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Farmers hungry for change

The Witness

20 Jul 2020

Edgar Dhlomo • Edgar S. Dhlomo is a farmer and businessperson from KwaZulu-Natal.

KWAZULU-NATAL farmers, large and small, have suffered from neglect and misplaced development strategies.  But with two-thirds of South Africans relying on farming and farm produce for their livelihoods, this sector must be revolutionized if the province is to make growth more dynamic and inclusive.

Unfortunately, few constituencies have received more bad policy and direction from development partners and government than small farmers.

And few of the country’s farmers areas poorly serviced by infrastructure, financial systems, scientific innovations or access to markets.

The best way to change this is to ignite “green” and “blue” revolutions in agriculture, directed by home grown innovations and informed by lessons from other regions.

This could have huge multiplier effects on employment and hunger in this country, but achieving it is going to be an uphill battle.

The problem is not that small and medium farmers in this province are resistant to both change and learning, rather there is a huge lack of political will and technical competence in government to take small farmers and rural inhabitants seriously and to implement the right reforms.

  • KwaZulu-Natal is not a poor province. It is a region of huge resources. The challenge is to manage them wisely.
  • The province is fairly well endowed with high quality land and water resources which is one of its most important comparative advantages in relation to the rest of South Africa. Successful agricultural development depends on the preservation and optimal utilization of these two assets. Both large and small scale farmers are the principal users and primary users and custodians of these resources.
  • Unfortunately, KwaZulu-Natal is indeed a tragic story of unrealized African potential. On June 5, 2020 the region rose to the shocking headline news that more than half of the 1283 farms that had been bought by the state on behalf of small scale farmers for more than R7 billion had failed; and a further R5 billion was needed to resuscitate them.

(i) You only have to read the auditor general’s (AG’s) adverse report for the three successive years to wonder what/ how that department is run and how it has survived this far; amid unauthorised expenditure.

(ii)You only have to read the report of farm implements scattered all over the province — including tractors and all sorts of machinery that are out of order.

(iii)You need to read about unused items such as fertilisers, seeds and pesticide which are all huge expenditure items. Clearly KZN farmers are being told to “box with their hands behind their backs”.

(iv) You have to wonder as to how these farms fail in the active presence of what are called a battery of extension officers all in the payroll of the department. (v) Small farmers have to negotiate with treacherous farm roads to drive through to their farms.

(vi)You have to read about the once mighty and famous Magwa Tea Estate in Inkandla which has been a recipient of a “bail-out” once or twice.

Reading through the auditor’s report of the successive years, you are reading about a classic entity which deserves the immediate intervention of a businesss rescue team or to be put under administration “yesterday”.

The solution needs to start from having a political will to prioritise agriculture in KwaZulu-Natal to support the small, medium and large farmers.

With both the problems and solutions identified, there is a need to support the farmers in their entrepreneurial endeavours. No, rather than being regarded as entrepreneurial black farmers, we are viewed as “our poor people” even by the president of the country.  Frequent “bail-outs” will therefore never overcome weak governance.  You cannot be as notoriously lavish as SAA and expect to survive.

For the last 25 years the perennial question has been: is there enough money for development?  This is in fact the wrong question.  The right question to ask is—given the “colossal funds” that are made available, do our institutions and their leaders have the strength of governance, honesty, morals and the rule of law that are needed to be able to use the money available efficiently?