Power plays behind the mealie wars

“Rule by farmers over”, reads a misguidedly optimistic headline referring to the shift in Government policy over the once-sacred spot farmers had in the eyes of the ruling-elite.

It may be true, but what do we have in its place? And does it mean more people will be able to eat and fewer starve?

Any attempt to answer those questions should make South African consumers uncomfortable, for the political power-base has shifted from a partnership between farmers and Government, to a partnership between Big Business and Government. It is four years now since the maize farmers revolted against the system of “organised” agriculture — and effectively kicked the producer representatives of the Maize Control Board off the Board, substituting them with their own elected representatives.

This meant the Broederbond members on the Maize Board (who were the producer representatives to a man) — disappeared and lost a powerful voice in the determining of Maize affairs — at least in theory. The producer body which took over, Nampo (the National Maize Producers Organisation) claims to represent the vast majority of farmers. The Maize Board is the body which buys maize from the farmers.

Under the single channel marketing system in South Africa, it is the only body ENTITLED to buy maize from farmers and to sell to wholesalers and retailers, or export and import maize. Nampo represents a group of farmers who believe in what they describe as a free market system. In the recent row over the maize price, it was an alliance of the Government and industry which effectively stymied the farmers’ demand for R265 a ton — an increase of R47a ton for white maize.

So why did the Government dump the farmers? Farmers have a forth-right explanation for it, one that coincides with other analysts and with the views of Nampo’s Dr Pict Gous. The Government, bolstered by an allegiance with business and with urban white, coloured and Indian voters, will change constituency borders before any future elections to place more emphasis on urban voters — and it simply won’t need its militant and revolting farmers.

In the recent row the Nampo members of the the Board including the chairman, all resigned in protest and the Cabinet would not allow them back onto the board. No prizes for guessing who’s back in power on the board. Says Gous, it’s of course the Breeders again “who’ll do the bidding of Goverment”.

But Nampo’s dream of a free market would be hampered by the fact that thousands of farmers would have to sell to only three major buyers, who are in any case dominated by Anglo-American through Premier Group and Tongaat.

Although Premier Groups Tony Bloom refused to answer calls from Weekly Mail to put the industry side, another industry insider did give some explanations — provided his name was not mentioned. He said if the maize price got too high, industry would simply tell the Government it wanted cheaper wheat — which can be used in chicken feeds — to be imported from places like Australia.

He congratulated the Government on keeping the prices down and said maize was 60 to 70 percent of the raw materials costs of animal feeds. To push the price up any higher would affect all foods — a fact with which Nampo agrees, but it says we can afford it.

There are no simple answers, but it does seem foolhardy to rejoice in the minimising of farmer power, when they remain the only people producing food on a large scale and when it is overlooked that the food power was given to a political force dominated by the profit motive only.

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Pat Sidley
Guest Author

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