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The curious case of subsistence farmers’ vouchers, agriculture department and Sona

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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.

As narrative devices, anecdotes can either prove effective or fall flat. When used in political speeches, anecdotes can provide powerful accounts of an idealised reality while simultaneously invoking deep emotions from an audience. Anecdotes can also pique intense public curiosity and scrutiny.

At its crudest conception, the idea behind using anecdotes in political speeches is to leave a lasting impression and to create a sense of intimacy between the speaker and those spoken to. The recent State of the Nation Address (Sona) was replete with anecdotes.

The political class and the elite gather under one roof to hear the head of government’s account of feats accomplished and the work that lies ahead. The public, the supposed beneficiaries of these feats and acts of service to be realised, is the audience.

During the recent Sona the public was informed about the “… first two phases of the Presidential Employment Stimulus (PES) programmes, which … launched in October 2020 [and] supported over 850,000 opportunities”.

Then came the anecdote to illustrate the efficacy of one of the programmes. “Mama Nosipho Cekwana from Impendle in KwaZulu-Natal,” the audience was told, “used her farming input voucher to buy maize, manure and supplements for her livestock.”

What the speech neglected to mention, however, is that the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, which is responsible for distributing the input vouchers to subsistence farmers, has suspended implementation of the programme “with immediate effect until further notice”.

In a statement dated 13 January 2022, the department notified the public that it “wishes to inform subsistence farmers who are beneficiaries of the PES vouchers of the decision to suspend all PES implementation with immediate effect until further notice”.

“The department is reviewing … PES implementation, to address all challenges experienced,” reads the statement.

The reasons cited for the immediate suspension of the voucher programme implementation include “endless complaints from the PES beneficiaries and the [SA] community at large, regarding various challenges on the PES implementation”.

“These implementation challenges cannot be left unattended, hence the decision by the department to temporarily halt the current implementation,” reads the statement.

This detail is nowhere in the speech. Furthermore, the Mama Cekwana anecdote belies the messy reality of the voucher programme, which was first highlighted in a report on Covid-19 procurement compiled by the Office of the Auditor-General. No ill intent is ascribed to the Sona, but attention is being drawn to the thinness of anecdote in the absence of substantive supporting cases.

Following the release of the special audit report, voucher payments were stopped to enable the department to address deficiencies in the programme, as communicated to it by the Office of the Auditor-General.

Problems identified included that “some vouchers had been issued to non-qualifying beneficiaries such as public officials. For vouchers already redeemed, the … [department] had to initiate the process of writing demand letters to the non-qualifying beneficiaries. The department will continue the process of recovering the funds in the 2021/22 financial year,” reads the 2020/21 Consolidated General Report on National and Provincial Audit Outcomes.

In its 2020/21 annual report, the department notes that it requested the fiscus to grant approval for a rollover of unspent PES funds to 2021/22. “PES programme rollover funds are to support additional households to produce their own food and relieve the current pressure on the state…”

The programme was designed to help subsistence farmers “whose production capacity was disrupted by the pandemic”… “These are producers who farm in the backyard gardens of their homes and in communal areas.”

In 2020/21, “a total of 53,286 applications were approved for support in the form of vouchers for the acquisition of production inputs. A total of 40,000 of the beneficiaries [were] women.”

The government’s 2021/22 financial yearend is fast approaching. The timing of the voucher programme suspension coincides with that deadline.

Mama Cekwana’s case, which made it into the Sona as a “good story to tell” anecdote, falls under the category of exception rather than norm in the context of the voucher programme for subsistence farmers. The anecdote falls flat on inspiration. Rather, it invites more scrutiny of the voucher programme and its current suspension. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • From Tracy Michau, a farmer friend in Cradock:
    “Just 5 minutes ago I sent a message to a guy in the Agri . I was awarded R11500 in PESI vouchers. They were suspended until further notice. Yesterday I get sms saying they expire month end 😳”
    Earlier message from Melvin, Tracy’s Agri contact:
    “They are planning to lift suspension this week. However, they are still looking for suppliers to provide at shelf prices. Most of the current ones on the list are not willing to sell at shelf prices, so their contract will be terminated. ”
    Tracy:
    “I received an SMS to say my voucher expired end of March. Do you maybe have the new suppliers list please?”
    Melvin
    “There is not a list as yet. We did communicate with our national office that they should extend the vouchers, especially since they did not manage to get suppliers in each province who are willing to sell at shelf price.”

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