Recognition of Safda as permanent sugar industry member is a seismic moment – Sasa

Strong wind creates a dust cloud behind a workman on a tractor in sugar cane fields in the Umhlali area, North Coast, KwaZulu Natal. Picture: Karen Sandison/ Independent Newspapers

Strong wind creates a dust cloud behind a workman on a tractor in sugar cane fields in the Umhlali area, North Coast, KwaZulu Natal. Picture: Karen Sandison/ Independent Newspapers

Published Apr 22, 2024


By Fay Mukaddam

Every generation has a duty to right the wrongs of the past and leave the world a better place for future generations.

Achieving this starts with those who have been mandated to lead society. In the case of the South African sugar industry, the uncomfortable truth, which we have to confront and deal with, is that our history, regarding the origins of the sector in particular, is associated with colonialism and racism. There is a readily available body of literature on the atrocious practice of indentured labour and its connection to the sugar industry.

According to South African History Online, many indentured labourers were shipped to KwaZulu-Natal between 1860 and 1911, to “develop the sugar industry in the province”.

Furthermore, Professor Karen L Harris points out that during this time, “the Colony of Natal imported 152 184 Indians”.

Fast forward to the 21st Century, post-1994 – an era of freedom and democracy – and issues of racism continue to linger in the industry. Briefing the then Portfolio Committee on Trade, Industry and Competition in 2017, the South African Farmers Development Association (Safda) stated: “When other industries transformed post-1994, the sugar industry was left behind.”

The industry acknowledges there have been challenges, but much has been done to ensure the meaningful transformation of the whole value chain. The current crop of leaders is intentional about inclusion in both the cane growing and milling sectors. We are unambiguously moving in the same direction.

Perhaps let us briefly give the contextual background and unpack the structure of the industry. As per the Sugar Act of 1978, the country’s sugar industry – comprising both the sugarcane growing and milling sectors – is represented by the South African Sugar Association (Sasa).

Since its establishment, Sasa has had two members, namely the South African Cane Growers’ Association (Sacga) and the South African Sugar Millers’ Association (Sasma). However, this recently changed.

In a historic and seismic development last month (March 28, 2024), Trade, Industry and Competition Minister Ebrahim Patel promulgated, through the Gazette, Safda as a permanent member of Sasa. This means Safda joins Sacga and Sasma as equal members of Sasa. It is the culmination of intensive work of the all-inclusive industry leadership and council, and the collaborative efforts with Minister Patel and his team, including his sectoral adviser Harald Harvey and the agro-processing and legal units within the department.

Sasa has been leading the sector’s efforts aimed at driving meaningful transformation. To this end, the IkuSASA Task Team, comprising both the growers and millers, has been hard at work.

The Gazette is colossal in significance in that it represents a significant paradigm shift in the direction of transformation and inclusion of all of our growers in the industry through the permanent recognition of the Safda representation.

Formed in 2015, Safsa has already had a profound impact on the industry with its efforts aimed at securing the future and sustainability of the sugar industry. For example, in 2018, an avalanche of sugar imports, mainly from Brazil, wreaked havoc and displaced locally-produced sugar. Approximately 25% of the total market had been overtaken by foreign sugar, and the industry revenue had declined by R2.3 billion. This was akin to exporting jobs to other countries.

Working with Sacga, Sasma and Sasa, Safda played a crucial role in organising a march in 2018 to the offices of the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition in Tshwane (Pretoria), demanding an increase of the then $566 (R10 920) per ton tariff (reference price) to $856 per ton.

The protest action saw sugarcane farmers and millers from cane-growing provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, industry leaders (from Sacga, Safda, Sasma and Sasa) holding hands, and senior Sasa management taking to the streets, voicing their concerns about the then grossly insufficient tariff, which threatened to cause job losses and put the sustainability of the sugar industry at huge risk.

Eventually, the International Trade Administration Commission of South Africa increased the tariff to $680 per ton, which brought about the much-needed reprieve as the flooding of imports substantially subsided.

The recognition of Safsa as a permanent member of Sasa is a welcome development and in line with the industry’s current trajectory towards transformation. While we value all our sugarcane farmers, we view small-scale farmers as being the nexus of the industry, and this is amplified and accentuated in the all-important Sugarcane Value Chain Master Plan 2030 to ensure their sustainability into the future.

Furthermore, the industry has made conspicuous progress in terms of combined annual cane delivery by black growers (small-scale, large-scale, cooperatives and joint ventures) to the industry’s 12 mills. As part of the industry’s master plan process geared towards transformation, extensive research has been conducted to look into the challenges facing small-scale growers. This will serve as a key input into the development of a small-scale farmer intervention plan to improve their viability and cement their foundational role in the industry.

Indeed, Safda’s permanent status is a turning point in the industry, the one which we embrace with wide open arms. As we continue on our road to transformation, we must remind ourselves that transformational leadership (as Forbes senior contributor Blake Morgan puts it) is synonymous with being “adaptable, open-minded, innovative and proactive”.

The ball is in our court – will future generations have a sweet story to tell about the industry or will our epoch be a missed opportunity, which will be a bitter pill to swallow for us?

Advocate Fay Mukaddam is the independent chairperson of the South African Sugar Association (Sasa)