Agri SA to farmers: be realistic, yet positive

The past year in agriculture has been fraught with labour unrest and tense negotiations between organised agriculture and the state. Speaking at Agri SA’s annual congress in Pretoria, the organisation’s president, Johannes Möller, spoke about how realism was needed on both sides.

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We must always bear in mind that any farming operation’s prospects to a large degree hinge on the circumstances in which it operates. Farmers are often vulnerable, not only to natural and market risks, but also to what is decided and implemented at policy and service delivery level. While we must focus on what we can contribute to the further development, welfare and progress of agriculture, we must also look at the context within which policy is formed and applied.

This requires a proper understanding of, and sensitivity to, the diverse needs and interests of South Africa’s complex society when policy choices are considered. Disregarding such considerations could result in the rejection of views, irrespective of their merit.

Anyone who knows agriculture will agree that there are no substitutes for knowledge, experience, insight and good judgement to achieve success in farming. This is also the case with organised agriculture, which must learn from experience and adopt a positive mindset to find solutions to challenges. We must nevertheless be realistic about our abilities and limitations as well as the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

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And we should not allow the realism we experience to produce a pessimistic outlook on life. Survival and success in farming depend largely on a farmer’s ability to adapt to change – to make a plan. This should also be our approach as organised agriculture, irrespective of the nature and extent of the challenges we have to deal with.

Looking ahead
It is a common view that agriculture will most probably flourish at a global level over the next few decades. South Africa is well-placed to share in this. The local industry has a high level of sophistication and well-developed value chains, and it is supported by logistical capabilities that are the envy of neighbouring countries.

Although there is poverty in the country, South Africans of today do not know the misery of food shortages. SA agriculture has the capacity to maintain this position and in so doing, make its rightful contribution to essential development and stability. There are, however, a number of key challenges that we face which will determine whether or not agriculture can meet these high expectations. These challenges concern values and principles, and how they will be interpreted and applied.

They also have to do with pragmatic actions aimed at supporting and enhancing the competitiveness of SA producers.
I’ve come to realise that there are no substantial differences between Agri SA and the government on the need for transformation as such, but rather how it is done and who should be responsible for bearing the cost of expropriation or deprivation.

A future dispensation should be fair – not only to those who were previously deprived of rights or opportunities, but also to those who are required to make contributions and sacrifices. South Africa has enough resources at its disposal to fund structural changes in its economy and society, and those that emanate from discriminatory legislation and practices of the past, in a fair and equitable manner.

It is encouraging that sustainable and increased food production is recognised as a priority by government. The National Development Plan (NDP) acknowledges this and makes general proposals on policy and programmes that will make it possible for farmers to meet the growing demand for food, create more jobs and utilise market opportunities.

How the demands of mining, redistribution and other activities on land and water will be accommodated, remains work in progress. The recent sharp increase in minimum wages for farm workers has probably had a significant influence on the viability of the job creation objective as set out in the NDP. Despite this, the plan provides a framework that can be used in agriculture as a basis for policy, legislation and the implementation of programmes.

Government’s role
The labour unrest in the Western Cape at the end of 2012 was indeed a watershed event. These disturbing and traumatic developments have left scars on communities and tarnished the image of agriculture. This situation forced farmers to make choices they would have preferred to avoid, for example: how much labour do I really need and how can I reduce my risks in the event of strikes? Mechanisation, alternative farming systems and resultant job cuts are inevitable.

And yet there were positive outcomes from this dark event. Various government agencies identified the need for improved service delivery to rural communities. Higher wages and further mechanisation will require better-skilled farm workers. More money will have to be invested in training, but this will ultimately lead to better quality career opportunities. At policy level, it is now recognised that agriculture needs support to fulfil its required employment function. This opens the door for proposals from the industry and a commitment from government to consider such input with the necessary urgency.

The debate on the Green Paper on Land Reform gained momentum with the commemoration of the 1913 legislation on race-based landownership and a series of draft bills under consideration at Nedlac. This debate was expanded with recent government proposals on land redistribution in favour of workers. Agricultural organisations agree that these redistribution proposals are impractical and hold dangerous implications. This was communicated as such to government.

We nevertheless noted that government spokespeople increasingly recognise the importance of larger farming units as a precondition for competitive food production. The question they have put to us is: how can land be redistributed without having a negative impact on food production or on the viability of large farming operations, while limiting the state’s expenditure on redistribution?

The NAREG (National Reference Group, comprising representatives of organised agriculture, emerging farmers, traditional leaders and government) process around the Green Paper on Land Reform has apparently failed to reconcile agricultural considerations on landownership with political expectations. In the interest of stability and progress, it is vital that a shared vision be developed on the state’s role in the redistribution of land and water as well as the related limitations on ownership. Policy uncertainty in this regard will continue to be an obstacle for investors, while wrong decisions will cause long-term damage to the industry.

I trust that further discussions with government will result in increased consensus and bring greater clarity. Whether this is a realistic expectation, considering next year’s election, remains to be seen. In the meantime, we must continue diligently with development programmes aimed at broadening participation in the industry.

Discussions continue
I nevertheless wish to emphasise that the views of Agri SA are recognised and taken into consideration at government level. During the past year, we submitted input to the National Planning Commission and are still in discussion with the commission on the viability and implementation of certain proposals. Despite the unsatisfactory process of revising the minimum wage component of the sectoral determination, we have held discussions with the Minister of Labour, Mildred Oliphant, in this regard.

Discussions are also continuing under the chairmanship of deputy-president Kgalema Motlanthe to seek consensus on future approaches to labour management and relations in agriculture. We recently met with the Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa, to discuss the implementation of the National Rural Safety Strategy.

We communicate well with Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, who often has to intervene to resolve agricultural issues. She arranged a discussion for agricultural organisations with the chairperson of the ANC’s Economic Transformation Committee, Enoch Godongwana, and the secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe. We look forward to further discussions. The co-operation that Agri SA has seen in the past year between agricultural organisations within the Agri Sector Unity Forum was encouraging.

Progress was made with the development of consensus on the above matters, resulting in a united front in our dealings
with government and others. Agri SA thanks the leadership of participating organisations for their positive co-operation. This bodes well for the future.

Phone Agri SA on 012 643 3400.

The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.