Christo van der Rheede, the newly-appointed executive director of Agri SA, plans to collaborate with various agricultural organisations in the country to find pragmatic solutions that would lead to a profitable farming sector in the country.
In a no-holds-barred interview with Food For Mzansi, Van der Rheede discussed his vision for Agri SA following the announcement that he has taken over the reins from Omri van Zyl. This, after serving as Agri SA’s deputy director since 2015, having also previously held other executive positions where he led breakthrough, turnaround strategies at education, cultural and business institutions.
Congrats! What is your vision for Agri SA?
I really want to position Agri SA as an organisation that wants to collaborate and work with other agricultural organisations, including (the likes of) Afasa, Nafu and TLU SA, to find solutions.
Yes, there will always be differences, but never differences to undermine the process of (building a greater) agricultural sector. We must become pragmatic and find ways to assist farmers and ensure we have a profitable farming sector, but we can only do that if there is constructive engagement and constructive collaboration with all stakeholders. And I really want to position Agri SA as a body that seeks consensus and specific solutions for agriculture.
Do you genuinely believe that agriculture wants to extend a helping hand to the new era part of the sector?
Yes, indeed. I have seen many, many success stories. If you look at what the Sernick Group is doing in the Free State with Nick Serfontein, or the Witzenberg PALS project in the Ceres region… If you look at the work that Agri-Eastern Cape, Kwanalu in Kwa-Zulu Natal and many farmers are already doing… Obviously, given the fact that in agriculture you are always confronted with a good year and a bad year, or maybe circumstances beyond your control, then you tend to focus inwards, right, because it is understandable that you need to save your own business before you can help anyone else. But overall, I think all of us are very committed to the establishment and promotion of a new generation of farmers.
What are your views on land reform in South Africa?
If you look at some of the reports, and I visited some of those farms, I can tell you I was absolutely shocked. Government is in possession of 5 400 farms, but most of them are dilapidated. Nothing is really happening on those farms and they were previously commercially viable.
I visited a farm in North West, and everything is gone. Everything was broken down. The house that people used to live in is now dilapidated. There are no workers left, just two or three people with small herd of cows and goats. There is no noteworthy food production left. So, I am very worried that we are failing the Constitution when it comes to dealing with the legacies of the past, and the Constitution gives clear instruction that land reform is necessary; that there must be land restitution. In terms of land restitution, many things are happening in that space, but my big concern is land reform.
Do we have the right people on farms? The Communal Property Association (CPA’s) are dysfunctional. Many of the reform projects have come to a complete standstill – except where there is great partnership between commercial farmers and newly-established farmers. So, for me, there is a massive job that has to be undertaken and I don’t know where the money is going to come from.
The Land Bank is in serious financial trouble and then, also, there is a big challenge within government itself. Government does not have money to truly support land reform. Also, you can give people land, but the bigger challenge is people need access to production loans on an annual basis. You need to buy diesel. You need to buy feed. You need to buy additional things to support you farm. If you don’t have the money, the land eventually becomes a burden because you cannot produce anything on it.
What are your views on rural safety in the country?
I always tell people that anyone can be a victim of crime. We have seen brutal attacks on white farmers, on Coloured farmers and on black farmers. We have seen a large-scale stock theft, regardless of the farmers’ skin colour.
It begs the question: How have we even reached this stage where people who are producing food for the country are exposed to such horrible, criminal activities? It is really a sad point in our history – much like gender-based violence where we see, on a daily basis, how women get murdered and raped. That kind of barbarism is beyond me, and it cannot be justified in any possible way.
There are poorer countries where people maintain their dignity and respect. There is no justification for these attacks. Who would want to farm in an area where their lives are in danger? Where people can come onto your land and just take what they want… I mean, how can you supply the country with food without law and order?
And the cheap imports affecting thousands of Mzansi farmers?
It is also completely unacceptable. Not only are we doing our own farmers a great disservice, but it’s also particularly bad for new era farmers. Have you seen how the small-scale sugar growers in KwaZulu-Natal, whom are mostly black, have suffered as a result of sugar being dumped in South Africa about a year or two ago?
It’s the same thing with chicken farmers, and now our potato farmers are suffering a similar fate. So, I think government must really step up to that challenge and put the necessary measurements in place to avoid a situation where South Africa becomes the dumping ground of surplus stock from overseas countries.
Do you think higher tariffs should be put in place to curb the import issue?
I’m of the view that we must have a fair-trade agreement because, remember, there are also implications if you are stopping imports or products of people from other countries. Then they are going to retaliate, and they are going to stop you from exporting to them and you don’t want to find yourself in conflict with the rest of the world.
What I am saying, though, is that there is certainly space for legitimate imports, legitimate exports and an application of tariffs to also produce your own products. But at the same time, as a government, farming and retail sector you need to promote the purchasing of our own produce. Remember, many years ago we had a Buy Local campaign so we must really start that campaign again so that people can buy our products.