Dan Kriek: The 'new economy' will have to be based on sound economic and constitutional principles

Dan Kriek. (Photo: Willem Law)
Dan Kriek. (Photo: Willem Law)

We need to declare a “state of emergency” on land reform, writes Free State cattle farmer Dan Kriek. He argues that we need real time audit figures and targets on land ownership that we all can agree on.

The economy is finally reopening after a prolonged lockdown and agriculture must play a leading role in the recovery process.

Why? Because the agricultural sector produces a great variety of products and some are highly profitable, earnings are export-driven and the sector can create thousands of jobs almost overnight if we grow labour intensive industries like irrigation agriculture, horticulture, citrus, berry, nut, avocado, red meat and wine farming.

As we try to envisage life going forward, the new buzzwords are the “new economy” and “new normal”. But we must remember that the red lights were already on for the South African economy before the pandemic struck. Coronavirus merely put the proverbial nail deeper into the coffin. To get the economy to a 5% annual growth rate over the medium to long term will demand a return to fundamental economic and constitutional principles – and agriculture plays a critical role here.   

Farming communities proved throughout the Covid-19 pandemic how they can be called upon during a time of unprecedented crisis.  They came to the rescue of the poor and the vulnerable by donating and distributing thousands of tonnes of food.

This kindhearted and selfless attitude flooded social media for weeks on end and cemented agriculture’s critical role. In doing so, the agricultural sector has not only alleviated serious hunger in the past two months, but it has also taken centre stage and made a bold statement that it cannot be ignored in rebuilding the economy.

During the first few weeks of the national lockdown, agriculture hugely benefited from regular and direct consultation with Agriculture Minister Thoko Didiza. This resulted in regulations allowing the sector to continue with its daily business. We need to see more of this style of government going forward. In the beginning of the lockdown, government instilled confidence in what was surely the most difficult of balancing acts imaginable.

Consultation with various stakeholders underpinned the almost universal approval from civil society. The timeous and concise communication was comforting.  We were constantly assured that all decisions will be guided by scientific fact and consultation.

Government acted in a responsive and decisive manner by immediately announcing an economic relief package that included a substantial increase in social grants to the poor and much needed relief measures for businesses in distress.

Unfortunately, the style of government during the last few weeks more closely resembled a dictatorship and they made many mistakes. The multitude of often bizarre regulations, some of which downright irrational, became an unnecessary burden.  

Several ministers seemed to be tone deaf to the need of citizens and how regulations would impact on their daily lives. Regulations on centralisation of food distribution, the curfew and the heavy handedness by some police and defence force members are simply not acceptable. 

The racial bias in terms of relief measures for businesses also drew sharp criticism. Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng validated voices of concern that we were becoming an authoritarian state when he reminded South Africans that our human rights are still protected under the Constitution, even if we find ourselves in a state of disaster.  This style of government does not bode well for our future economic prospects.        

In order to grow the agricultural economy, the consultation between government and the sector should revolve around fundamental economic principles. For example, how can we grow the economy inclusively at 5% and above and how many jobs can we create?

And secondly, what does the sector require in terms of government and other support measures to deliver? This should be the nature of the conversation and it is the responsibility of the agricultural sector to provide detailed plans on how to achieve this over the medium and long term and the responsibility of government to implement policies to the effect.

It must be a social contract where everyone gives input and shares equal accountability. We must identify key inhibitors to economic growth and eliminate them.

Fundamental to our economic recovery is the protection of property rights as enshrined within the Bill of Rights in our Constitution. The expropriation without compensation debate has taken us far beyond the caveats adopted by the ANC at the last policy conference.

The process to amend Section 25 of the Constitution will remain a hindrance for economic recovery as it destroys confidence needed by internal and external investors. Section 25 as it currently stands is not a hinderance for sustainable land reform.

The real hinderances are lack of trust and implementation, corruption and mismanagement. And all these can be fixed. We need to finalise the Expropriation Bill to the extent that it will withstand Constitutional muster and that should be the final word.          

We need to declare a “state of emergency” on land reform.

We need real time audit figures and targets on land ownership that we all can agree on. We need practitioners from the private sector to work with politicians to support the process. Government should encourage public-private-partnerships (PPPs) with agricultural commodity organisations, the latter being responsible for project implementation and mentoring.

Government land, including all failed projects, should be in commercial production within two years with transfer of title under agreed conditions. The massive agricultural potential of communal land must be realised and raised to the level of commercial yields.

A substantial state guarantee is needed to support an agri-development agency in order to finance black farmers as well as partnerships with white commercial farmers with soft loans. And can we please reassure the sector that there is no EWC or random expropriation of land hanging like a sword over their heads.

There are so many challenges that we need to deal with in a much more urgent manner to support export-led growth and job creation in agriculture. Road and harbour infrastructure are critical for the fruit, wine, citrus and wool industries. Bio-security threats like Foot and Mouth Disease should be high on our priority list.

We need a better response to drought relief and thereby save many livelihoods and jobs in our deep rural areas and adjacent towns. Water availability and quality will become the crises of the future. The safety and security of our farmers and farm workers remain a critical component of a thriving rural economy.

Like many others I can only guess what the “new economy” will look like and how it will function. What I do know is that agriculture will lead the way and that we need to get back to basics and sound economic principles in order to succeed.

And lastly, maybe the “new economy” is simply a place where we take responsibility for each other’s wellbeing. A place of kindness where we simply trust each other.

 - Dan Kriek is a cattle farmer from the North Eastern Free State. He is a past president of Agri SA.

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