Thomas Walters, DA MPL,
DA Gauteng Agriculture spokesman
News that we can expect our food bills to rise by 10% in the next few months is of monumental concern. Concerns about fraying social cohesion are regularly aired, and with them, fears for South Africa’s future – all the more so after the killings at Marikana.
Food prices are a major contributor to instability. In 2007-2008, protests and rioting swept much of the world, in countries as far apart as Haiti, Senegal, Bangladesh and Indonesia. We saw the same in Mozambique in 2010. Rising food prices were an underlying condition that sparked the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, recent academic work has suggested that social unrest can be plotted with considerable accuracy against food price increases.
This is a long-standing problem. Escalating food shortages were, for example, a factor in the decline of Ancient Rome. Notably, these were not just the result of environmental conditions, but also of political conflict. Farmers were overburdened with taxation, imports were interrupted and trade suffocated. The urban society that sustained the empire collapsed and Western Europe declined into the so-called “Dark Ages”. Similarly, the collapse of British agriculture – a building block of industrialisation – also played a role in Britain losing its economic relevance and manufacturing base.
All of this is a warning to South Africa as our agricultural sector is not performing to its full potential. Of course, there are factors beyond human or political control that contribute to this – such as the unforgiving nature of much of our climate and soil, and the lure of big-city life.
But, in analogy to former world and regional powers, we have experienced a signal failure of land and agricultural policy. Few question the need for a land reform programme, but with official estimates putting the failure rate at some 90% of all projects, what has taken place here has been a disaster. A shrinking cohort of commercial farmers receives little support, sympathy (or interest) from government. Already having dipped into the territory of a net importer, the prospect of South Africa being condemned to remain there is a real one.
We cannot carry on like this. Our overstretched current account cannot accommodate an accelerating dependence on imports (and neither can we be assured that suppliers will not dedicate their crops for their own use) – and this at just the time when we could be capitalising heightened demand for our produce in Asia like other fellow African countries.
According to official land maps, half of our high potential land lies underutilised and locked into unproductive communal land arrangements. Previously productive commercial ventures have to be recapitalised due to government bungling. This does not need to be so.
This is a tragic mix of lost opportunities and ignored warnings. But it is not too late to turn things around – provided government is willing to look at our situation realistically and show the requisite political will to deal with it.