Farmers must lobby govt, now

With the current global financial turmoil and concern over food security, it’s time to press government for support, Kwanalu president Brian Aitken said at the union’s congress in Pietermaritzburg on 13 September.

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Agriculture has had its challenges during the past year, yet it has managed to emerge relatively unscathed, while all other sectors of the economy have failed to prosper after the global meltdown. So the question must be asked: why has agriculture continued to attract such negative sentiment? The reasons, all of which affect the confidence of farmers, can be placed in five categories: land and transformation; safety and security; commercial and economic; infrastructure and resources; and communication and image.

Beginning with land, most of us are aware of the debate at the recent ANC policy conference. The party proposed an intriguing paradigm shift to the land reform process where it resolved to ditch the willing-buyer, willing-seller model for a more robust constitutional approach that entails “expropriation with fair compensation”.

Section 25 of the Constitution allows for expropriation to take place within the confines of the law and in the interest of the public. Expropriation will be subject to compensation where the value of the property expropriated may be agreed by both parties, or determined by a court of law.

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The Constitution states that the amount of compensation and the time and manner of payment must be just and equitable, reflecting a balance between the public interest and the interest of those affected. This may or may not silence those calling for land grabs and expropriation without compensation, Zimbabwe-style.

My own view is that government has not done badly when it comes to redistributing productive white-owned land to blacks. Evidence would suggest that South Africa is very close to reaching the target of distributing 30% of the country’s agricultural land by 2014. At the speed of current acquisitions by the State through the Pro-active Land Acquisition Strategy (PLAS) and private transactions as well as completion of existing LRAD and land restitution projects, it is likely that we will reach, if not exceed, the 30% target by 2014.

Based on the results of studies of private land transactions involving black individuals and the recent land reform and land restitution statistics presented by Gugile Nkwinti in his budget speech of May 2012, it could be argued that 26,75% of formerly white- owned agricultural land is already black-owned. Kwanalu’s own initial audit would suggest that this information is correct, and this must surely be a feather in SA’s cap.

This raises the big question of quantifying landownership to determine how far we are with land reform. The land audit commissioned by government was meant to have been completed by June this year. We are now told it will be finished by December. If done correctly, this will tell us how much land is in the hands of the government and private sectors respectively, as well as how much has been transferred.

We need confirmation on the sunset of the 30% land transfers. Without this, uncertainty will persist. Land reform is not just about transferring land. For any agricultural project to be successful, we need three things: land, skills and access to finance. Remove any of these and it will be doomed to failure. This is where we as farmers have the most valuable input of all: our skills.

Without skills, farmers will find it awfully difficult to survive.This is where I would like to offer our services to government. You may be able to provide land and finance, but for skills, you will have to turn to us, the South African farmers. And this is where I urge you all as farmers to take hold of a new entrant’s hand and help him make a success of his farming.

Financial turmoil
The past two years have witnessed turmoil in the financial and commodity markets that is virtually unprecedented. We have seen the prices of agricultural commodities peaking at an all-time high as the global economy remains in recession. This has created an ideal opportunity for us in agriculture to strengthen our businesses and lobby government for support measures so crucial to our future. We have never before had a better opportunity to appeal to government for better treatment of our sector.

We need, among other things, increased investment in agriculture, infrastructure and services to farmers, as well as plans to achieve rural security for our members and their workers. And above all, we need food security for our nation. When one takes into account that 50% of commercial farmers in the country make an annual turnover of less than R300 000, and 10% have a turnover of more than R2 million, one realises how relatively small and fragile our industry is.

The threat of expropriation and the effect this has on farmers’ sentiments can only worsen poverty and raise unemployment, a situation we can ill afford. A number of provincial issues need to be highlighted. The most significant of these is the marked deterioration of many roads and the failure of rail infrastructure. The transport of goods needs to moved increasingly from road back to rail, but this will happen only if there is a change in the view of policy makers.

I congratulate the timber industry on their dialogue with Transnet Freight Rail on the continued use of various branch lines that have been threatened with closure. Labour shortages, especially in the sugar industry, are very concerning in view of the unacceptably high unemployment figures coming out of Statistics SA. It would seem that government grants are the main contributor to this problem. KZN’s position is particular worrying, as the indication is that 43 000 jobs have been shed in the last year. This will have to be addressed continually, as unemployment is the main contributor to social degeneration.

The future
The National Planning Commission’s report and its Vision 2030 creates some interesting challenges for agriculture and the economy as a whole. According to this report, the country we seek to build by 2030 must be just, fair, prosperous and equitable. To succeed will require the active efforts of all South Africans. It will also require growth, investment and employment. This in turn will need rising standards of education and a healthy population. To achieve these goals, we need an effective and capable government and collaboration between the public and private sectors.

It is clear that the success of our sector will lie in the adoption of principled positions by leaders who have a long-term strategic view of the future. I have been asked a number of times: “Would I invest in agriculture?” The answer to this is an overwhelming “yes”, provided that one is prepared to adapt to change. Farming tomorrow will certainly be very different to farming today, with the emphasis being on our social responsibilities to our communities, fellow farmers and the environment.

The next 10 years will be tough, but nothing is impossible if we rise to these challenges. For those of us prepared to embrace change, the future is sure to be bright. With the present mood in agriculture being subdued, there is little doubt that opportunities exist and I urge you to go and create that bright future. 

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