Newly Empowered Black Farmers Ruined by South Africa’s Drought

Almost half a decade of drought across most of South Africa has led to small towns in crisis and food imports for the first time in over 20 years, as well as severely hampering the government’s planned land redistribution programme.

It’s the cost of food in an economic downturn that has been the immediate effect. But hidden from view is a growing social crisis as farmers retrench their workforce and the new class of black commercial farmers has been rocked by the drought. Also hidden from many is the effect on small towns across the north of the country in particular, which are now reporting business closures, growing unemployment and social instability.

“There’s no food at all, we didn’t even plant in the last season. It’s a cruel twist of fate.” — Thomas Pitso Sekhoto

According to emerging black farmers, the record high temperates and dry conditions of the last few years has led to an upsurge in bankruptcy cases and forced many off their newly redistributed farmland. While some have managed to take out loans to fund the capital-intensive commercial farming requirements, others aren’t so lucky. Even large-scale commercial farmers are now unable to service their debt.

“It’s terrible, terrible, terrible,” said African Association of Farmers business development strategist, Thomas Pitso Sekhoto.

“Now it’s going to be worse because of the winter, there’s no food at all, we didn’t even plant in the last season. It’s a cruel twist of fate, it’s affected us badly. Those who bought land for themselves as black farmers, those who took out bonds, it’s going to be tough,” he said. “It’s a serious setback to black farmers in South Africa – there’s no future if things are going to go like this.”

BFAP farming systems analyst Divan van der Westhuizen says these farmers had already been struggling with increased costs and lower production.

“The depreciation of the rand has a strong correlation on the landed price of fertiliser and oil-based products. Year-on-year there’s an increase of 11 percent on fertiliser and 10 percent on fuel,” he said.

“From the drought perspective it’s tough. The North West of the country was affected by drought conditions for the past four to five years, now production is down and costs are up,” said van der Westuizen. “Even if rains fall now, from a cash flow perspective it won’t be sufficient to cover the shortfall.”

Agriculture development specialists say support for the sector has been limited. The largest agricultural organisation in South Africa, AgriSA, has reported that its office has been inundated with calls for drought relief assistance. Over 3,000 emerging farmers (most of whom are black) and nearly 13,000 commercial farmers have received drought assistance.

“More and more highly productive and successful commercial farmers are struggling to make ends meet,” said CEO Omri van Zyl. “We appeal to government for assistance as these farmers have played a crucial role to produce food on a large scale. It’s especially farmers in parts of the Northern Cape, Free State and North West, Eastern Cape and Western Cape that face a severe crisis currently and who are in desperate need for financial assistance” he said.

Government ploughed millions of dollars into a drought relief programme early in 2016. But the support dried up in February. Now Sekhoto said his farm is in the grip of what could be a terminal cycle.

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by Demond Latham

Photo Credits: IPS News/Desmond Latham