our country” that deepens the frown lines on my forehead and causes me to exhale uneasily.

The three things black farmers need

Speaking at the gala dinner of the African Farmers’ Association of South Africa’s (AFASA) recent conference in Johannesburg, Zuma stood behind the podium, saying all the right things. “We do not want to destroy commercial agriculture.

We fully support all our farmers, black, white, commercial and emerging,” and more in the same line.

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He spoke about preferential access for emerging farmers to supply food to prisons, schools and hospitals. He even acknowledged the need for able extension officers.

Unsurprisingly, his words fell flat. There is a limit to the number of times that people will believe the promises of those who never deliver.

After speaking to many of the farmers at the conference, I think the critical needs of developing farmers in South Africa can be boiled down to the following three things:

Firstly, access to land remains crucial. Addressing Zuma, the president of AFASA, Vuyo Mahlati, said: “The issue of title deeds is a sore point that continues to disadvantage black farmers.”

I spoke to one farmer who keeps sheep, pigs and livestock on 1ha of land near Marble Hall in Mpumalanga. He farms on communal land, but the local chief has so far refused to grant him a PTO (permission to occupy) for the small plot on which he keeps his animals.

Instead, preferential access to land is given to those close to the chief, while the few individuals who have shown a real interest in farming and demonstrated their ability to do so, remain without secure access.

Secondly, every farmer I spoke to said the same thing about extension services provided by the state. These are, in a nutshell, that the extension officers are incompetent, have no practical experience and know less than the farmers they are supposed to support.

Finally, almost every farmer I met had a story to tell about their frustration with accessing finance for their fledgling farming business.

These three obstacles are not insurmountable. By partnering with commodity and farmers’ organisations, the agriculture department can almost immediately start improving the level of extension services offered.

The Land Bank has a mandate to provide financing for developing farmers; all that is required is for Treasury to give the bank proper financial backing to implement this mandate.

And if government gave those farmers who are currently renting land from the state title deeds, the number of black landowners in South Africa would soar overnight.

Now, if only we had a government that was willing to actually listen and act, rather than just do more talking.