Thoko Didiza. Picture: GALLO IMAGES
Thoko Didiza. Picture: GALLO IMAGES

Smallholder farmers have called on the government to address issues bedevilling the sector to grow the embattled economy. Specifically, they want Thoko Didiza, minister of the newly reconfigured agriculture, land reform & rural development department, to champion their struggles.

Didiza is an old hand in the land portfolio, having served as deputy agriculture minister from 1994 to 1999, and as agriculture & land affairs minister from 1999 to 2006.

But she returns to the ministry at a difficult time. The economy shrank by 3.2% in the first quarter of 2019, and the agriculture sector shed 12,000 jobs during the same period. Last week, it was announced that the Agbiz/IDC agribusiness confidence index had fallen by two points in the second quarter, to reach 44 — a level suggesting the sector is downbeat about the operating environment, says Agbiz chief economist Wandile Sihlobo. And last year, parliament resolved to pursue a constitutional amendment to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation to redress skewed land ownership patterns.

Analysts at the time slammed the government for not providing certainty on the matter, spurring President Cyril Ramaphosa to appoint an expert panel to advise the interministerial committee on land reform on issues around policy, land reform, restitution, redistribution, tenure security and agricultural support.

The panel last week delivered its report to Ramaphosa and his deputy, David Mabuza. It will be tabled before the cabinet before being released publicly.

"This report is an important step forward in our quest to right the original sin by developing solutions that are not only uniquely South African but, most importantly, build a society in which all may share in the wealth of our land," Ramaphosa said on receiving the report.

Vuyo Mahlati, the chair of Ramaphosa’s advisory panel, is president of the African Farmers’ Association of SA, an umbrella body that represents emerging black farmers. It is her hope that Didiza will use her time in office to focus closely on smallholder black farmers. Specifically, she says, Didiza needs to prioritise government assistance to emerging farmers.

We are talking about billions of rands that are within the school feeding scheme. Black emerging farmers should be part of that
Vuyo Mahlati

"There is very little support for black farmers. Commercial brands and the Land Bank give 80% of their support to commercial white farmers," Mahlati says. "The whole system of supporting black farmers needs a complete review."

Mahlati, who is concerned by the lack of transformation in the agriculture sector, believes land reform priorities need to be aligned with agricultural reform to improve efficiencies. "Systems should be put in place, from both the private and public sectors, to ensure continuous support for black farmers," she says.

She’s not alone in this view. Independent agricultural economist Fanie Brink agrees that Didiza needs to prioritise the welfare of emerging farmers. He is, however, uncertain about how successful she will be in this.

"I don’t know if the department can ever be successful in supporting smallholder farmers. They have had absolutely no support in the past," says Brink. "We don’t know if the department now has a new strategy to deal with this issue, because it’s also one of the critical areas as far as land expropriation is concerned. As things stand, we don’t have much clarity on what’s going to happen with land expropriation."

But there are concerns beyond the lack of support and uncertainty that the land expropriation resolution has engendered.

The country’s agricultural colleges, for example, have not performed optimally for years, says Mahlati, and Didiza will need to address the challenges facing them.

There are also issues around mechanisation and a lack of access to markets for emerging farmers.

Last June, agriculture ministers of the Brics group of nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA — said they would support agricultural mechanisation and the use of modern technology such as drones to enhance food security.

But there are other ways in which the government can build its support of smallholder farmers. For example, when it comes to the national school nutrition programme and the provision of food at state hospitals and frail-care facilities, the government could source the agricultural produce it requires from smallholder farmers.

"We are talking about billions of rands that are within the school feeding scheme," says Mahlati. "Black emerging farmers should be part of that."

What it means

Emerging farmers say they need state support, sector reform and access to mechanisation and markets

Didiza was not available for comment; she says she has a busy schedule and will only engage with the media in a few weeks.

But agriculture, land reform & rural development deputy minister S’dumo Dlamini tells the FM: "We have been assigned to carry [out] a task. We will listen to everybody and we will work to find solutions to … issues that have been raised, to the best of our abilities."

In the meantime Didiza, along with her two deputies, Dlamini and Mcebisi Skwatsha, have held their first meeting with executives of the department’s five entities: the National Agricultural Marketing Council, the Agricultural Research Council, the office of the valuer-general, Onderstepoort Biological Products and the Perishable Products Export Control Board.

"Minister Didiza acknowledged all the excellent work done by the entities in fulfilling their respective mandates. Under the sixth administration, minister Didiza asserted the need for state-owned enterprises to support the governing party mandate in transforming agriculture, developing the agricultural economy and ensuring food security," the department said in a statement, adding that the department’s new leaders would meet representatives of the entities individually in the weeks to come.

On the land reform side, chief land claims commissioner Nomfundo Ntloko-Gobodo is pleased about Didiza’s return to the portfolio, saying she will ensure there is a good working relationship in place with the minister to fulfil the mandate of land restitution.

"I’m excited," says Ntloko-Gobodo. "It’s a plus that she’s done this kind of work before, when she was agriculture & land affairs minister."