Sugar cane fields on a Tongaat Hulett farm in Shongweni
JOHANNESBURG - Siyabonga Madlala (SA’s sugar industry still needs to transform - July 12) seems to be something of a distressed Mary Poppins. 

For some reason my reference to SA Canegrowers efforts in development and transformation touched a nerve. So much so that they triggered an avalanche of bluster masquerading as debate - as if a spoonful of his sugar will help the medicine go down.

He likes to say that it “is only since the birth of Safda (the South African Farmers Development Association), that the sugar industry has been seriously looking at the matter of transformation”. This suits his interests perfectly. And he tells everyone who will listen. Except it’s just not true.

The industry has made enormous strides in transformation and has committed an additional R172million in the current year to enhance these measures. These monies have been set aside to assist the transformation initiatives with a further R1billion earmarked to entrench these.

In addition, the industry stakeholders are engaging on a process of developing a five-year transformation plan.

However, transformation in the industry started way before this. Representation at SA Canegrowers since 1992 has always guaranteed black growers at least 50percent of the seats on its congress.

Small-scale farmers have also been paid a preferential price (funded by larger farmers) and received training, business and legislative support and assistance subsidised by their commercial counterparts.

The industry’s trust fund for education has provided tertiary education to many of the country’s leaders. Furthermore, the industry is a recognised leader in the support of land reform, both redistribution and restitution.

Madlala has another bone to pick: “Talmage, therefore, takes liberties with the truth in claiming that SA Canegrowers represents almost 24000 independent sugar cane farmers” and “more than half of all emerging small-scale black farmers”. But the real reason behind why Madlala is freaked out about SA Canegrowers’ membership numbers is money.

SA Farmers Development Association (Safda) claim to represent all black growers and believe this entitles them to access all transformation funds and government grant money. Yet more than half the current black growers have chosen to continue supporting SA Canegrowers.

Something which does not surprise us as our record of good governance and transparency in our democratically elected structures offers our members the service they want at a fair price.

I am glad that we can at least agree that “Farmers are indeed struggling”. What he carefully omits is the fact that the sugar industry provides small-scale farmers with an opportunity to take part in an economic activity which would otherwise not be possible in the deep rural areas.

Cane income has always been regarded as a supplementary rather than main income stream. By planting cane, they can earn an income, they can deliver their crop to a secure market and they have access to training and the supplementary payment fund of approximately R58m, which has been increased to R120m in this season (2018/19).

Again, he plays to his own book by alleging that SA Canegrowers do nothing to give opportunities to black small-scale sugar-cane farmers. More lies and distortions.

SA Canegrowers have always serviced small-scale and land-reform farmers. Resources are available to these growers in all milling areas and Safda members are even utilising such resources. The services offered by SA Canegrowers are subsidised by the commercial growers to the tune of millions of rands, yet another part of our transformation efforts.

In saying that the voices of the black sugar-cane farmers have not been heard, Madlala forgets that the democratic structures set up by SA Canegrowers in 1990/1991 were in line with international norms. These structures provided for the voice of large-scale and small-scale farmers to be represented equally on both local and industry structures.

There is no doubt that the current economic climate in the sugar industry is dire. The cane price that growers receive has decreased dramatically during the 2017/18 season, largely due to an increasing sugar cane crop, falling world market sugar price, poor performing sugar sales and the flooding of more than 500000 tons of sugar imports into the Southern African Customs Union market.

Yet, even in these tough economic times, the industry has ensured that small-scale growers receive a total of R54.3m in the form of a supplementary payment.

It is unfortunate and yet true that there has been a massive decline in small-scale grower numbers, with less growers delivering cane to mills, largely driven by the poor economic situation in the industry, the consolidation of 1-hectare plots into commercial-size co-operatives and projects and the development taking place in peri-urban areas.

Small-scale sugar cane farming on the north coast/Zululand area of KwaZulu-Natal has been through three long drought years with an increase in pests and diseases in the form of the Eldana Saccharina stem borer, and all these factors together with poor sugar cane economics have resulted in small scale sugar farmers searching for alternative economic activities. To this end a large diversification workshop was hosted by SA Canegrowers in 2017. More needs to be done to arrest this trend like continuing investments by the industry that have already begun to reap rewards. Shouting and performing won’t help.

So, on behalf of black small-scale and land-reform sugar cane farmers, I stand up to say no, not in my name. Madlala’s Mary Poppins charade may work in some quarters, but - like every movie - the credits will roll, reality will sink in and then the facts will stand for themselves.

Rex Talmage is the vice-chairperson: South African Cane Growers’ Association.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.