SA is still a net exporter of food, but how long will that last? Business Day, 15th October 2012.

Oct 15, 2012
In his fortnightly column in Business Day, the Institute's Chief Executive, John Kane-Berman, says that South Africa is still a net exporter of food. The question is how much longer that will last.

Recent news that the deficit on the current account of the balance of payments has widened to 6.4% is a timely reminder as to what constitutes the Achilles Heel of the South African economy. Continued strikes on the mines are the most obvious immediate risk to the necessary reduction in the deficit. But the country cannot afford to be complacent about agriculture either.

Conventional wisdom has it that South Africa has indeed already turned into a "net food importer". Even the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries says so. But is it true? The answer must be, "not yet".

An "abstract of agricultural statistics" since 1975 issued last year by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries shows that we have actually remained a net exporter throughout. The figures fluctuate wildly: the value of exports in 1979 and 1980 was more than five times that of imports, but in 1984 there was little difference between the two. Thereafter exports again comfortably exceeded imports in most years, but the long-term trend is downwards - so that the ratio of exports to imports is shrinking; it is now 1.3 to 1.

Despite policy uncertainty, murders of farmers, water shortages, and loss of the protection enjoyed by farmers in many other countries, South African agriculture remains a success story. The country's nearly 50 000 commercial farmers (black as well as white) are responsible for 95% of the food produced in the country.

But how long will we remain a net exporter? Agricultural exports have grown by 3 600% since 1975, but imports by 13 500%. On these trends it cannot be long before we lose the status of net food exporter.

The biggest threat to food production in South Africa is the ruling tripartite alliance - whether through malice in the form of "Kill the Boer" incitement, ineptitude that allows foot-and-mouth controls and rural roads to collapse, sheer ignorance, ideological agendas, or inappropriate appointments.

One example of the last two of these was the appointment two years ago of the recently dismissed director general of agriculture, Langa Zita. When she chose him, the agriculture minister, Tina Joemat-Petterson, appeared to have done so for no other reason than that he was a fellow member of the South African Communist Party. Zita's mission, as he himself put it, was to "comprehensively overhaul the architecture of food production in the country". No doubt this meant helping advance his party's policy of harnessing the private sector to its national democratic revolution agenda.

The draft agricultural black economic empowerment sector code gazetted in March, along with the green paper on land reform published last year, have still to be processed by Parliament. Yet Salam Abram, an African National Congress (ANC) MP sitting on the portfolio committee dealing with agriculture and land affairs, recently stated that most of his committee "knows precious little about farming".

This was a problem, he said, "because those introducing new laws don't understand the logistics of farming". While bad decisions and impractical laws had a negative impact on commercial farmers, the impact on small-scale farmers was devastating.

There were farmers, Abram added, who were willing to make heavy sacrifices for land reform to work but the Government was intent on implementing socialism.

The last point would help explain why individual title has still not replaced communal ownership in the former homelands, and has apparently now been ruled out. It would also help explain why the green paper envisages that black farmers in the new "agri-villages" will not be landowners but tenants of the State.

As for the "devastating" impact on small-scale farmers, perhaps the Transvaal Agricultural Union was right to suggest recently that the Government thinks it doesn't need them because the big commercial farms can produce the food the country needs, leaving the smaller farms available for redistribution. And if these followed most other land reform projects into failure, this might not bother the Government as the ideological imperative of land redistribution would have been satisfied.

To see the article online as published by Business Day please click here.



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