Some small-scale sugar cane farmers in Mpumalanga hope the decision by the government to lift the ban on the sale of liquor will go a long way towards reducing theft on their farms.
Manufacturers of an alcoholic drink made from sugar cane, in the Nkomazi area, left small-scale farmers counting their losses, as the thieves have been plundering their fields since the prohibition of liquor sales during the Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown.
The farmers had even asked Mpumalanga agriculture and rural development MEC, Vusi Shongwe, to intervene and save their livelihoods because signs were that they would lose more of their harvest during the lockdown and as home-brewed liquor producers saw the increasing demand.
Sugar cane is grown throughout the Nkomazi area near Malalane and the small-scale farmers have plantations near communities. Without the luxury of the electric or razor wire fencing and the security guards that commercial farmers enjoy, they have found themselves vulnerable.
Some of the farmers are beneficiaries of land reform programmes and inherited thriving sugar cane enterprises.
The beer produced from sugar cane is known as isimobane and those who know it say it tastes almost like mampoer – which is made from fermented fruit and has an alcohol content of between 50% and 80%.
“We have been suffering since the places that sell liquor were closed down,” said a sugar cane farmer in Mangweni near Malalane, Peter Dlakude.
“Before the increase in the theft of our sugar cane, we were already suffering because of cheaper imported sugar on the shelves of our supermarkets.
"Since schools are closed, children are also stealing and eating our sugar cane in broad daylight,” he added.
According to studies, South Africa’s sugar cane production industry has been experiencing chronic yield decreases that are attributed to a number of factors such as high input cost, limited use and availability of recommended technologies, droughts, the unstable global economy, poor infrastructure, and social challenges.
Dlakude said that all small-scale sugar cane growers in the area who supply RCL Foods’ Malalane and Nkomati sugar mills had lost about 10% of their harvest worth an estimated R25 million to R30 million.
“They come at night and when you check your field in the morning, you would think that it had been plundered by elephants. We’ve met with the department of agriculture and explained our problem, and we can only hope that they will come to our rescue,” Dlakude said.
Shongwe said that the department was concerned by the wave of sugar cane stealing. More than 350 cases of sugar cane theft have been open at various police stations in the Nkomazi municipal area.
“The thieving trend on sugar cane farms has been on a sharp increase since the lockdown that was declared after the Covid-19 upsurge, and it is strongly believed that these hoodlums illegally harvest sugar cane to manufacture home-made beer,” Shongwe said.
“It is unacceptable that some elements who defy a noble call to desist from alcohol consumption during this lockdown resort to stealing from farmers to produce their own alcohol.
"It takes long hours of hard labour for farmers and workers to produce sugar cane and other food from the soil, and it cannot be that their sweat is disregarded through acts of criminality,” he added.
Shongwe said that he would raise the matter with the police for a “watertight” strategy to be developed to protect sugar cane fields, otherwise more jobs were at risk of being lost due to the escalating theft. He advised farmers to be vigilant and put up legally acceptable measures to protect their plantations from thieves.
“Farmers should form strong partnerships with their nearest police stations and set up forums whose sole aim is to devise mechanisms to fight the crime,” Shongwe said.
Dlakude said that he had lost about 150 tons of sugar cane since the lockdown that had led to an increase in the underground selling of liquor. Sellers have hiked their prices threefold.