Business Maverick

BUSINESS MAVERICK

Children of the corn: Lockdown hunger triggers theft in maize fields

As the lockdown to contain the Covid-19 pandemic bites into economic activity, the pilfering of maize is on the increase, underscoring the toll that is being taken on the poor and vulnerable. (Photo: Unsplash / Markus Spiske)

Hunger is driving poor South Africans into maize fields to pilfer mealies in what industry group Grain SA says are growing numbers. Many are children. Things are that bad.

In April, the stalks that line South Africa’s maize fields like sentries stand tall ahead of the harvest. And the unfolding green foliage provides cover in the dead of the night for the hungry to raid the fields for a few mealies for consumption or sale. As the lockdown to contain the Covid-19 pandemic bites into economic activity, such pilfering is on the increase, underscoring the toll that is being taken on the poor and vulnerable.

“The complaints about theft are on the increase,” Jannie de Villiers, CEO of farming group Grain SA told Business Maverick. Grain SA gets regular reports from its members about such incidents though there is no hard data on the issue.

“The problem is much bigger than in the last few years. We even caught schoolchildren in the fields. Each with a bag, some are so small they can hardly carry it. Then the adults wait with a bakkie on the side of the road. Farmers find it difficult to guard their crops at night,” De Villiers said.

One large-scale commercial farmer, who farms in the northern Free State and who has a company providing agricultural services to the area, told Business Maverick that hunger was clearly the cause and that targeted farms are generally those close to urban centres or large informal settlements.

“I’ve lost a substantial amount on a trial portion where I thought I would get eight tonnes per ha, now I think maybe I will get five tonnes. You can lose a lot of money if you don’t have security,” he said. 

Grain SA’s De Villiers said the unexpected security costs were a threat to the economic sustainability of some farms.

“One of our new black commercial farmers is in trouble. He had the first big crop planted with blended finance. He then had to hire security people to guard his crop and this was not budgeted for,” he said. 

In late March, South Africa’s Crop Estimates Committee — a government body — forecast that South Africa’s maize harvest would rise 31% in 2020 to 14.089 million tonnes. It is too early to say if hunger-driven raids will impact the national outlook and yields in a material manner. But crop rustling does seem to be on the rise, pushing costs up for at least some farmers and serving as a grim reminder that hunger is stalking this land of relative plenty. BM

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