Sugarcane fields being harvested. PHOTO: ALEXANDRA WEXLER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Sugarcane fields being harvested. PHOTO: ALEXANDRA WEXLER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Small-scale sugarcane grower Bongiwe Mcineka is feeling the pinch and struggling to survive because sugar imports are threatening to suffocate SA’s sugar industry.

Sugar produced outside SA has been flooding the local market leaving black, small-scale sugarcane farmers, and rural communites, in dire straits.

Earlier in June, Trix Trikam, executive director of the South African Sugar Association (Sasa), said: "Sugar in the world market is sold well below cost of production. On this basis, the South African industry does need an effective tariff to protect it against imports from the distorted world market."

Mcineka, a mother of seven children‚ who has been a sugarcane farmer since 1992 in the Glendale Valley on KwaZulu-Natal’s north coast‚ is now battling to educate her children. "We used to get a lot of money but now we are getting nothing. We can’t even take our children to school. Job opportunities have been lost because you can’t hire someone if you can’t pay them."

Her sentiments were echoed by another small-scale cane grower‚ Celumusa Mahlobo from Emthandeni‚ north of Durban‚ who said some local companies had resorted to buying sugar overseas because it was expensive in SA. "Us farmers can’t even have money to live. How am I going to work and how am I going to pay the people who are working for me? Because we don’t get money anymore and we’re owing the [sugar] mills."

Mcineka and Mahlobo were among more than 60 black small-scale sugarcane farmers who embarked on a 20-hour bus trip from KwaZulu-Natal to Parliament in Cape Town on Wednesday to show their support for the sugar industry’s application to stop sugar imports by increasing the tariffs.

Mcineka said they decided to come together as small-scale farmers to voice their concern about sugar imports that had a negative effect on their businesses.

Black sugarcane farmers from the South African Farmers Development Association (Safda) are struggling to survive due to the ineffective duty currently imposed on imported sugar.

Joanmariae Fubbs‚ chairperson of the parliamentary portfolio committee on trade and industry‚ expressed concern when viewing a number of cane payment statements that small-scale sugarcane farmers received‚ which showed that a large number of them received zero payment for the 2017-18 season.

Other statements showed that farmers were in the red and had been forced to start a new season with high levels of debt.

Safda said in a statement on Wednesday that the challenge was that farmers required capital to replant fields‚ to purchase fertiliser and for general operating costs. "Starting a new season with a zero or negative balance means small-scale farmers are already indebted and have little or no chance of securing capital. This, in turn, has a catastrophic effect on the rural communities of KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga."

The association said it was worth noting that small-scale sugarcane farmers had small plots of land‚ sometimes as little as 0.5ha‚ "so economies of scales are not feasible".

However, there could be light at the end of the tunnel as members of the parliamentary portfolio committee on trade and industry‚ the International Trade Administration Commission of SA (Itac) and the South African Revenue Service (SARS) undertook to deal with the matter urgently — with a resolution expected next month.