Govt’s reaction to FMD damaging – John Steenhuisen

DA leader says amongst hardest hit have been small scale and subsistence farmers

Government’s reaction to Foot & Mouth Disease has caused far more damage than the disease itself

30 January 2020

As part of my real state of the nation tour, I conducted an oversight visit to a cattle auction pen in Bela-Bela, Limpopo earlier this week. This auction pen, like so many others across the country, has been severely affected by government’s poor initial response to the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in the province, followed by a complete overreaction in the form of a nation-wide ban on livestock gathering and auctions.

I have today written to the Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, Thoko Didiza, to request that she report to Parliament, within 21 days, on her plan of action to fight the disease, which should include revoking this ban in areas not affected. (Please find letter attached here)

While the reason given for the ban sounds noble – to combat the spread of the disease – government has effectively taken a sledgehammer to a situation that required a scalpel. And in the process they have caused great damage to everyone who earns a living from South Africa’s red meat industry.

Managing a Foot & Mouth Disease outbreak properly is a long and detailed process. If you don’t do it right, the consequences can be devastating. What happened here in Limpopo, when Foot and Mouth was detected at an auction pen near Polokwane, was a textbook example of what not to do. After the initial quarantine and testing, government should have immediately embarked on a programme of disinfecting farms, vehicles and equipment in the area. They didn’t, and so it fell to the farmers themselves to do government’s work, at their own expense.

Government should also have kept tight control of the movement of livestock through road blocks, which they didn’t do either. And this is where a small, controlled outbreak very quickly becomes a crisis.

But the biggest damage was wrought in the poor handling of the previous Foot and Mouth outbreak, back in 2018. If that had been managed properly, and for the entire 6 month duration as is prescribed, the disease would have been contained. Instead, as is the case with almost every ANC government project, a lack of finances meant an early end to the rehabilitaion period. Unable to pay staff overtime, the road blocks and transport restrictions were lifted way too early in 2019. Someone took advantage of these cut corners and brought infected cattle in, and what followed was probably the largest outbreak we have seen in SA.

I just want to say here that if it weren’t for the incredible efforts of the farmers who shouldered all the responsibility and all the costs of containing this outbreak, we would have been in a far, far worse situation. All the sprays, vaccinations and medicines had to come from their own pockets, not to mention the cost of the cattle that had to be slaughtered. The men and women of these farming communities were pro-active and unselfish, and many of them suffered great financial setbacks in the process. Our country owes them a debt of gratitude.

Throughout all of this, government was conspicuous in its absense. Only when the metaphorical horse had already bolted, did they spring into action and issue a nation-wide prohibition on the movement of split-hooved cattle and game – a move that has been widely criticised as irrational and heavy-handed. This ban has had a disastrous effect on trade with our SADC neighbours, and government now has a huge task in trying to rebuild trust and restore credibility.

Among the hardest hit have been small scale and subsistence farmers, who can’t absorb the costs and who don’t always have the technology to access the online auctions that have replaced the traditional auctions while the transport prohibition is in place. For them, all business has ground to a halt. There have also been reports of farmworkers being laid off for months on farms that cannot operate under the prohibition.

By all accounts, government’s belated response to this situation has been completely inappropriate and has wreaked havoc in the industry. It is for this reason that a group of more than fifty emerging farmers decided to take legal action to force Minister Didiza to lift the nationwide ban on livestock gathering and auctions in areas of the country not affected. Which is most of South Africa.

The DA fully supports this court action. Farmers are still struggling to contend with the crippling drought that has hit most provinces, not to mention the constant threat of property expropriation that hangs over their heads. The last thing they need is for government to place even more obstacles in their way. What they do need is a government that understands the massive challenges in running successful farming operations – a government that can partner with them.

What they also need is a government that can protect its own people and their interests through proper borders and border control. The role that our porous borders play in the spread of Foot and Mouth cannot be overstated. When infected animals can cross at will from Zimbabwe and Mozambique through broken or non-existent fences, it becomes near impossible to contain the disease.

And speaking of neighbouring countries, it must also be noted that while a country like Botswana is known for Foot and Mouth Disease, their government response is such that the disease rarely affects their export market. Here in South Africa, however, our government’s poor response has a massively adverse affect on our exports.

I’m sure Minister Didiza was fully aware of what the correct response should have been. And even if she wasn’t, the World Organisation for Animal Health has set out clear guidelines on how to respond to such a situation. According to these guidelines, it was the state’s responsibility to disinfect all farms and vehicles in the affected region; to create visible policing in order to monitor the movement of livestock and enforce the quarantine; to allocate a budget with which to fight the disease; to conduct routine inoculations; and to inform police authorities to take steps to combat the spread of the disease.

Government did none of these things. Instead it dithered until it was too late, and then chose a totally irrational course of action that has caused immense disruption and financial loss to all who make a living in this sector. Some estimate the losses suffered since this prohibition was announced to run as high as R10 billion.

What needs to happen now is a proper costing of the impact of government’s mishandling of the situation so that there can be financial reparations. The farming community cannot be expected to simply absorb these losses brought about by government’s failure to do its job.

It is now of utmost importance that government prevents any further damage by immediately revoking the nation-wide ban and letting farmers do their jobs. Those areas that are disease-free must get a certificate to operate, and those that are still affected must get all the assistance they need from government. And this includes compensation for the massive losses incurred by some of the farmers.

Issued by John Steenhuisen, Leader of the Democratic Alliance, 30 January 2020