South Africa is facing a potentially crippling food and job security crisis as crime drives farmers from their land, leaving tens of thousands of workers unemployed.

This was the message given in Pretoria on Tuesday at an agricultural union briefing on crime and its impact on the country’s farming sector.

The message came as farming unions and associations slammed the government for its apparent lack of commitment to rural safety and the country’s estimated 55 000 commercial farmers.

The Transvaal Agricultural Union (TAU-SA) is now preparing to hand a memorandum to the Police Ministry after senior police officers and government officials allegedly ignored requests from the organisation to attend the meeting.

Police and ministry officials have, however, slammed TAU-SA’s criticism, labelling it as a cheap shot, and said the organisation, like other farming associations, knew the correct channels to follow when wanting to engage either the SAPS or the government.

African Farmers’ Association of South Africa president Mike Mlengana said criminals saw farmers as soft targets, and that crime was affecting every farmer regardless of race.

“While there is very little police presence around farming communities, our contribution to the GDP and food security is enormous.

“In the development of policy, especially those affecting agriculture, the government must acknowledge the role farmers play in the contribution of jobs and food security.

“Crime has a major negative effect on food security and jobs, with those who are vulnerable, especially the elderly, being attacked and killed.

“With the killings, an entire generation of knowledge is wiped out with farmers often abandoning their farms. Crime is crippling the country’s farming sector and it is unforgivable that our farmers are being killed while producing for the country,” Mlengana said.

“The government, especially the defence force and police, who are unaware of the crime situation in rural areas, have to play a more active role in securing farms which are an economic agent for South Africa’s development,” he said.

TAU-SA’s assistant general manager, Chris van Zyl, said they desperately wanted to meet the government to discuss ways of improving rural safety to increase food security and preserve jobs.

“What is happening cannot continue. On average a commercial farmer supplies food for 1 600 people and, if attacked, a farm can lie fallow for up to eight years, which has a crippling effect on food security and job creation, with on average 20 people affected by a single attack.

“Political will is a major factor in eradicating rural crime, but until there is the will, crime, especially attacks on farms, will not stop,” he said.

TAU-SA’s president, Louis Meintjies, said: “With rhino poaching, millions of rand in resources and personnel are put in place to stop the killings, but what is being done to protect the country’s 55 000 commercial farmers, who feed the entire country? Where is the priority?”

TAU-SA general manager Bennie van Zyl said: “One of the most serious problems around farm attacks was that the magnitude of the problem was not known.

“There are no proper statistics for farm attacks, with only the most serious of crimes being recorded and then either as murder or assault and not as a farm attack.

“Not knowing how severe the problem is means we do we not know how to deal with these crimes, which is a serious problem.”

Johan Burger, Institute of Security Studies policing researcher, said: “Our productive capacity is shrinking with the additional economic side-effects being job losses.

“These job losses affect not only workers, but also their families, with unemployment affecting crime levels, leading to a vicious circle.

“The government needs to take a stronger stand on rural safety, not because it is just about farmers and farming communities but because of the strategic issues of food security and jobs which are at stake,” he said.

National police spokesman Colonel Lindela Mashigo said an invitation had not been received.

“There is a rural safety committee comprising the farming community and the police, and such an invite could have been extended through that forum. TAU-SA knows this channel,” he said.

Police Ministry spokesman Zweli Mnisi said: “We learnt through the media that the minister was scheduled to attend the meeting. We condemn such cheap practices which do not help the cause of rural safety.

“The minister is engaging stakeholders in terms of developing a rural safety strategy, which looks at safety in general in rural areas and not just on farms. As government we commit ourselves to fighting crime in whatever form it manifests itself, including farm killings.

“Rural development is high on the agenda and we view South Africa’s rural community safety as a priority.

“While the government remains committed to dealing with all rural crime including farm murders, it is important that farmers also address vulnerabilities that impact on farm killings.

“The economic impact of this form of crime cannot be under-estimated. The ministry is reviewing our rural safety plan to improve relationships between the police, farming communities, stakeholders and rural communities to improve safety awareness. The revised plan is nearly finalised, with key aspects including improved service delivery at police stations and increased police visibility and response times.

“To address crime we have highlighted the need to improve both our intelligence and investigative capacity and are ensuring proper investigation of all cases reported with closer co-operation with prosecuting authorities,” he said. - Pretoria News