David Richardson: South Africa is a home from home

A study tour of South Africa reveals a farming industry undergoing uncomfortable changes – and yields some reminders of home

Combines were harvesting early crops of unirrigated grain maize 2000m above sea level on the high-veld east of Johannesburg last week. Yields, after plenty of rain during the summer ended, averaged about 7t/ha. Irrigated crops on the low-veld further east will probably produce 10t/ha-plus when they ripen soon.

Farmers were reasonably pleased with market prices – about £120/t for white maize for human consumption and £105/t for yellow varieties, for animal feed. But they pointed out that costs have rocketed, and members of the Farmers Weekly study tour of South Africa were able to relate to that.

Maize is the most important crop grown by South Africa’s mainly white commercial farmers, representing more than 12% of gross turnover. Fruit crops are second, accounting for 6%, with vegetables third and worth a little less. But the biggest sectors are poultry, at nearly 16% of the total, and cattle, nearly 14%.

Farmers claim to operate in a free market with no subsidies, no quotas and no intervention. Moreover, all marketing boards were scrapped in 1998, four years after Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) party was elected to power. There are, however, import tariffs on most agricultural commodities, averaging about 20%, so they can’t claim to be totally unprotected.

Even so, lack of other intervention and volatility on world markets leads to short, sharp cycles in prices and production, making farming more uncomfortable and risky than it used to be. The British party could relate to that, too.

The biggest advantage enjoyed by South African farmers is plentiful, relatively cheap labour. Some 800,000 people work on the country’s 40,000 commercial farms, although a minimum wage of about £100 a month now applies.

But there is also a tragic problem associated with the labour force – HIV. Some farmers reported losing up to 25% of their staff to the disease each year and, with most government ministers in denial as to the cause of the spread of infection, they saw no prospect of improvement.

Indeed, politics worries commercial farmers most. Many are the victims of land disputes as tribes lay claim to areas that were historically theirs. The ANC government has decreed at least 20% of the country shall revert to black control over the next few years and while white farmers say they will fight in the courts to retain their land, some have already lost their farms. There is an unspoken fear that South Africa may go the way of its neighbour, Zimbabwe.

Meanwhile, all were awaiting the outcome of Wednesday’s election. It’s a foregone conclusion that most votes will be cast for the ANC and that its new leader, Jacob Zuma, will become president, despite the fact that he was recently charged with rape and corruption. But this is Africa, and commercial farmers see hope in the fact that Zuma has opened a dialogue with them, saying blacks and whites must work together. His predecessor, Thabo Mbeke, never spoke to farmers. Now he, too, is accused of corruption and the ANC is rife with internal rivalry. It felt just like home.

The government has decreed at least 20% of the country shall revert to black control over the next few years. There is an unspoken fear that South Africa may go the way of Zimbabwe.

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