Bennie van Zyl says they're needed back home, and they would be crazy to go
The fact that South Africa has farmers to export is somewhat bizarre - the country's population is 48 million and rising, while a small coterie of 37 000 farmers provides food not only for this number of people but for the surrounding African states as well. It is a very thin line.
This achievement is arguably unsurpassed in the developed world - as we have mentioned before, there is one farmer for 100 people in France, while one SA farmer feeds 1 500 people. Yet SA government encroachment on productive farmland continues - the deadline for the transfer of 30% of the country's productive farms to blacks may be extended from 2014 to 2025, making it virtually impossible for any commercial farmer to look one generation ahead with tenure security.
This tenuous position has been capitalized on by a new venture under way- the proposed export of SA farmers to African countries where their expertise - well known throughout the world - is supposed to kick-start these countries' agricultural economies, while offering SA farmers the opportunity to make money and/or set up farming operations on leased land.
This has been tried before - and in most instances it has failed. In some countries, it has failed spectacularly. Press reports have indicated that SA farmers have been invited to Libya, and other countries which have issued invitations include Congo-Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan, Angola, Zambia and Uganda.
Minister of Agriculture Tina Joemat-Pettersson told a congress recently that government had "thrown its weight" behind the farmer export plan: "If we can't find opportunities for white South African farmers in this country, we must do it elsewhere in Africa", she declared.
Some years ago there were 65 000 commercial farmers in South Africa. Government policies of encouraging land claimants to make claims against farms (thus crimping the farmer's ability to farm for his future), the continuous threats of expropriation made by ANC cadres, the farm murders, stock theft, outrageous taxes (with no service delivery) and tenure and labour laws have reduced farming "opportunities" so that going into Africa is now considered an option, something unheard of twenty years ago.
Farming in Africa
African countries cannot feed themselves, for a multitude of reasons. In sub-Saharan Africa, those now asking for help are basket cases, yet their agricultural potential is far superior to that of South Africa's. The people make the difference, and the people don't change. TAU SA spoke to farmers who have been part of these "going into Africa" schemes before, and their stories are hair-raising.
Farmer from Hoedspruit
"I was in one of the early groups which went to Congo (Brazzaville) to farm and after two years, we fled for our lives. Never again! Those farmers who are now thinking of going there have no idea of what they are letting themselves in for! Nobody speaks English, there are no schools, malaria is as widespread as the flu, and you must bring your own medicines because there's nothing there. If you get really sick, you can go to doctors who don't speak English or you must fly back to South Africa.
"Yes they have beautiful, fertile land - and this is why their situation is so tragic. With such soil, how do they fail so dismally? To start with, they are corrupt and the labour is bone lazy, especially the men. They "siesta" from 12 to 3 every day.
"The French nationals we found there were not there to develop the land. They were milking it dry - they ploughed nothing back, and they were extremely unhelpful to us, even antagonistic, because we wanted to help the local people learn how to farm!
"The roads are unbelievably bad. (They are virtually impassable from November to May, the rainy season). Flights between Congo and South Africa are expensive, so going backwards and forwards to see family is out of the question."
Farmer from Bronkhorstspruit
"I left my farm in the Congo with R300 in my pocket. I spent three months in the Point Noire slums before I found a job in mining. The Congo government was parasitic and voracious - bribes were the order of the day, and I was stopped one day in my car by a policemen who ordered me to pay "pollution tax" of $100 before I could drive on!
"My new job in the DRC across the river meant I had to deal with state personnel. They disliked whites and saw them as walking banks, to be plundered using any excuse. A friend was fined because he drove a car in shorts!
"One day government soldiers came and closed the mine. No warnings, no negotiations, just get out! This when the mine was 100% functional! If the government can do that, it can take your farm at the drop of a hat. The plan is to invite white farmers to resuscitate the land and when it's functioning, they will simply take it, as they did in Zimbabwe.
This is the real reason for importing white farmers, not to introduce farming for the benefit of the local population but to end up with something they can expropriate!
"Because they are incapable of creating anything, their whole modus operandi is to take what others create. An example of this is Black Economic Empowerment in South Africa where stealing the hard work of others is legal.
It's a mentality right throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and those who want to throw away years of their life should do so under no illusions - an African promise is like the morning mist! It disappears in the sun!" Another TAU SA correspondent asks: why go to the Congo? It is more politically unstable than South Africa. He took a chance and went to the Congo some years ago, under another SA-engineered scheme. He spent seven years there, and farmed cucumbers and tomatoes, but there were not sufficient markets near the farm. To take his products to the cities was too expensive, and people couldn't afford to buy.
Oil Company Shell had planted 40 000 hectares of bluegum trees, but eventually the company packed its bags and left because government promises and contracts meant nothing. Shell felt it better to leave rather than to throw good money after bad.
They talk of potential, he says. But the potential is unrealizable because of the people who live in those countries. Nothing is delivered, despite the myriad promises. Bribes must be paid at every corner. There was only one good European-style clinic in the country. Outside the cities, the government's control is virtually non-existent. Warlords control various parts of the country, and what they say, goes. South African groups who want to help "have good intentions, but they are being led by the nose by people who do not share their values and do not appreciate their largesse".
In 1997 rebel groups looted farms which had been established by SA farmers. The farmers had to flee with only the shirts on their backs. Some crossed the border to the DRC just in time! Another farmer's life was saved by his satellite phone - he called and was rescued from the long grass next to an airfield. He escaped death by a rampaging mob by the skin of his teeth!
In 1973, president of the then Zaire (now DRC) Mobutu Sese-Seko seized 2 000 foreign owned enterprises - farms, plantations, ranches, factories and shops. There was no compensation. He acquired a vast agricultural empire which eventually fell into disrepair.
The country disintegrated and he invited foreigners to return in 1976, but few came back. Who's to say this won't happen again? And if it does, what is the SA Minister of Agriculture's guarantee worth?
The Libyan proposition could be different, but it appears to be something of an Iraq scenario. People with skills are hired to do a job, but they do not establish their future there. SA farmers are being invited to resuscitate Libyan state farms - the Libyan government wants them revived through private sector partnerships with themselves. (Where is the Libyan private sector?) SA farmers are astounded at the unrealized agricultural potential, but why is this? Libya is a socialized state - after the Al Fatah revolution when Gadaffi came to power, he confiscated Italian-owned farms which were redistributed. The Gadaffi government's policy since then was to prevent large private sector farming, and the country is now reaping the results of that decision.
There appears to be no talk of "privatizing" farmland in Libya - the government wants SA farmers to bring the current under-productive situation up to productivity, and then what happens to the SA farmers? They must in all probability go home.
Websites on Libyan agriculture show little activity in large-scale private commercial farming. Agriculture is still to a large degree state owned, and there is no Ministry of Agriculture. The effects of Libyan government policy is that 70% of the country's food has to be imported. If SA farmers are to be paid handsomely, then this is their choice. However, there would seem to be no possibilities for long-term relocation there. Arabic is the national language, and where would SA children go to school?
Angola is currently offering two farms totalling 140 000 ha in a "prime production area", but in 2002 a South African farming group entered into an Agreement with the Angolan government to develop 2000 hectares in the Cunene Province to plant maize, wheat and other food crops "to improve the quality of life of the communities directly affected by the proposed agricultural project". The terms of the Agreement were expansive, practical and of immense benefit to the local people. Funds were approved by the World Bank, with the SA farmers putting up seed money. An information center for farmers within a 300 km radius of the core farm was to be set up, with agricultural high schools for their sons proposed.
At the last minute, the Angolan government minister involved demanded 50% of the profits, and the transaction fell through. The lesson: the government and its ministers felt nothing for their own people, and this inherent corruption and lack of respect for the hard work necessary to build up and sustain commercial agriculture is the reason why South African farmers are being asked to "transfer their expertise" in these countries. Expertise is one thing, attitude is another, and unless the latter changes, the former will be a waste of time.
The SA government is reported to be "thrashing out" a policy framework for this latest proposal. This would include safeguards for property rights "independent of current political leadership". "We will sign state-to-state agreements confirmed in international courts and you are guaranteed your land will not be taken away from you" said the SA Minister of Agriculture.
To which international court could Zimbabwe farmers turn when their property was stolen? To which arbitration body could the SA farmers report when their farms were looted by marauding thugs in the Congo and DRC? There are no guarantees, and those who live in Africa know this. Or should know this!
Bennie van Zyl is managing director of the Transvaal Agricultural Union
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