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South African farmers are pleading for intervention as products destined for the export market are rotting at ports besieged by Transnet incompetence and a continuing wage dispute. BizNews correspondent Michael Appel spoke to the former president of the World Farmers’ Organisation, Dr Theo de Jager, about the current state of the country’s agri sector in light of the war in Ukraine and the mounting pressure on input costs such as diesel and fertiliser. In terms of land reform, De Jager says what usually takes “six weeks in the private sector takes more than six years in government” with every layer created by the state that “wants a bribe, who wants a cut of the pie”. The land reform agenda continues to be scuppered by the very party – the government – meant to implement it. De Jager adds that while we may have land beneficiaries, we don’t have enough black farmers in the country. He also touches on the insidious ‘kill the farmer, kill the boer’ song that was ruled not to constitute hate speech by the High Court in Johannesburg. This judgment is being appealed by AfriForum. – Michael Appel
Excerpts from interview with Dr Theo de Jager
Dr Theo de Jager on the general state of the agricultural industry
Farmers feel agriculture is not in a good space at the moment. It is different to a year or two ago, during the Covid-19 years in 2020 and 2021. Agriculture was by far the best performing sector of our economy, although the markets were disrupted. While they had to do a lot of quick-footed work to find alternative markets, farmers did very well during the pandemic. But then the war in Ukraine struck, which took our input costs through the roof. Those farmers who could – and those who had good access to financing – closed their eyes and said, let’s spend more on the inputs because the prices in the market will also escalate. That did not really happen. So, the farmers are squeezed between poor market prices and high input costs.
On Transnet’s performance and continuing strike
Every farmer competes with other farmers in the world every day of their lives because food and fibre flow across borders on a daily basis. You cannot just put food somewhere in a storeroom and wait until the markets have stabilised as, by its very nature, food has an expiry date. We need to trade in it every day, so trade – facilitated through Transnet ports – plays a massive role in food security. There are so many countries that simply cannot produce and they will never be self-sufficient when it comes to food. This includes most of the Arab-speaking world and many African countries. South Africa is fortunate, in that since the Second World War, we’ve never been in a food security crisis. We’ve been a net exporter ever since the Second World War. However, it becomes tougher and tougher not because of the surpluses we need to produce, but because of the internal logistics courtesy of Transnet. We cannot get food out of our ports. We have the ports and the systems in the ports, but we simply no longer have people who can manage a modern port. Because of the political dispensation which we are in, we no longer appoint people because of their ability to do a job, but because of the political connectedness. Transnet has gone through the floor.
On the “kill the farmer, kill the boer” song
There has been one farm attack every second day in South Africa over the last 25 years and one farm murder every fifth day over the last 25 years. So, on average, we have between 65 and 70 farm murders per year. In July this year, there were two murders. In August, judgement was passed that “kill the farmer, kill the boer” is not hate speech. Yet in August, we had seven farm murders. In September, there were eight farm murders. You cannot say it is not hate speech and sing it at populist meetings and then turn away when it is happening on the ground. For us farmers, the judgement was devastating. We could not believe the court would rule that and received sympathy from all over the world. I had letters from farmers’ organisations in more than 50 countries sympathising with this judgement. We firmly believe the judge made a mistake here. We will be very grateful if AfriForum appeals this ruling and if we can sort out the matter locally. If not, we will have no choice but to take it to international fora and try to declare it a crime against humanity at the United Nations.
On expropriation without compensation and land reform
The Motlanthe High Level Report [looking into legislative change for fundamental change] pointed out it was not the willing-seller principle, which has hampered land reform. It was an incompetent and corrupt buyer. The whole notion of expropriation without compensation is built on this narrative that the willing seller had failed us. I’ve been involved in land reform since 2000, intimately involved in it. I have seen exactly how this thing works from the validation of the claims, and the valuations of the farms, through to the contracting and the transfer. What usually happens in six weeks in the private sector takes more than six years in government. There are so many officials and agents of the state – the valuers, the lawyers, those who must write a feasibility study and the business plan – who want a bribe, who want their slice of the pie, that it is nearly impossible to make land reform work through the administrative processes we have in place. I do not know any white farmers who will be able to make a success in the kind of system in which we expect the beneficiaries of land reform to succeed. They do not own the land. They never got the title deed and do not have access to financing. They do not have any security to take to the bank. One of our members who applied for a post-settlement grant in 2015 and who had it approved in 2016, only got it three weeks ago. He did not even have the money to keep his electricity switched on at the farm.
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