Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 5 August 2013

Double benefit of focus on farming

Gill Marcus has put her finger on it again. The wise governor of the Reserve Bank has admonished the government for a second time for the failure of its economic and labour policies, and has advised it to focus on labour intensive sectors like agriculture for job creation.

It is significant that she has referred specifically to agriculture because this is a troubled sector that has not been an attractive place for anyone to look for a job and certainly not a place for ambitious people to build their careers. Suffering from all kinds of labour and sustainability problems, it also has a major image problem, compounding its lack of appeal as an employer

Headed by Tina Joemat-Petterson, the controversial Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the ministry’s heated focus has been on the fight for minimum wages and against conditions of unfair labour practice. It has not been on farming as a dynamic or successful growth sector of the economy. Farmers say it is no longer a place to make a decent living. Agriculture attracts a declining number of young people. The high cost of capital means that owner-farmers have to inherit their land, or at best try to make a living with a land-bank loan or working for one of the big corporates.

The traditional bastion of farming communities, the predominantly Afrikaans families whose farms were worked by successive generations, have mostly sold out and given up. Farm murders, land claims and rising costs have taken their toll and have forced farming folk to look for other opportunities.

African children whose parents are based in the townships and who have grown up in the care of rural subsistence farming grandparents want to leave the poverty and squalor of life on the land behind as soon as possible. Like so many others, they set out to make what they believe will be a better life in the cities.

South Africa recently marked the centenary of the 1913 Natives Land Act which effectively excluded the black population from 90% of the country’s land. Farming disappeared off the radar of people who wanted to improve their lives. The professions and business became much more attractive vehicles for this. The idea of working the land still suffers from the stigma of Verwoerd’s National Party dogma which relegated Africans to a demeaning life as farm labourers and educating them for “practical” work.

To make matters worse for agriculture in the new South Africa, the government’s land redistribution efforts have been less than successful. In their attempts to reconnect with the land and to take possession of it through a policy of redistribution many mistakes have been made. Examples of previously productive farms abandoned by their owners and handed over to people with no training in agriculture or productive farm management, have become emblems of this failure. Homesteads have been plundered and lands that once produced plentiful crops now lie fallow.

The government’s agricultural and land reform policies have been confused and inconsistent. Those farmers that remain need certainty and a sense of commitment from the government.

A well-crafted publicity campaign and strong government support to take large numbers of unemployed youth into paid training programmes at agricultural colleges and on-the-job training at established farms is what would make a difference. With even a small amount of appropriate training and government support young men and woman could make a better living than scrounging at traffic lights, “pavement-trading” or worse.

It is a pity that Julius Malema, once again on the bandwagon and shouting about land redistribution without compensation, is not more aware of what happened in Zimbabwe when uneducated rabble-rousers off the streets took over the farms and bled them dry.

Instead of pinning so much hope on the apparently hopeless dream of creating jobs in industry and manufacturing, neither of which are traditional places of occupation in African culture, why not invest more into farming? We know cattle farming is in the lifeblood of Africa. In a protein depleted world we could become global exporters of beef, like Argentina. Large-scale fish farming, now getting properly off the ground, can be greatly expanded. We have the sunshine and the good weather for crop farming. Only the will needs to be marshalled.

Food security is a hot topic now and capital for large-scale investment into green farming ventures should be made readily available. In land-starved countries like Japan great strides are being made in “vertical farming” using state-of-the-art techniques of irrigation and multi-story food production. We have the space and the climate. We also have resourceful people who only need encouragement and to be steered in the right direction.

Such new focus on agriculture should not only be directed at people who are unemployed and looking for new horizons. It must also become an attractive platform for ambitious entrepreneurs and private equity investors to find new ways of harnessing the country’s financial and scientific resources. However, it needs a new image and it needs champions who can see the long-term financial and sustainability benefits.

Kenya is an increasingly important role model for African countries like South Africa. Kenya’s agricultural sector contributes 22% to its GDP while in South Africa the sector’s contribution is only 3%. Kenya’s flower industry has become world-famous and alone produces significant employment as well as a substantial contribution to their foreign exchange.

After long neglect by government and ministerial functionaries who devote a great deal of unproductive energy to squabbling about wages and labour practices, things are starting to change. The burgeoning international concern for food security is finally beginning to hit home for the decision-making levels of the ANC. When addressing the Agricultural Sector Unity Forum last week Gwede Mantashe said: “There needs to be agreement on the future of South African farming landscape.” He added: “We want an agricultural sector that can sustain SA and provide food security” and described agriculture as “the sector of the future.”

The Global Food Security Index devised by the Economist Intelligence Unit indicates that together Africa and Latin America possess 90% of the world’s unused farmland.

Unemployment and hunger haunt the world. If a new vision for the agricultural sector can offer the double benefit of providing skills to the unemployed, especially the young people, and giving them hope for the future as well as addressing the need for food security, what are we waiting for? DM

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