In praise of our farmers

Eugene Brink writes on the lockdown of this most demonised of groups

A paean to farmers (and none to government)

22 July 2020

Few subgroups in South Africa get such a bad rep such as farmers – especially white farmers.

The ill-informed and politically driven bedlam surrounding expropriation without compensation (EWC) is but one example of the undeserved stigma that accompanies them. Generalisations regarding racist behaviour and stolen land are bandied about by politicians and laypeople alike without any proof – just biases and assumptions.

Besides being unfairly stereotyped, South African farmers and their workers have one of the most perilous jobs in the world. Persistent droughts, stock theft, farm attacks and murders, as well as policy uncertainty all contribute to a volatile mixture that deter agricultural productivity. The average age of farmers in South Africa is approximately 62 and prospective young farmers are wary of the challenges that await them. Moreover, a mythical “hunger for land” – and its expropriation and redistribution – does not necessarily translate to commercial farming and food security. In fact, many of the case studies of land reform have shown that once-productive farms have regressed.    

Farmers’ many detractors will choose to ignore or soft-peddle this, but they have done remarkable work in the COVID-19 period. Indeed, their largesse is consistent all the time, but it is even more critical now with lives and livelihoods at stake.

AfriForum is but one organisation that has helped with the distribution of countless tons of food donated by farmers. Fruits such as nartjies and oranges as well as many other foodstuffs have been donated and transported by farmers to help those in need. Without this aid, many people would certainly have starved, and this nascent social crisis would have been much more advanced.

In many places, farmers were the only lifeline to people in their immediate vicinity. Under the headline “Farmers open hearts, harvests” the Sunday Times reported a while ago how farmers have been a life buoy to communities. Firstly, it tells the story of how Elgin apple grower Cath Boome fills truckloads of fruit for non-profit organisation Breadline to feed children in informal settlements. Also, in Groblersdal Kallie Schoeman donates maize meal from his mill in Delmas. His workers dole this, along with tins of baked beans, out to people in nearby informal settlements in rural areas. “Farmers will always step up,” he aphoristically told the paper.

KwaZulu-Natal farmers from Ixopo, Highflats, Kokstad, Mount Currie and Mooi River have donated fresh and dry produce to rural communities. They have partnered with churches, municipalities, local NGOS and community organisations to provide relief supplies to 4 500 families in the Ixopo area and 700 families around Kokstad.

In the Western Cape, farmers have joined hands with NGOs such as FoodForward SA to distribute fresh produce to old-age homes and orphanages. Elsewhere, farmers have amply filled food parcels with venison.

All the while, and for all its talk about aid being disbursed, government was nowhere to be seen. Not only that, but municipal workers had stolen food parcels meant for the poor, and the state has not been forthcoming with aid to beleaguered farmers.

Even worse, red-faced and officious bureaucrats had tried to stop farmers and NGOs from delivering food to the needy who were suffering because of the lockdown measures. Furthermore, the Land and Agricultural Development Bank of South Africa (Land Bank) has joined the long list of ailing state-run patients following mismanagement by the ANC government.

“We constantly receive emergency calls from vulnerable people who request aid after failing to get any from government,” Theo de Jager, president of the World Farmers Organisation (WFO) and chairman of the Southern African Agri Initiative (Saai), told Rapport.

In these troubling times, it is apt to ask who the real villains and heroes are. Those who produce food in abundance and evidently help those in need, or those who do nothing but issue diktats that exacerbate the plight of those in need?

By Dr Eugene Brink, Strategic Advisor at AfriForum.