THE EMBATTLED sugar industry is in jeopardy as violence and looting continue in parts of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, with union Uasa yesterday warning that its members employed on sugar-cane farms stood to lose their jobs if nothing was done to bring the situation under control.
Uasa spokesperson Abigail Moyo said they were devastated by the closure of KwaZulu-Natal sugar mills because of the violence and looting in the province.
Since the signing of the Sugar Value Chain Master Plan last year, there had been a rise in local production and a decline in imported sugar, creating stability for an industry that employs some 85 000 people. However, the unrest threatened the hard work done to help the industry.
“Sugar-cane farms had been torched and cane trucks hijacked, making it impossible for farmers to continue business. Approximately 300 000 tons of cane has been lost to arson during the current protests,” said Moyo.
Uasa said the local sugar industry had been under threat from international imports over the past few years and now, just as the sector was stabilising through the interventions of farmers and the government, it faced “a threat from fellow South Africans”.
The union called on the government to step up and get the situation in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng under control. It said the unrest and looting were costing the country more than it could afford and feared massive job losses, which may lead to further unrest.
“We also urge South Africans to keep the welfare of fellow citizens in mind before engaging in mindless violence and looting. We need to stand together as a nation, not destroy what we have achieved since democracy,” said Moyo.
South African Canegrowers Association chairperson Andrew Russel said 353 000 tons of sugar cane have been lost to arson. At R600 per ton, this represented a revenue loss of more than R211 million.
“With the violence and destruction escalating in cane growing areas, we call on government to declare a state of emergency and to immediately deploy more South African Defence Force troops to bring law and order in hotspot areas,” said Russel.
He said the lawlessness evident throughout the country had caused enormous harm to the national economy.
“That this is taking place in the middle of the harvesting season has caused irrecoverable losses to cane growers, workers and the one million livelihoods that depend on the sugar industry,” he said.
All sugar mills in KwaZulu-Natal had been forced to cease operations, because they could not receive cane or distribute sugar and molasses owing to disruptions to transport routes and blockades at these mills. Workers had been threatened, further prompting mills to shut down in order to protect their staff.
Russel said that the damage already sustained would cripple the industry long after the unrest had been quelled, resulting in job losses in rural areas where unemployment was rife. He said that without immediate and drastic measures to restore the rule of law, the damage to critical infrastructure could soon become irreparable.
Saai board chairperson Dr Theo de Jager said that it was particularly farmers who suffered because of lawlessness.
“Hundreds of farms that have been set alight, fields and pastures that have been burnt with livestock losses reported. The safety of our farmers is threatened, and in organised agriculture we go to great lengths to first secure the safety situation of deep rural farming families,” said De Jager.
He said the logistical chain on both the input and marketing side in the downstream value chains had been disrupted, leaving farmers struggling to get inputs such as animal healthcare products, diesel, seeds, fertilisers, equipment and even labour to the farms. This translated into farming operations grinding to a halt. On the downstream side, farmers were unable to take their produce to the market, because the burning of trucks and others vehicles on national roads took a toll on the sectors value chains and compromised food security in large parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
Saai said that markets had also been disrupted and destroyed, with reports of of the destruction of hundreds of thousands of litres of milk and other products that needed cold chain and had limited shelf-life.
“It is very ironic that as many families in peri-urban and rural areas go hungry, farmers had no choice but to destroy the food before it left their farm-gates,” he said.