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Rotten harvest: How the seeds of the agriculture department’s poor performance were planted

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Xolisa Phillip has had quite an adventure as a journalist in the roles of subeditor, news editor, columnist and commentator. She pretends to be Olivia Pope during the day, while still maintaining a presence in journalism – a passion project she cannot shake away. Journalism keeps finding Phillip no matter where she is and somewhat manages to hold its own space no matter where she is professionally.

Minister Thoko Didiza has a mammoth task at hand reshaping the fortunes of the agriculture department. Its decline has long been written about and its financial dysfunction is well known. The problems are structural, functional and operational. It has no director-general, valuer-general or many of the deputy directors-general it needs to function optimally. Therein lies the source of its decay: It is missing key officials who would enforce the Public Finance Management Act and ensure accountability. That brings into question the recent undertakings to Parliament to arrest the slide.

The troubles which haunt the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development are many and predate its executive head, Thoko Didiza. Admittedly, though, there is no escaping the present reality that Didiza remains responsible for effecting a credible turnaround. 

The task of improving this strategic portfolio is made trickier when taking into consideration that Didiza inherited the erstwhile departments of Rural Development and Land Reform, and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. This happened in June 2019, when the present administration took office after the May general election in the same year. Another factor complicating this already complex situation is that Forestry was removed and placed under Environmental Affairs. 

In actuality, Didiza is presiding over three structures: the new department, whose reconfiguration is in progress, and the two former departments. The subcomponents of rural development and land reform are functioning according to the pre-2019 status quo and overseen by two deputy ministers. One deputy minister looks after rural development and the other takes care of land reform. 

The entities that report to the new department include the Ingonyama Trust Board, the Commission on Restitution of Land Rights, the Agricultural Research Council, the National Agricultural Marketing Council and the Perishable Products Export Control Board. 

Furthermore, this reimagined department does not have a new or merged financial structure. Instead, the accounts of the old departments remain operational and are in force.  For now and the foreseeable future, that means the reorganisation could be characterised as cosmetic and does not constitute an overhaul in practical and application terms.  

A more accurate reflection is that the department’s redesign represents a reversion to an old model which was re-engineered under the Zuma administration. In short, the departmental splits were an outcome of the previous administration. Hence the bloated Cabinets then. Although the current administration has streamlined some portfolios and, by extension, the size of the Cabinet, it has swelled the ranks of deputy ministers. 

That is the institutional context in which the new department is operating, and the backdrop which partly explains why its financial affairs have regressed and stagnated over the past five years, according to the Office of the Auditor-General. Rural development and land affairs, and agriculture and fisheries were never synonymous with effective internal management and good governance as standalone departments; neither is the new department.  

That is attributable to the remnants of legacy issues, such as entrenched cultures of lax supply chain management controls and inadequate capacity. Add to that the intricacies of merging a reconfigured and amended portfolio.

The latest assessment of the department’s financials shows that its internal financial record-keeping displays minimal regard for accuracy, its supply chain controls are woeful and the conduct of its officials is worrisome. Overall, things have gone from bad to worse in the past five years. 

Didiza accepts that the Office of the Auditor-General’s analysis of the department’s financial statements is reflective of reality, and has made an undertaking to fix this. The record of the minister’s remarks to the portfolio committee on agriculture is available online. 

Corrective actions to be taken include advertising the key posts of director-general, valuer-general and deputy directors-general. This will be done to “stabilise” the department. 

There is little wonder then why the department’s financial performance has been below par. It is missing technical experts and an accounting officer in the person of the director-general. That is so in terms of the Public Finance Management Act. The department is also working on a fit-for-purpose structure that is more aligned with its strategy. 

Consider that the department has spent R205-million on drought relief programmes. However, the department has little proof of what form this supposed drought relief took. Add to that the fact the department cannot account for more than R500-million provided in grants to farmers. 

In addition, the department has divulged to MPs that it is to institute investigations on illegal evictions in the provinces. 

For the longest time, politicians have run the show at the department while technical experts jumped ship. This portfolio is a case in point of why it would be prudent to consider finding a framework to delink ministries and departments from the sins of deployment and to de-risk governance from political processes and interference.  

Perhaps the political class could find expression in Parliament to limit the cross-pollination of party political considerations from the demands of executive office. Competing priorities paved the way to the financial mess in which the department is mired. Much of the administrative decline correlates with the calibre of politicians who were given the responsibility of overseeing this portfolio.  

Didiza’s commitment to reversing the decline is commendable, but the minister may be underestimating the magnitude of the task. BM/DM

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  • The erstwhile Dept of Agric had more Phd’s than any other institution in S.A. It is crucial for its sustainability to get technical knowledge back. But from where? Mismanagement, no political will, cANCerous leaders and professional looters will prevent any efforts from succeeding for generations.

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