Thousands of Northern Cape and North West farmers who are battling to feed livestock in the grip of one of the worst droughts the region has experienced, are frustrated at the slow rate of government aid and say the drought relief system has become “dysfunctional”.

Organised agriculture says lack of government support is driving commercial farmers to leave and farm elsewhere in Africa, with implications for food security in the country.

So far 23 000 farmers in North West with 927 000 head of cattle have applied for government drought relief amounting to R400 million, but to date have received only R16m.

This will buy each farmer 14 bags of feed – enough to feed 30 head of cattle for two days.

Farmers in the Northern Cape say they have received nothing.

Boeta du Toit, chairman of Agri-North West, said yesterday only a few farmers had received these bags.

Of the 23 000 farmers who applied for aid, about 5 500 are commercial.

“Every drop helps, but with this slow pace of distribution farmers will receive bags only at the end of March. Cattle have died in their hundreds on commercial farms and in their thousands on communal lands. The drought relief scheme is very dysfunctional,” Du Toit said.

He said organised agriculture had worked with provincial officials and had come up with a business plan for a more effective drought relief scheme which had a low administrative cost and fast delivery.

The way it would work was for every farmer which government had agreed was eligible for drought relief being given a type of debit card with which he could buy feed at his nearest co-op, up to a certain amount.

The co-op would then deliver invoices to the provincial agriculture department which would paid the bill.

Du Toit said: “This was a joint business plan developed with officials and ourselves and national government accepted it. The Disaster Management Act allows the government to take this kind of route. Then suddenly provincial government decided not to do this, and now we have a tender system where service providers bid to do the drought relief.

“This system is slow and is failing, and about 30 percent of the drought aid money goes into the pocket of the service provider. They buy the feed at the same places we do, but they tender at a higher rate for feed than we pay. They add profit.”

He said what had helped farmers so far were the donations of feed from private people elsewhere in the country.

“A cornerstone of a healthy economy is a healthy agricultural sector. That’s recognised by all countries progressive in their thinking. South Africa is one of the countries with the least government support for agriculture. What will happen – and is already happening – is that farmers are moving elsewhere in Africa to farm,” Du Toit said.

Antoinette Fourie, acting spokeswoman for the national Department of Agriculture, said the North West Agriculture Department had been allocated R43.6m as an emergency relief fund from the National Disaster Management Centre and was “currently spending the funds”. Of this R35m was to buy fodder and R8.3m for water.

She said the Northern Cape Agriculture Department had submitted documents to the National Disaster Management Centre and the “drought verification” process would take place between January 14 and 17.