Wake up, South Africa, to farming the French way

The French display an overwhelming support for their farmers, which is in stark contrast to the overall treatment of SA’s commercial farmers. State policies are crippling the sector responsible for feeding 45 million South Africans, and TAU SA says our government could learn from the French. TAU SA general manager Bennie van Zyl explains.
Issue date 15 June 2007

- Advertisement -

IT IS WORTH NOTING THE ­attention paid by the presidential candidates to the farming vote in the recent French elections. Former president Jacques Chirac has visited the annual Salon International d’Agriculture (SIA), just outside Paris, every year, barring one, for the past 30 years. At this year’s show in March, France’s newly elected president Nicolas Sarkozy was there, as was virtually every other presidential contender including Francois Bayrou, Jean-Marie le Pen and Philippe de Villiers.

There is a chasm in the attitude of the French government towards its agricultural sector and the manner in which the SA administration treats the sector that puts food on the table for more than 45 million people. The French SIA is the world’s largest farming and food show – over 700 000 visitors attended this year. The show puts France at the centre of the world food map, and French politicians ignore this show and their country’s farming community at their peril.

A British agricultural expert declared that “France’s love of great food begins with the love of the animals and the farmers who produce it”. This is how civilised people should – and do – act. Food security is the bedrock of any successful country. Yet what is happening in SA with regard to the government’s treatment of the commercial farming sector is unfathomable when looked at from a Western perspective – the 45 000 commercial farmers in SA are hounded at every turn.

- Advertisement -

TAU SA has declared publicly that the SA government is the biggest single threat to commercial farmers. These are strong words, and are not uttered lightly. Readers of TAU SA bulletins over the years need no reminding of the catalogue of hurdles that are continually placed before farmers. Some farmers feel that the SA government is deliberately trying to drive them off their land. Government policy is driven by ideology, not economic practicality. It is also driven by a none-too-subtle anti-white racism that is beginning to percolate through the SA body politic.

Worlds apart

The sense of purpose of the French SIA is palpable – the French consumer is continually reminded that food and farming are intrinsically linked. In SA the commercial (white) farmer is portrayed as someone who stole black land, an interloper, the “landed gentry” as farmers were referred to by a Cape Town University think tank.

Minister of agriculture and land affairs Lulama Xingwana very publicly accused farmers of crimes such as rape and illegal evictions without providing a shred of evidence to support her statement. The commando system – the former backbone of rural security – has been disbanded and replaced with nothing. SA farmers are the most murdered group of people outside a war zone.

In December 2006 TAU SA wrote to Xingwana, outlining the perils facing SA that appeared to be heading down the same path as the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. TAU SA warned that conducting an agricultural policy on an ideological basis rather than on an economically sustainable basis would have serious consequences. “Land reform and agricultural production do not mix,” TAU SA said.

It is unimaginable that French farmers would ever be in a position even vaguely similar to that of SA farmers. If the French government dared to institute a policy where 30% of productive farmland would be forcibly handed over to people who cannot farm, and whose track record of maintaining productivity was an abysmal zero, they would be out of office in a jiffy.

In SA, of course, whites are a numerical minority and have little or no power at the ballot box. France’s 600 000 commercial farmers represent one percent of their country’s population. (SA’s commercial farming sector is only 0,01% of the country’s population). French farming is subsidised to 17% of its output, compared with American farm subsidies at 14% of output. French agricultural production is two thirds of America’s, while the US has almost five times more people than France does. Thus, looking after farmers makes good sense for any government – except of course in SA.

TAU SA says that SA’s commercial agriculture is being coerced to operate within an unstable environment. Imagine the French government trying to coerce French farmers into anything! Imagine French society tolerating the legalised theft called Black Economic Empowerment, while watching their country succumb to collapsing infrastructure, bankrupt local councils, dirty, inefficient state hospitals, trains too dangerous to board, rail and road deterioration and a corruption which bleeds the country dry. How could French farmers operate in such a society? Would they ever allow such a deterioration to occur?

A point of no return

TAU SA warned the minister that a point of no return is approaching for commercial agriculture in SA. Instead of subsidies, SA farmers are further taxed. Instead of being proud of their farmers, the SA government takes their land. Where in any sane country would this ever happen? Which government would be so obtuse and self-destructive as to alienate the few people who provide food security for the population? Sustainable food production is seriously at risk in SA. Famine in Africa is a gaunt reality – it is endemic.

The future doesn’t bode well, despite the irrefutable evidence of the failure of government’s land reform and agricultural policies. More legislation is in the pipeline to further hobble white farmers. One example is the Department of Water Affairs’ “Draft Regulations on Financial Assistance to Resource-Poor Farmers”. The Freedom Front says this legislation “is formulated in such a way that it excludes poor white farmers. In fact, it excludes all whites”. Irrigation and water-related developments are proposed for black farmers, but not for whites – the productive sector of SA agriculture.

Threats of expropriation continue. Blacks are claiming 88% of all white farms in the productive Limpopo province. This precipitates insecurity and unease, and of course prevents re-investment by farmers in their land. It is costly for farmers to legally defend themselves against these land claims, many of which are based on flimsy or even irregular grounds. Many farmers who have “sold” their land to the government have to wait years for payment, if they get paid at all. In some provinces, commercial agricultural structures have to wait more than a year before letters to the authorities are answered.

Presently, the government is threatening to take back 71 Limpopo farms that were handed over under their land reform programme. These farms have collapsed. It’s a no-win situation for commercial farmers. If you want to sell your farm to the government, you may wait years for anything to happen, let alone be paid. If you don’t want to sell your farm, you are threatened with expropriation. To top it all, more than 2 000 farmers have been killed since the ANC took power.

The SA government should take a leaf from the book of the sensible French – not to do so will have serious consequences for food security in Southern Africa.