‘Government didn’t help us. The farmers did!’

Agricultural leaders warn against government ‘hijacking aid for political gain’

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It rained carrots, cauliflowers, onions, potatoes and butternuts in many poverty-stricken communities of the Western Cape this morning when three agricultural organisations joined forces for effective food distribution of parcels to vulnerable families.

Residents of Stroebel Street, Ravensmead woke up with the sounds of a delivery truck from Laastedrift Agri, which is based in Ceres, 120 kilometres away. In attendance was a visibly moved Christo van der Rheede, Agri SA deputy executive director, who helped to unload the tonnes of fresh produce.

Besides Ravensmead, people of Uitsig, Cravenby, Bonteheuwel, Bishop Lavis and Parow will also benefit from the donation following the six week coronavirus lockdown that has exacerbated poverty and unemployment.

Community leader Monica Witbooi (58) described the donation by Agri SA, Laastedrift and Agri Western Cape as “a godsend”. Speaking exclusively to Food For Mzansi she says, “I made it very clear to the people of my neighbourhood. I told them, ‘Listen, this isn’t government helping us. It is the farmers that are helping us in our hour of need.’”

An overjoyed Monica Witbooi (right), a community leader from Ravensmead in the Western Cape, with Christo van der Rheede, Agri SA deputy executive director.

Witbooi and her 62-year-old husband, Peter, started a feeding scheme soon after the covid-19 lockdown commenced 44 days ago.

“I just had this feeling that we somehow had to help. We feed about 300 people per day, porridge for breakfast and a hot meal for dinner. It was then that (NSFAS administrator) Dr Randall Carolissen, an old school friend, noticed that I wasn’t active on our WhatsApp group for Rucet – the Ravensmead, Uitsig, Cravenby Education Trust. I told him that we’re so busy helping people in this time. Out of the blue he said, ‘Monica, I’ll help you.’”

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Carolissen reached out to Van der Rheede, who then contacted Rossouw Cillie, the award-winning Laastedrift farmer, as well as Jannie Strydom, the CEO of Agri Western Cape. Witbooi says, “They jumped up! They immediately said yes! Die boere is tops. We are eternally grateful.”

Van der Rheede says: “It is always a moving experience. We are so moved to be able to bring hope to others through food distribution activities. This is an ongoing initiative and we are truly thankful. Last week the farming community delivered more than 1 000 boxes of fruits and vegetables in Atlantis, and we’ve had similar initiatives in Mamre and Darling.”

Cillie echoes this statement, adding that farmers remain committed to ensuring food sustainability in South Africa. “We want to make a difference in people’s lives. We have so much to be grateful for. I told my staff, ‘We’re not throwing anything away. We will rather give it to people in need.’”

‘Hijacking aid for political gain’

Sinesipho Tom reports that this morning’s outreach follows attempts by government to centralise the distribution of covid-19 food relief. This week, many agri-leaders told Food For Mzansi that this this amounts to “the illegal hijacking of humanitarian aid for political gain”.

Agri SA objected to what they described as “the centralisation and hijacking of food relief by any government entity and the allocation of humanitarian and financial aid based on race”.

There have also been nationwide reports of government officials misappropriating food parcels meant for the desperately poor.

Van der Rheede says farmers share government’s concern about limiting the number of people moving around during lockdown as well as concerns about the safety and quality of food being distributed. He emphasised, however, that they will not allow government to dictate or police soup kitchens and the commendable efforts by thousands of individuals and organisations who are involved with food distribution.

“It is also unacceptable and immoral to withhold food relief or any other assistance on the basis of race,” Agri SA says, noting that there is no regulation or law that requires the centralisation of food relief via state packing houses.

Agri SA and its 90 plus affiliates will continue to donate tonnes of food throughout South Africa. They say great care is being taken with the collection and distribution of produce to prevent the further spread of covid-19.

“This is not the time to discriminate on the basis of colour. We must provide food for all of our people – whether they are black, white, yellow or pink – and we must ensure that we do this in a responsible and fair manner. We will not distribute food that is not consumable, healthy or nutritious,” says Van der Rheede.

Farmers alleviating poverty

Since the lockdown, which has now entered its seventh week, many other agricultural organisations and farmers have expanded their poverty alleviation programmes. This includes the following:

  • Farmers in Brits in North West and Pretoria in Gauteng joined forces for food distribution to those in need and collected fresh vegetables to feed hundreds of families through the non-profit organisation God se Pot in Hartbeespoort, Highway Church in Centurion and the Hanna Charity and Empowerment Foundation in Pretoria. The farmers distributed 87 tonnes of fresh produce.
  • Another project, led by Bertus Ras from the Star of Africa Foundation and Time to Shine in Pretoria, saw farmers from Rheeders Boerdery, WJ Boerdery, Langplaas Boerdery, Wahlmansdal Evergreens and Gerlan Pak and CJ Citrus distributed 346 tonnes of vegetables. Fidelity delivered this to 650 families with a further 800 families being since assisted through this initiative.
  • The VKB Group, a leading agricultural enterprise, also challenged farmers across South Africa to donate at least a hectare’s produce to counter a humanitarian crisis in the wake of the deadly covid-19 pandemic. VKB managing director Koos van Rensburg announced that the 101-year-old agricultural giant has partnered with Agbiz and organised agriculture to urgently assist people facing hunger. Members of the public are also allowed to donate to a newly established solidarity fund.

Read: Farmers answer call of looming covid-19 hunger crisis

  • The Cedarville Farmers Association in KwaZulu-Natal partnered with the Milk Producers Organisation to feed 200 families with money raised from local farmers and milk supplied through the MPO’s 1% challenge for food distribution. Each person received a package containing 5 litres of milk, 25kg maize meal, 5kg Nqodi, a 10kg bag of potatoes and some salt.
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