SA farmers make a success of move into continent

By Keith Bryer Time of article published Oct 7, 2014

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MOZAMBIQUE is not much smaller than South Africa but it has more arable land and a dependable rainfall so it is attractive to the 1 000 South Africans, with their families, who are now farming there commercially.

They have not trekked far, but others have. South Africans are today farming in 42 African states. AgriSA has helped and advised 2 800 individual farmers and believes there may be 1 500 more.

A few farmers now farm in Croatia. There is even a South African farmer in the former soviet republic of Georgia (where Stalin was born and raised).

These figures suggest there is something in the DNA of Afrikaners that compels them to move ever deeper into the continent, but in fact, the prime driver is that governments are begging them to come. They welcome the injection of their skills in producing food in African conditions.

The farmer exodus began after 1994, though a few farmers moved earlier. This first wave contained many whose motives were political. They feared expropriation, for their safety, were fed up with stock theft, land invasions, plus the usual financial troubles that beset farming in South Africa. These were all strong motives.

There is a case for saying the break-up of the agricultural boards and the chaos of the Land Bank were the prime drivers, but there is one motive that puts all others in the shade – the urge to make money.

At first there were alarming projections that the number of farmers in South Africa would drop from 40 000 to 15 000 in 10 years, but the emigration required for this to happen is not high enough.

It is true that the number has dropped from 180 000 to 40 000, but this loss was not due entirely to emigration. Some could not survive without subsidies. However, there has been an impact on food production. We are importing more food than we produce.

Our emigrant farmers are, above all, commercial farmers. They are not peasants who want a plot of land and enough water for a pig and some chickens. Given the nature of news, the media have tended to headline the failures among them. Successes are generally ignored, as uninteresting.

For example, after the fanfare of those who left three years ago, the media reported that “only” nine of the 28 who left in 2011 were still farming in February. The headline predictably emphasised the “struggle” the nine had farming in the French-speaking Republic of Congo. That twice as many were still farming there was not worth noting.

Yet there are many positive stories, not the least of which is the continuing efforts of foreign countries to attract our farmers, often with the active encouragement of our government. Another is that our farmers have found that they do not need security measures. Those still building their new homes often live in half-completed houses and still feel safe.

Mozambique is among the most enthusiastic African countries trying to attract our farmers. There are 800 individual South African farmers with contracts to farm in Gaza province. Another 1 000 have Mozambican government approval and a grant of land. They will follow soon.

Other farmers are operating in Zambia, Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia, and Malawi. In all five countries, the first wave consisted of individuals with their families.

When agribusiness saw opportunities to invest in Africa, always with government approval and often because of an invitation, it provoked left-wing cries of “land-grabbing”. The allegation was that ordinary rural Africans were being dispossessed. There is some truth to this.

Japan and Brazil’s agribusinesses in Mozambique’s Zambezia province have spawned a resistance movement, “People of Zambezia against Agricultural Invaders”. South African agribusinesses operating in Mozambique have not raised objections to the same extent.

In almost all large agricultural projects, subsistence farmers have had to move to make way for land-intensive farming. But the arrival of large operators also means a cash wage for those who would otherwise be scratching a living from the soil.

Many African governments are aware of the disruption. Land grants and tax holidays are dependent on skills transfer, and local employment. The better projects have taken this seriously.

Apart from a better growing climate and good soil, being nearer to Europe allows fruit growers to get to market before competitors in South America. Agribusiness food production on a commercial scale is often desperately needed by the countries that welcome our farmers.

Most import their own food and local farming produces little surplus for increasing numbers of city dwellers.

Is this colonialism and land-grabbing that steals birthrights and condemns locals to being wage slaves? Is this an example of rampant greedy capitalists raping the planet in search of profit?

That certainly is how some deeply conservative and semi-Marxist academics would describe what is happening, resistant as so many are to changes other than the failed ones they advocate.

Such thinking forgets that a movement away from subsistence farming is the first rung on the ladder of progress (not without pain) towards a way of life that, whatever its faults, means modern medicine, insect repellents, and a chance to keep your own teeth beyond the age of 30.

Europe paid a price when it moved from medieval strip farming and its commons were enclosed. If common grazing had not been abolished there would have been famine. Why such social and economic change should be denied to Africans facing similar challenges is illogical.

In the rest of Africa, it is women – who do most of the work in the fields – who are the keenest on agribusiness moving in, as long as they are properly consulted and promises are kept. South Africans know this. Whether they are individuals or conglomerate in an agribusiness, those who ignore the social aspects soon come home.

Keith Bryer is a retired communications consultant

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