EXCLUSIVE: Christo van der Rheede, a hero on the covid-19 front line

“It’s a 24-hour job in the interest of agriculture and food security," says agri-boss about covid-19 lockdown

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It is day 20 of South Africa’s covid-19 lockdown, but Agri SA deputy executive director Christo van der Rheede is certainly not battling isolation blues. In fact, despite being in the eye of the storm he is rather chirpy. Relaxed even.

“We can watch the beach every day,” he says during a recording of Food For Mzansi’s Farmer’s Inside Track podcast. Van der Rheede and his wife, Merlyn, have escaped from their flatlet in Pretoria to be in lockdown with their children, Ryan and Lucia, in Yzerfontein on the Cape West Coast.

Down memory lane

The dogs are there too. The days are longer, yes, but the conversations are deeper. And every now and then the agricultural boss gets behind the piano to entertain both his family and Facebook friends with tunes of days gone by.

Look, there he is behind the piano, again… This time around he is playing “Smile” by legendary jazz singer Nat King Cole with only his fingers visible in the online video. A few days earlier his famous trumpet player son, Ryan, joined him in performing another classic. But the peaceful melodies are a far cry from the stark reality of his contribution to the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development’s covid-19 task team.

“It’s a 24-hour job in the interest of agriculture and food security,” he says about the never-ending Zoom, Teams and Skype meetings to ensure that the nearly 58 million people in South Africa never run out of food. The entire food value chain – from farm-related operations to agro-processing – have been moving non-stop to ensure that all people have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food despite the pandemic.

The upside of the 35-day lockdown is that he does not have to wear suits to work nor drive long distances to attend meetings. Now he’s just Christo van der Rheede, a son of the mission village of Goedverwacht – a lovely Western Cape town with a history to match. The trained music educator turned executive manager holds not only three degrees, but also Royal School of Music diplomas in advanced piano and singing.

Leadership in turbulent times

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If there is one thing he has learned about the coronavirus pandemic, it’s that if you sing before breakfast, you’ll certainly cry before night. This explains his respect for pres. Cyril Ramaphosa who took the early decision to lock the entire country down to try and curb further spread of covid-19.

Van der Rheede says, “I have the greatest admiration for pres. Cyril Ramaphosa. All of us were a bit despondent for some time after he took the reins. We thought he was going to turn the country around. Things did not happen the way we thought it was going to happen. But I think he was in a bad space politically… There is nothing as good as a crisis, and if he can turn this thing around… he finds himself in a very good space politically.”

He has no doubt that the agricultural sector has a massive responsibility towards taking South Africa forward. But farmers are distressed, not just politically and economically, but also because of the severe impact of covid-19.

Christo van der Rheede, the deputy executive director of Agri SA wearing a face mask in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic.

“Our farmers are worried about harvesting and getting their products to market. And commodities are worried about whether they will be able to export their goods; whether they will be able to transport it across provinces. The corporate (part of the) sector is worried about imports and whether they will have access to the goods once it arrives at the ports,” he says pensively.

However, Van der Rheede is convinced that commercial agriculture is still in great shape despite concerns of the exchange rate’s impact on agri-markets.

There’s been some good news for farmers during the lockdown, though, when oil prices dropped to historic lows. This has provided some relief for farmers.

Government support for farmers

Notwithstanding the uncertainty Van der Rheede also has no doubt that South Africans are quite fortunate to have a sophisticated and vibrant commercial agri-sector that can often supply food at the lowest prices and the best quality to the poorest of the poor. Government needs to assure commercial farmers of their support, he says.

“If government can guarantee that farmers won’t have to pay interest on their loans or perhaps even (give) a payment holiday to some extent because they have massive debt levels… We need assistance from commercial banks and the Land Bank.”

The Land Bank has availed R100 million to assist commercial farmers who had loans with them. Van der Rheede also notes that Agri SA continues to back farmers in the drought-stricken areas of the Western Cape and Northern Cape in partnership with the respective provincial governments.

Will small-scale farmers be able to survive the coronavirus pandemic financially? It is still too soon to predict anything, says Van der Rheede.

It all depends on how the harvesting season will play out across the country.

“Wine farmers just had hundreds of agricultural workers harvesting their grapes and currently it is citrus season. Also, the macadamia nuts are coming into play and those farmers rely on thousands of casual and permanent workers to assist them.”

He is, however, very concerned about certain commodities, including wool and cotton growers. “Without a secure export line there could be a serious cash flow impact for many farmers.”

South African farmers are resilient, though. They have weathered many storms. And the sector is blessed with leaders such as Van der Rheede who will leave no stone unturned to carefully navigate the future of the country’s food systems.

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