Home News ‘It was tough!’ – agri minister Didiza reflects on the covid-19 challenge

‘It was tough!’ – agri minister Didiza reflects on the covid-19 challenge

Thoko Didiza, the minister of agriculture, land reform and rural development reflects on how her plans and that of her department was broadsided by the covid-19 pandemic

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The year 2020 marked the year in which government was to deepen its effective land and agrarian reform.

Two policy papers were released for public comment to ensure that there is transparency in land allocation as well as giving clarity to government’s support to the sector. The Beneficiary Selection Policy and the National Policy on Comprehensive Producer Development Support are instruments that are aimed at guiding the work of the department and driving our quest for a united and prosperous sector.

In driving learning from best practices, joint study visits by the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development (DALRRD) and the National House of Traditional Leaders to Uganda and Botswana were undertaken. These studies aimed at dealing with issues of tenure reform and land administration in traditional areas. The lessons learnt from these visits will through consultation be built into our policy frameworks on tenure reform and land administration.

‘It was tough! We all knew that the impact to businesses and workers will be felt for time to come.’

The release of 700 000 hectares of state land was much awaited for by all citizens following the announcement by the President at his State of the Nation Address in February 2020.

During that time, news of the coronavirus was already making waves beyond China. Africa, and South Africa in particular, were waiting and reflecting on mitigation measures should the virus find its way onto our shores. No one knew the time and the extent at which this new form of virus could spread nor could anyone predict its impact.

After the first case in our country was reported and the number of reported cases started rising, we urgently convened agriculture stakeholders in order to plan ahead and ensure preparedness and responsiveness of the sector to the pandemic. After the lockdown was imposed the steering committee of the agriculture sector was already in place. Communications systems were also put in place to ensure that food security and food systems remain in place.

The National Command Council and Cabinet resolved that agriculture will remain an essential service. During the hard lockdown, food was declared essential goods and its production an essential service. This was a welcome relief, though the lockdown will effectively impact negatively those producers whose markets are accommodation facilities, restaurants and the tourism sector.

Other agriculture sectors such as horticulture-floriculture, agribusinesses linked to the textile value chain (wool, mohair and cotton) and agro-logistics as well as agri-dealers were also negatively affected. It was tough! We all knew that the impact to businesses and workers will be felt for time to come. In the midst of that reality all of us had to make sure that the health of our citizens is primary.

‘Covid-19 has strengthened our resolve to address food security, economic growth and unemployment.’

It was clear that smallholder and subsistence farmers were to be severely affected and this reality will further exacerbate food insecurity in the rural areas. An intervention by government was put in place. Protecting our agricultural markets and meeting our obligations to our buyers was another matter that was alive and still constantly being attended to. The reality became clear when we had to ensure that harvesting season of commodities such as apples, avocado, table and wine grapes as well as grains continue to take place.

The administration of government needed to continue to operate despite the lockdown. Remote working and the tools to facilitate such working had to be enabled. Critical services had to be maintained in offices. The safety of the workers both in the government administration and private sector was and remains critical. The department assisted farmers with masks and soaps for farm workers. This was within the R1.2 billion winter production intervention funding, which was aimed at cushioning the impact for smallholder and subsistence farmers.

The pandemic is not over, and no one has a sense of when it will come to an end nor when the vaccine will be available. However, we have to ensure that we devise strategies that would carry us through the pandemic and also post-covid-19. It has become clear that there is a need to reorganize our workplaces to ensure that social distancing and safety is attained.

‘We need to invest in the sector much more than we had before to ensure that as a country we can remain food secure.’

As part of the African continent and as chairperson of the African Union specialised technical committee on agriculture, we convened an agriculture ministerial meeting to assess the impact of covid-19 on food security on the continent and to ensure that amidst the pandemic, African agriculture remains on course to achieve the aspirations espoused in Agenda 2063 and the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme. Meetings held led to a declaration by ministers responsible for agriculture.

Furthermore, a task force comprising of the AU and strategic partners has been established to address the action plan determined by the ministers. Since agriculture is interlinked to trade and commerce, an AU meeting with the ministers of trade and commerce is being organised for July 27 to ensure that agricultural trade is soundly facilitated to ensure food security.

G20 ministerial meetings also took place to ensure that agricultural trade remains and that protectionism does not develop where trade barriers will be introduced and hurt countries that trade in agricultural goods.

Though one does not know when we will find a lasting solution to the pandemic, we will need to ensure that the sector continues to protect itself and its work force. We also need to ensure that we do not lose our agriculture calendar. We need to invest in the sector much more than we had before to ensure that as a country we can remain food secure. More importantly we need to ensure that we deepen transformation in the sector and open new growth lungs that will increase our productive base.

This remains the apex objective as we initiated the agriculture and agroprocessing master plan process, where stakeholders in unison decided to unite and deliver on commodity value chain plans to drive competitiveness and inclusivity in the sector.

Covid-19 has not only strengthened our resolve to address food security, economic growth and unemployment, but also shown us the fault lines in our food production systems.

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Team Food For Mzansi
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