Small farmers desperate for flood funds

As flood-afflicted farmers wait anxiously to hear details of the assistance the government has promised, there are fears that many emerging farmers could be wiped out if they do not benefit as much as ­commercial farmers from emergency funding.

Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson said this week that farmers would receive assistance to return their operations to 80% efficiency by March. She said government and financial institutions were talking about plans to grant farmers longer periods for debt repayment.

Flooding across the country that began in December last year has killed more than 100 people and displaced 8400 others in 33 declared disaster areas in eight of the nine provinces. The initial estimated toll is more than R3,5-billion but government says it is still counting the cost.

On Thursday Joemat-Pettersson said there was an “urgent need” to provide assistance that would include reconstruction of damaged infrastructure (such as dams, bridges, roads, canals, fences and irrigation systems) as well as seeds, fertilisers and implements.

Han van der Merwe, the executive director of Agri SA, said the union is “satisfied the minister is trying to deal with this in a fair way”.
In previous disasters farmers had waited “three or four years” for relief but now “the necessary urgency is there”.

However, Katishi Masemola, general secretary of the Food and Allied Workers’ Union, told the Mail & Guardian emerging farmers “may be wiped out of existence” if not given equal attention.

The M&G travelled to the Northern Cape where farmers are struggling to pick up the pieces after the Orange River broke its banks two weeks ago.

Wake-up call
Harry May, a Northern Cape programme manager for the Surplus People Project, said: “This should be a wake-up call to government that they have to provide assistance to small-scale farmers and revisit agrarian land reform. The support now provided by government to [these] farmers is very negligible.”
Since 1996 government has granted land to smaller farmers who were denied it under the apartheid regime.

“But in most cases that is as far as it [assistance] went,” May said.

The failure of land reform is why “small-scale farmers now need to be first in line for support — The state will have to go out of its way to intervene in that sector because municipal disaster relief funds are likely to be totally inadequate,” May said.

Salam Abram, a member of Parliament’s portfolio committee on agriculture, forestry and fisheries, expressed concern about developing farmers, saying assistance to them needs to be stepped up and, despite budget constraints, should be prioritised.

“Our task is to lobby for assistance to be tangible and not to come only a year from now — We cannot afford to lose farmers and we cannot afford to dent food security,” Abram said.

Aggrey Mahanjana of the National Emergent Red Meat Producers’ Organisation and the Revitalisation of National African Farmers’ Union told the M&G: “I have never seen the state compensate farmers to their full expectation.”

The problem now in addressing the disaster is the same as it has always been—the delays caused by “all the bureaucracy involved,” he said.

Abram agreed that there is a dire need for a “well-organised and well-coordinated national disaster-management plan”.

He pointed to the apartheid regime’s Agricultural Credit Board. “If there was a problem in your district, such as the floods, a board was created to make funds available to you at a nominal interest rate.”

Sometimes, Abram said, debt was written off if the board could see the farmer would struggle to pay back the loan. “I personally think that sort of instrument would help the agricultural sector tremendously.”

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen. Read more from Lisa Steyn

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