Police Minister Bheki Cele delivered his budget vote on Tuesday, 23 May 2023. Rural communities, including farmers and farmworkers, waited to hear whether it would address the crucial issue of rural safety.
These communities, which battle the same challenges as every other sector of the economy (inflation, rolling blackouts, deteriorating infrastructure), simply cannot shoulder the additional burden of poor policing and the absence of communication on a way forward for safety in rural communities as well.
Sadly, Cele failed to use the opportunity of his budget vote to address this critical challenge of crime in the farming communities that has an impact on food security in South Africa.
Instead, Cele failed to even mention rural safety, rural farming communities or rural crime. This failure follows a disturbing trend in this regard, one which increasingly corrodes the agricultural sector’s confidence in his department’s commitment to the Rural Safety Strategy.
For example, it is commendable that the minister announced a greater focus on crime prevention, but this ought to go hand in hand with an emphasis on visible policing. That the minister understands this is reflected in the adoption of a plan to ensure that streets and highways throughout this country are saturated weekly with high-density operations.
Yet the minister failed to explain how this would be achieved in rural farming communities. The fact is that the most effective way to implement visible policing in rural communities is through a well-resourced reservist programme, but no resources were allocated for it in the budget.
The Rural Safety Strategy was also omitted when the minister spoke about the release of the third-quarter crime statistics in February 2023. On that occasion too he failed to address the peculiar challenges facing our rural farming communities.
Farming communities cannot be called upon to contribute more to the successful implementation of the [Rural Safety Strategy] while the government keeps us in the dark about its contribution to effectively implement this joint plan.
Yet it was clear from those statistics how bleak the safety picture in South Africa is. Even as he touted his department’s “progress”, the minister was forced to concede that the crime figures did not “paint an overall positive picture of the crime situation in our country” – a remarkable understatement given that contact crimes increased by more than 11% and property-related crimes by just more than 7%.
Speaking of violent crime, the minister called for “a broader conversation… about what is at the heart of violent crime in the country”. This is not a new call and, though it remains important, the country has no more time left for conversation. Now it’s time to act. This is what we’d hoped to hear in the budget vote: what action the police are taking on rural safety and implementing the outcomes of the summit.
Cele has also in the past called on “communities to take charge and be allies in safety”. The fact is, no community has been more proactive than the agricultural sector in seeking engagement and collaboration with the police.
In fact, the Rural Safety Strategy was born out of this community’s call for collaboration and dialogue.
But it is difficult to ask farming communities to continue to engage with the government when engagement has borne little fruit to date. The government has been slow to follow through on its commitments, and farmers, farmworkers and rural communities broadly continue to face daily threats to their lives, properties and their operations.
It is Agri SA’s view that a few key aspects of the strategy must be agreed on as the starting point in implementing it more effectively. In addition to the reservist system, these include more effective criminal investigations, an emphasis on suspect detention paired with opposition to bail by the police, effective crime intelligence and crime analysis, and the creation of police task teams and rapid response units in hotspots.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Bheki Cele’s police budget highlights progress, but opposition points out gross failures
Until these measures are implemented, it is unconscionable to expect more from rural communities when the government has not come to the party.
Agri SA has continuously driven the Rural Safety Strategy and issued call after call for Cele to fast-track the more effective implementation thereof. Farming communities cannot be called upon to contribute more to the successful implementation of the strategy while the government keeps us in the dark about its contribution to effectively implement this joint plan.
Agri SA has always had a constructive relationship with the South African Police Service, especially in relation to matters of safety and security. The organisation was involved in the implementation of the Rural Safety Plan in 1997 and, more recently, the National Rural Safety Strategy in July 2011.
This makes the minister’s failure to respond to Agri SA’s numerous enquiries about the progress of the ministerial task team even more disappointing.
As things stand, it appears that there has been a deterioration in the political will to address rural safety, but there is too much at stake to simply abandon the strategy.
Beyond the ever-increasing private investment in security measures by the farming community, we can only hope that Cele will soon finally show a long-awaited sense of urgency in announcing the outcome of the summit, which is what is required to keep South Africa’s food-producing communities safe. DM