Full horror of drought emerges

The drought has resulted in smaller harvests, a rise in the cost of maize and basic food items, increased food insecurity and farmers' debt skyrocketing to R125-billion. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

The drought has resulted in smaller harvests, a rise in the cost of maize and basic food items, increased food insecurity and farmers' debt skyrocketing to R125-billion. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)


The cupboard is bare. Farmers are at their most indebted in history and government departments have to shift funds around in their budgets to bring some drought relief. With no contingency funds in the fiscus, herds will continue to diminish and the national crop will fail to feed the country.

The disaster started slowly. In 2013, a drought in North West wiped out tens of thousands of cattle and thousands of hectares of farmland. A drought the next year in KwaZulu-Natal did the same. The government responded, pumping funds into disaster relief.

Local weather phenomena then mixed with an increasingly powerful El Niño to drop South Africa’s national wheat crop from a record high of 14-million tonnes in 2014 to about 10-million tonnes in 2015. The price of basic foodstuffs went up by a third.

But this was still a regional problem and the fiscus had the funds to import food and help farmers and others by subsidising cattle feed and seeds. It did, however, wipe out farmers’ savings and force them to take on more debt. It also drove a consolidation of farms into the hands of fewer, but larger, farming operations.  

In May 2015, the government agreed to a 7% salary increase for public sector employees. The full cost – revealed in the subsequent medium-term budget – came to an effective 10% increase.

Nhlanhla Nene, finance minister at the time, had already set the budget, so the funds had to come from somewhere else – the contingency reserve. This piggy bank is essentially an insurance policy for when things go wrong, like when the rains stop falling. It is set to be topped up by R2.6-billion in the next financial year. With the piggy bank empty, the government did not have the funds for when the drought really bit. Less rain fell in 2015 than in any of the 112 years for which local records have been kept.

In September last year, the Free State declared a provincial drought disaster. In November, Limpopo followed suit, as did Mpumalanga in the following month.

Districts of the Eastern, Western and Northern Cape declared their own disasters. The government has not declared a national disaster, which it could do in terms of the Disaster Management Act if an event affects “more than one province”, or any one province “which is unable to deal with it effectively”. This allows normal procurement processes to be fast-tracked or bypassed so that funds can be quickly appropriated to soften the blow.

Unable to access a larger national fund, government departments and municipalities have been forced to move funds around in their own budgets. The government as a whole says it has put aside about R500-million to deal with the drought. Of this, R300-million has come from the agriculture department, taking funds from other programmes.

Senzeni Zokwana, its minister, has given a glimpse of the worry driving the response. “We have seen cattle dying. We have seen plants withering. We don’t want to see people dying,” he said.

The scale of dying cattle is difficult to quantify. At last count, the national herd was about 12-million cattle. Of that, 80% is in the hands of commercial farmers.

Tens of thousands have died in separately reported incidents in different provinces, with KwaZulu-Natal reporting about 100 000 last year. Several farmers and auctioneers have said a big sell-off happened when winter hit last year.

Unable to afford feed or extra water, farmers started to sell their cattle and smaller livestock.

The previous season’s crop failure meant feed was up by a third. The next big sell-off started in late spring, when it became clear the rains would not fall. Farmers say their emaciated cattle had lost a third of their weight on average – down from 300kg to 200kg.

This dropped their price at the market. The focus now is on keeping prize bulls and the strongest cattle alive to grow herds when the rains come again. Jaco van Zyl, a beef farmer in the Free State, says the consensus in his area is that it will take five years for herds to recover.

“You don’t have any money to buy new cattle, so you have to grow again with what you have. That means we won’t be selling.”

Auctioneers say, although the price paid for cattle has gone down, the price of meat has had to go up because of the shortage of quality meat.

Many of these farmers do have insurance for this sort of thing, although the number is dropping. Multiperil insurance covers things such as hail, drought and frost. But the growing number of disasters makes it cripplingly expensive. As of December, farmers owed banks R125-billion – the highest level of debt ever.

But subsistence livestock and grain farmers are the worst affected by the drought. Villagers in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo, speaking to the Mail & Guardian after previous visits to their homes, say, because they are small scale, they have no buffer. Municipalities have provided extra grazing land, but it is not enough.

Ellias Ngobeni, a Limpopo resident who hitched a ride with the M&G during a visit to his hometown of Giyani last year, says his friends have lost most of their cattle. 

“A man must have cattle. It shows that you have achieved, and it gives you an investment so you can pay for important things.”

His cattle were a form of social capital and a bank. A cow could provide an upfront payment for a child’s university education or the lobola to marry a sweetheart.

For those without land, the drought means their income is the only guarantor of access to food. In 2012, the general household survey found that 14-million South Africans did not know where their next meal was coming from. Another 15-million were on the verge of this, and were one shock away from not having food.

That shock is here: research by the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute, looking at a household basket of 39 household goods and services, found that households now have to fork out 30% more for that basket. Maize alone has risen by 37%. This was before the failure of this year’s crop.

Two million of the country’s 2.6-million hectares of maize have been planted, and those that have been are being affected by drought, so their yield will be lower than normal. The multi-sector crop estimates committee says the country will have a five-million tonne shortfall in maize, which will cost around R20-billion to import.

Grain SA says the country’s silos have enough stock until spring, after which the country will have to rely on imports until the next harvest six months later in 2017. The cost of maize increased by 75% last year, and is projected to keep on increasing, as Mexico and the United States remain the only sellers. Large staple food producers are already discussing mixing white maize with cheaper and more readily available yellow maize, which is seen locally as only fit for cattle feed.

Wandile Sihlobo, a grain economist, says the price change on shelves of the current crop will be felt in stores in nine months time, as it has to work its way through the maize market and then the cereal and milk market.

Things might improve if the current rains mean a more consistent yield and grazing for cattle. But there is little in the way of a silver lining. El Niño has reached its peak and the South African Weather Service predicts rains will fall by autumn. But El Niño is usually followed by La Niña, which leads to intense rain. This washes away topsoil and destroys crops. It might end the drought, but it will not solve the food crisis.

Sipho Kings


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