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Home sweet home is more than a trite expression

Many of the conversations we are having about the sugar industry revolve around its contribution to the nation’s economy. At a time when the country has lost more than 2.2-million jobs, we can all see the value of an industry that still supports more than 65 000 direct employees and more than 1-million livelihoods, when counting indirect employment. 

The government is talking about the sugar masterplan being implemented to fix the crisis we’re in. And my industry body, the South African Cane Growers Association, is encouraging everyone to buy local sugar in its Home Sweet Home campaign.

But for me, one of more than 21 000 small-scale growers in the sugar industry, many of whom are young, black, emerging farmers, the troubles couldn’t get closer to home.

I grew up in a time when documenting births — let alone accurately capturing birth dates — of black South Africans was not a state priority, so I can’t tell you my exact age. But I have been around long enough to experience the indignity of apartheid, and to see it fall; I’ve seen the rise of our democracy and tasted the dignity of full and equal citizenship. And with the birth of the new South Africa, another door opened: the opportunity for me to create a new financial future for my family.

I bought a parcel of land in Pongola, KwaZulu-Natal in 1990. Today I farm about 10 hectares. I have farmed sugarcane on my land for more than 20 years. I raised 14 children and 12 grandchildren on its produce. I put my children through school and lived to see them become respected members of our community. Two of my children are teachers. For the young parents in this country, I have one wish: may you experience the joy of seeing your children succeed. There is no greater joy than seeing your family progress and rise; it fulfils the universal dream of seeing our children do better than we did.

Though much good has come from my 20 years of growing cane, my long history with the industry means that I also remember the decline. I remember employing 16 people at the peak of the season. Today I employ 10 at peak, and only three out of season. Not only has my income decreased, but whole families lost their income as work dried up for their breadwinners.

For me then, the call of the Home Sweet Home campaign to buy local sugar is not about the nation’s GDP. It is about people; it is about my neighbours, my family and my community. For us, the revival of the local sugar industry is not a long-term aspiration, but an urgent short-term imperative.

For me and my community, the time to act was years ago. But the next best time is right now.

As a member of the SA Canegrowers, I have been fortunate to benefit from the interventions that the association implements to help its members. Perhaps the most important is the seed cane scheme through which I was provided with better quality, higher-yield seed cane. But these benefits are often reversed by failures in basic service delivery. For example, loadshedding affects our irrigation systems, leaving us unable to work during power cuts. These are the critical areas where we need the government to come to the party, and fix these essential lifelines.

And while industry interventions go a long way towards reviving the sector, they cannot go the whole way. We need government and other big institutional buyers to play their part. We need words to become deeds, and the masterplan’s commitments to become promises that are quickly delivered on.

Most importantly, to keep my industry alive, we will need young people to join us. And if we expect or hope that young people will develop an interest in farming, we need to make the prospects at least good enough to raise families. To advance transformation in the agricultural sector broadly and in the sugar industry specifically, we need to make personal and financial investments in the sector rewarding. To do this, we need to undo the damage of the past few years.

We need to continue to reverse the tide of cheap imports flooding the South African market and driving prices down; we need to reassess policies such as the Health Promotion Levy that strangle our growth and cut our jobs. And we need the government to fully support initiatives like the Home Sweet Home campaign, amplifying them and procuring local sugar across government.

All of us in the sugar industry know of the plan. We understand it to be an impressive, inclusive plan put together with all industry stakeholders throughout the value chain. So now, let’s actually do it — for the old men like me, who have devoted their lives to this industry, and for the next generation who will take the industry forward and raise future generations of black sugarcane farmers.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Mbukeni Nyembe
Mbukeni Nyembe is a small-scale sugarcane grower in KwaZulu-Natal and a member of the South African Canegrowers Association.

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