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Government must come up with more effective ways of supporting small-scale farmers


Nkanyiso Gumede is a researcher at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape. His current research is on land and agrarian reform in South Africa. He has also done work on the impact of agricultural investments on the land rights and livelihoods of the smallholder farmers in the communal areas in South Africa. He is also a registered MPhil student on Land and Agrarian studies.

While the country faces a looming food crisis, what is happening to those who received farms through land reform? And what needs to be done to support them so they can continue producing food and generating incomes?

Smallholder farmers and land reform beneficiaries have been greatly affected by the lockdown in South Africa. Disaster regulations have meant less mobility for these farmers, a drop in demand for produce, and, invariably, a loss of income. Smallholder farmers mainly supply informal markets, which include ‘bakkie traders’, street vendors, hawkers, people buying for traditional ceremonies, and niche markets such as restaurants.

On the other hand, the markets for large-scale commercial farmers have remained intact as supermarkets were declared an essential service from the beginning of the lockdown.

Seven days into the lockdown, on 2 April 2020, the regulations changed—now, informal traders could also trade. But this came with restrictions. Informal traders had to obtain permits, which was difficult since public transport was shut down. Without public transport, these traders had no means to travel to offices to acquire permits, and the police still harassed those who managed to get permits.

The spillover effect of this was that many land reform beneficiaries and smallholder farmers lost access to these informal markets. Other farmers, however, who had secure contracts with supermarkets, never had to struggle to access markets.

In some provinces, auctions were open for farmers to sell their livestock, but the prices were low. At the same time, there were reports that meat and other food prices were going up. The auctions were conducted online or in person, but lockdown regulations meant that not more than 50 people could attend. Some farmers decided not to sell and returned home with their livestock while others sold at a loss.

In an interview on 14 April, one livestock farmer in KwaZulu-Natal told me:

I have cattle. I mainly sell on auctions. They are now online. But prices have declined drastically. Before lockdown you could sell a cow for between R11,000 and R12,000, but now prices range from R8,000 to R9,000. If you sell 10 cattle at R8,000, which cost R12,000 under normal conditions, you lose about R40,000. The same people that you sell to, then sell that same cattle at twice the amount. This needs to be fixed.”

Was relief support sufficient?

On 6 April, the Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, Thoko Didiza, announced the Covid-19 relief fund for South Africa’s smallholder farmers and land reform beneficiaries to the tune of R1,2-billion. Of this, R400-million was to be reserved for land reform beneficiaries of the Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy (PLAS) programme – the rest would be allocated to smallholder farmers.

Land reform beneficiaries welcomed the initiative, but some raised concerns over the amount they would receive from the department; a maximum of R50,000. I spoke to a livestock farmer in the Eastern Cape on 30 April:

The amount will not compensate for the loss that has come with the lockdown. It is too little for someone like me with a herd of 234 cattle, 140 sheep, and 30 goats.

Another concern is the prescriptive nature of the support, which often comes in the form of vouchers which are redeemable for production inputs and medication at pre-selected stores. These vouchers fail to meet the needs of the farmers. One livestock farmer in KwaZulu-Natal told me:

What if I have inputs and medication, and want to use the relief fund to pay my employees? These vouchers need to be flexible and respond to our needs. They must consult us before taking decisions.

Labour and related issues

Lockdown meant that some workers from some sectors of the economy would be constrained at home. On 15 April, a crop and livestock farmer in KZN told me:

When the lockdown was announced, I did not know whether we should continue to work on the farm or not. Some of my workers did not come to work because there was no public transport. I did not know whether I could fetch them. This meant that some activities had to stop on the farm. Only those from a nearby village came to work.

However, the opposite was true for commercial farmers. They have workers living on their farms and have easy access to information; they knew they were declared an essential service and could transport their workers.

In addition, some land reform farmers had to release their workers because lockdown meant they had no income to pay them. On 6 May a Free State farmer admitted to me:

I had to release some of my workers because I am currently not generating any income. It would help if the government’s support came in the form of cash, because I would use the cash to pay my employees.

Many farmworkers receive no income, which makes it difficult for them to survive the lockdown. The Women on Farms Project reported that, in the commercial sector, some seasonal workers on grape and wine farms in the Western Cape were facing a hunger crisis because they were unable to access unemployment benefits (UIF) since labour centres were closed. Social relief efforts in the form of food parcels also failed to reach workers on farms. Similar problems were experienced by workers on land reform farms.

Rise in thefts under lockdown

In an interview I conducted on 30 April, Mr Mfundisi, a land redistribution beneficiary in KwaZulu-Natal, told me he had reported incidents of theft, which he associated with the lockdown:

“People are stealing livestock to feed themselves. It is slaughtered in the dongas. You just find the head, feet and the skin. These animals are not sold, but are stolen and slaughtered because people are locked in their homes, and they are hungry. 

The challenge we face is that people are not at work. They are at home because of the lockdown. Children are not at school. There is no food at home. The food parcels have not been delivered to the people.”

Mfundisi added that normally farmworkers were paid with income from sales at auctions, but these are closed or, even if open, have no customers because of physical distancing.

“The government’s response is to give us feed… You cannot pay workers with feed, you have to pay them in cash. If you do not pay them, they are going to join the people who steal your livestock in order to feed themselves. The big question is, what will you have at the end of the corona pandemic as a farmer?”

Enabling access to markets

From my research, it is clear that the government’s failure to expeditiously distribute social relief – both in terms of cash and food – has had a devastating effect on farmers and farmworkers.

With the relaxation of lockdown regulations, it is important to enable access to markets for land reform beneficiaries. Farmers suggest that government should purchase produce from land reform and smallholder farmers through the Covid-19 solidarity fund, and through government procurement in the longer term.

There are also calls from research institutions like PLAAS and civil society organisations for retailers to adjust their procurement requirements, and to buy their produce from small-scale and land reform farmers. They should also label the produce as such in their shops and ensure that they give farmers competitive prices. There is a burning need to create reliable and sustainable markets for land reform beneficiaries.

The C19 People’s Coalition, which includes over 300 organisations, also points to the important fact that some farmers do not use the chemical inputs from commercial agriculture which were provided in the voucher system – they rely on organic inputs sourced from neighbours and small, local suppliers. Therefore, cash or flexible vouchers may be a better option for them.

Any relief aimed at mitigating the impact of Covid-19 must be relevant and based on a thorough consultation with those it targets. It must also be flexible and less prescriptive for it to be effective. Relief support that comes in the form of vouchers other than cash restricts farmers. It fails to offer farmers an opportunity to use the relief support to respond adequately to their needs.

If the government is concerned about accountability regarding cash or flexible vouchers, it must come up with ways of ensuring accountability. That cannot be used as an excuse to provide the support that is irrelevant and ineffective. DM/MC


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