Securing SA’s food

2011-07-26 00:00

HOW does South Africa help transform the lives of millions who go to sleep without food in their stomachs? Last week the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutte, advised South Africa to boost its food economy in order to overcome food insecurity. Speaking in Pretoria during his official visit in the country, he said he appreciated the fact that in South Africa the right to food is codified in the Constitution, but having noted the high levels of inequality and poverty, he urged us to build an inclusive food economy.

We know that there are probably hundreds of thousands of people who go to bed without food at all. There are millions of South Africans who depend entirely on state grants. Worse, we have a poor culture of giving and have not established sufficient mechanisms for helping those who cannot make it in life. The fortunate in our society seldom distribute their riches in support of the unfortunate ones. Instead, too often they flaunt their wealth in fancy cars and by self-aggrandisement.

We have known for some time that while we have had decent levels of economic growth thanks to economic stabilisation that began with the the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) programme in 1996, we have failed to translate this into equitable development. The jettisoning of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) was a mistake. The ideas of redistribution of wealth and building sustainable communities that the RDP embodied should have been pursued alongside Gear. Whatever conflicts this would have created would have been overcome by a show of strong and dynamic leadership.

It was not a surprise, therefore, to hear De Schutte's advice that South Africa needs to build an economy that can feed its whole population. Such an economy would put food sufficiency among its top priorities and, therefore, give special attention to growing and diversifying agriculture. For him, the fundamental challenges are structural, i.e. the agricultural system inherited from apartheid, a dualised agricultural sector in which strong commercial agriculture coexists with a weak emerging-farming sector in which blacks are the majority. The former comprises large-scale, skilled and experienced white farmers and sophisticated market mechanisms, while the latter is made up of largely small-scale, poorly skilled, poorly supported and poorly resourced black farmers.

As a result, the latter have weak bargaining positions when it comes to financial support in the open financial markets where the strongest survive and in the food supply chain. The emerging farmers are thus unable to compete effectively or to help diversify South African agriculture, both in terms of its production structure and participation.

South Africa needs to transform millions of households that have access to land, which is used for subsistence farming, into small-scale commercial farmers. But this would be of no value unless the country's leaders today find the courage, tenacity and will to confront the fundamental disadvantages that emerging black farmers face today. Otherwise, the new small-scale commercial farmers would experience the problems currently being faced by the pioneer group.

South Africa cannot pretend that this state of affairs is not a time bomb that will explode into the peasant revolts that we have seen in many other countries, nor can we pretend that a food economy that feeds all can be realised by the small white-dominated agricultural sub-sector alone, especially now that many successful white commercial farmers are looking for new opportunities in other parts of Africa in order to expand their operations and grow their businesses.

What can be done quickly is to call for an inclusive and structured national dialogue with emerging farmers to identify the specific areas of support to prioritise and the mechanisms for such support, especially the assistance that would have a multiplier effect on the dualised sector.

On that basis, government would establish an emergency support programme for emerging farmers with the backing of the Land Bank and other major financial institutions. At the same time, the government would have conversations with the currently dominant white commercial farmers to get them to undertake to do two things: one is to form partnerships with previously excluded communities, including farm tenant families that have lived in slave-like conditions in some cases, and, secondly, to get them to support the process of affirming emerging farmers in the interest of growing the agricultural sector. In return, the government must make plain what incentives it would offer for compliance (including tax breaks, etc.) and what sanctions would be imposed against wilful failure to comply.

Only on this basis would the Land Bank report's proposal of farm leases and favourable concessional loans work.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.

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