Free State premier Sisi Ntombela’s announcement that R50 million will be spent on the province’s infrastructure this year, is nothing to get excited about, according to the local farming community. In fact, it comes down to a major cut to the roads budget in a province with a notoriously bad roads network, and it is rubbing up farmers the wrong way.
A recent decision by finance minister Enoch Godongwana to stop infrastructure grant payments to the Free State roads department, saw the province lose R45.2 million. This was followed by Ntombela’s State of the Province Address (SOPA) in which she announced her R50 million infrastructure budget, while the allocation for the previous financial year had been R115 million.
Reacting to the news, Francois Wilken, president of Free State Agriculture, flagged the decision as reckless and totally unacceptable. “Flooding during the 2021-2022 rain season wreaked havoc not only to farmers’ crops but also to the Free State roads infrastructure.”
The organisation says it wants to know from the minister what prompted him to stop the grant payment, adding that this could possibly shed light on the incompetence of the department, for which they need to be held accountable.
FSA is yet to make a formal request to the minister to explain the reasons for this decision, but FSA commercial manager Jack Armour tells Food For Mzansi that the roads department cited tender irregularities as the reason.
Also, according to a Treasury notice, the funds have been reallocated to other provinces in terms of the Division of Revenue Act.
“The fact is, there was incompetency and I’m sure we have actually lost the money to the Free State,” Armour tells Food For Mzansi. “Very concerning, is that our budget for gravel [roads], according to SOPA, has also been cut.”
The alternative is expensive
Farmers and other residents living in rural areas of the Free State are not happy.
Joseph Khahleli, chairperson of the Kaallaagte Farmers’ Association, wonders if the province’s roads, which are leaving him out of pocket, will ever be fixed, especially now that budgets have been cut.
“At least once a week, I have to fix a puncture caused by potholes. It’s terrible,” he says.
“The roads are unsafe. After the rains we had, the roads are very bad. When we have to go to town for fuel or take our livestock to auctions, we are struggling.”
The absence of road maintenance workers is stark, he adds. “Government does not even come to check the roads here.”
Many farmers say there isn’t much to do and whatever alternative they find, is an expensive one. “We try to use alternative roads, but the milleage is high, so it becomes costly to us as farmers,” Khahleli says. “For example, before, I only to had travel 30 km for my daily errands. Now I have to travel close to 55 km.”
“Also, some of my suppliers now charge me extra to deliver inputs because they have to drive more kilometres. They also have to make use of alternative roads.”
‘Farmers are not road builders’
The impact on farming businesses is so tremendous that farmers have in the past banded together to fix the roads themselves. “The commercial farmers are trying to fix the roads, but they can’t do everything,” Khahleli says.
A 2021 survey among members of FSA showed that farmers in the Free State had already spent R6 million to repair provincial and municipal roads.
FSA stated that the R6 million figure was, however, far below the actual cost incurred. A lot of work has been done on roads by farmers who have not even reported it, the organisation said.
But according to Armour, “Farmers are not road builders. We need to focus on producing food for the nation.
“The cost of doing business also increases, which affects profitability,” Armour says. “Eventually food prices go up because government is not doing their job to create the enabling environment.”
According to Armour, part of the problem is that government gets pressure from taxi operators, leading to much of the focus being put on urban roads. “Agriculture and the rural communities are drawing on the short end of the stick again.”
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