South Africa: Hunger in a land of plenty

Amid the millions of hectares of prosperous farmland filled with lucrative maize crops, residents in the Free State town of Bothaville are going without jobs, and without food.

Here, high production does not necessarily mean job creation. Cutting-edge technology and million-rand machinery have almost entirely removed the need for labour.

Maize farming is big business in Bothaville, where grain producers supply between 600 000 and 700 000 tonnes of maize worth more than R1.4-billion to the market a year, accounting for more than 5% of South Africa's annual maize production.

Bothaville falls under the Nala Local Municipality, where the unemployment rate is at 35% — 10 percentage points higher than the national average — with many of its 81 000 residents trapped in a cycle of poverty. Nala recently came under the spotlight when the treasury announced it would cut funding to the municipality after it failed to submit financial statements to the auditor general.

The arid dirt makes it hard to see that this is prime farming land. But it is what you can't see that matters. About 1.2 metres below the surface, water is abundant — allowing crops like maize, sunflowers and even watermelon to take hold and thrive.

An underground reserve
A great deal of rain over the past few years has built up quite an underground reserve, which is helping crops to withstand the current prolonged drought. It is this characteristic that has caused land values in the Bothaville area to be an average of 30% higher than other farmland in the country.

Farmers here often hedge their bets and try to diversify, and many also farm cattle.

Hannes Haasbroek, executive committee member at Grain SA and maize farmer in Bothaville, says a farmer needs at least 500 hectares to be sustainable, "otherwise your margin is too small for the amount of effort, and to have a good life".

Rudi Harmse is one such farmer, who works a farm of 500 hectares. "It is the least [area needed] to have a functional unit," he says. Even if you had less, your overhead costs would likely remain the same. "You have two options: you either go very big or you go more intensive [with greater technology] to make more profit."

But on the other side of town, just on the outskirts of a large township known as Kgotsong, Edward Tsoene is breaking the mould. He has farmed this year with just 34 hectares, four cans of seeds and a prayer for rain.

Lost to theft
Tsoene is a small-scale farmer living in the township who has been farming this land for the past 11 years. With experience as a farmworker, he applied for and was awarded the land by the municipality and says he pays R15 a year in rent. But poverty in the area has made it impossible for him to farm maize because too much of it is lost to theft each season.

This year he has grown sunflowers, and further back he has planted low-lying produce (watermelon and two types of pumpkin) in an attempt to stop township residents from finding and stealing the crops.

Despite this, watermelon rinds, gnawed clean, can be seen strewn across the field en route to Tsoene's modest patch of fruit.

"I have been farming for years, I knew I could do well. I enjoy it, even though I struggle," he says.

After his best harvest, a few years ago, he made R45 000. This year he certainly won't come close to that the drought has claimed a part of his sunflower crop. His pumpkins also appear to be taking strain under the hot Free State sun, and rummaging porcupines have stolen the odd bite.

"I enjoy my work; it's wonderful. At the farm [as an employee] I worked hard. Now it is not hard, because it is mine."

Municipal land
There are other people who have received municipal land, but Tsoene's crops appear isolated in wide-open fields. After buying equipment and implements, some recipients will have to wait until next season to buy seeds and diesel.

When it comes to commercial maize farming, mechanisation is the name of the game. "The farmers who don't keep up with technology miss the bus and end up selling the farms to us [neighbouring farmers]," Haasbroek says.

He farms on 2 300 hectares — an average size for a maize farm in this area — with the help of his son and just seven full-time employees.

"Thirty years ago there were 10 white families that lived on this land, on a few farms. And there were 500 black labourers."

The enormous combine harvesters let some maize fall to the ground, and a decision needs to be made about whether it is cheaper to hire seasonal workers to pick it up or just leave it on the ground to rot.

With the minimum wage increased from R69 a day to R105 as of April 1, farmers say this calculation may no longer swing in the labourers' favour.

The burden of financial obligations
Those who do have jobs on the farms are burdened by financial obligations. Solly Manayamisa (30), a worker on Danie Minnaar's farm, says his salary supports nine people, including his two brothers who struggle to get work because they do not have identity documents. He is also paying off debt at furniture retailers and paying instalments on a car, which Minnaar has helped to finance.

Kgotsong is a physical manifestation of the haves and have-nots. Housing ranges from brick and mortar structures to shacks made out of scraps. The streets, too, alternate between tar and dirt. Some streets are lit brightly; others sink into darkness as the sun goes down.

Katleho Tsoene and Thami Mathiso are both 24 years old — they matriculated in 2008 and have been looking for work ever since. They spend their days idly hanging around the township looking for any entertainment they can find. As far as they know, none of their fellow matriculants has found employment.

"It is killing us," Tsoene says. "Sometimes I feel like I can do something bad to get money … this is like jail."

Stealing to survive
And many people do steal — mainly bread, meat, mealies and pap — to survive.

For those who buy pap, the preferred brand (and price) is Keyona Srior Special, milled in Bothaville. Though the maize is available for a bit less if bought directly from the mill, a mere 1.3km away, the taxi ride is R8, which makes the trip a fruitless endeavour.

A 10kg bag of Keyona S-rior Special, sold at a local spaza shop, retails for R45 — double the maize price by kilogram. But from stalk to store, there are a number of costs involved.

Thuso Mills in Bothaville, which runs 24 hours a day, processes 270 tonnes a day — producing 185 tonnes of refined product.

George Ströh, production manager at Thuso Mills, says the biggest costs in milling were electricity and transport, both of which are expected to rise in April, which will negatively affect the price of maize meal. "A higher maize price is bad for us," Ströh says. "People will buy alternatives like rice, potatoes or bread."

Although the farmers of Bothaville will continue to produce food from this rich agricultural land, the plight of the hungry in the face of soaring food prices is clear — the town's residents are surrounded by millions of hectares of maize, but many of them do not have a crumb to eat.

Farmers bet on drought
Maize is generally harvested in South Africa from May to July but some farmers in Bothaville have learned to plant early to mitigate the loss of crops during the hot, dry months of the year.

A long drought this year has caused concern. Some farmers say they will lose part of their crop, in some cases as much as 50%.

Hannes Haasbroek, an executive committee member of Grain SA and a maize farmer in the district, says the drought is seasonal. "The drought is normal. From about December 16 to January 15, we have a midsummer drought. But this year it's been longer."

But Haasbroek and some other like-minded farmers planted early. By planting on October 15, and with an estimated 115 days for the maize to reach maturity, farmers could start harvesting by mid-March.

Dealing with agents
Farmers cut deal with agents based at the South African Futures Exchange. The maize price fluctuates constantly and farmers can sell a crop in advance at a fixed price to an agent or broker.

"If the price for July is good now, I will sell it now," Haasbroek said. But a drought like the current one could push the price up by as much as 15% to 20%. "The legal way of gambling is farming maize."

The maize can also be stored until the price is good. And it is stored as is — in the field — for nearly a year. "It's the best place to store your maize. The leaves keep out the bugs and the rain."

South Africa produces the highest-quality white maize in the world and it is exported to countries such as Kazakhstan, Japan and Mexico (the Mexicans are said to love it for making tortillas).

Farmers will often accept a price of R200 or R250 less per tonne because the buyer incurs the transport costs.

"There is a chain reaction: when transport costs go up, my profit comes down," Haasbroek said.

Input costs also rise with each passing year. Danie Minnaar, another farmer in the area, said the costs of fertilizer, seed, herbicide and diesel could be R6 500 a hectare.

For 1 000hectares, it would amount to R6.5-million in total. The profit, calculated at about six tonnes a hectare at an average maize price of R2 000 a tonne, would be about R12-million.

This would have to cover a farmer's living expenses, maintain the farm and equipment and the cost of the next planting.

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