The agricultural sector had the rare pleasure of being specifically complimented as a star performer during Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address, believes Jan-Jan Joubert. More importantly, the president gave understated, yet clear indications of intended government actions and policies which could affect and change the sector for many years to come.
While many agricultural leaders were disappointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address (SONA), it does provide a number of important policy-pointers.
Specific compliments to especially the commercial agricultural sector from the ANC’s side of the parliamentary aisle are truly rare.
However, during his SONA on Thursday, the head of state said that “in the midst of all the damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the agricultural sector has performed remarkably well.”
He listed that during the past year, South Africa became the world’s second largest exporter of citrus, with much export growth in wine, maize, nuts, deciduous fruit and sugar cane.
No mention was made of state plans to combat the currently rapidly worsening locust plague destroying crops and foliage in the Northern Cape.
Nor was their mentions of how to combat the structural rural provincial poverty deepened by a drought for which emergency funding was slow to be announced, and positively pedestrian to actually materialise.
Similarly, Northern Cape Premier Dr Zamani Saul failed completely to take notice of the locust threat and the drought crisis when he limited this week’s state of emergency announcement to flood damage.
Behind unsaid words
It would have been political suicide on many levels for Ramaphosa to credit the hugely positive impact of these figures on agriculture, land reform and rural development minister Thoko Didiza’s persistent and relatively successful lobbying for farming operations to continue during the lockdown.
This was in ways hardly any other sector of the economy was allowed to, so that was left unsaid.
The president did claim credit, on behalf of his government, for the finalisation of the poultry and sugar master plans. He linked this to positive developments, such as South Africa producing a million chickens a week more than before, and an agreement from large users to source at least 80% of its sugar needs locally.
According to Ramaphosa, the sugar master plan has contributed to the stabilisation of the sugar industry with its 85 000 workers, with less sugar imported at the very moment when more sugar was produced locally.
And then he came to the business end of what the agricultural sector could expect from government…
Ramaphosa believes the recent and prevailing weather conditions over large parts of the country, coupled with the said growth in the sector, together provide an excellent opportunity to accelerate land redistribution through land restitution and expropriation.
Land reform debate
Regarding expropriation, the president’s choice of words gave a strong indication to parliamentarians and the general population of what he means by “expropriation”.
Firstly, he did not say “expropriation without compensation”.
Although, obviously not expressly ruling out expropriation without compensation, it was a none too subtle reminder to anyone clamouring for expropriation without compensation en masse as an instant and general panacea to all land injustices, that such actions should only happen in a limited and prescribed manner.
This was decided at the 2017 ANC conference, but often forgotten by many.
And just in case anyone missed that point, Ramaphosa said that redistribution and expropriation must happen in a way that boosted overall agricultural output.
Whether these nuanced views will chime with his party’s caucus as parliament enters the final stage of amending clause 25 of the Constitution (the property clause) remains to be seen, and certainly isn’t a given.
The president put on record that, thus far, 5 million hectares, totalling 5 500 farms and benefiting 300 000 people, have been redistributed. In addition, through the process of restitution, according to the president 2,7 million people have benefited from 2 million hectares restituted.
Clarity on ‘beneficiaries’
When one pauses to think about it, the numbers as they are and as they have been presented do not add up, unless there is a somewhat less than literal use of terminology.
It might be helpful to define the term “beneficiary” somewhat more closely.
If “beneficiary” means landowner or farmer, the number of beneficiaries are too high for the number of hectares listed, unless that could be one of the explanations for why state-led restitution and redistribution has resulted in economic and agricultural failure in an eye-watering 90% of all cases.
If “beneficiaries” include those who opted for cash rather than land, surely such information is best clarified so as not to possibly leave the public under a false impression.
Such clarity would also help one understand whether the state land redistribution and restitution programme is primarily adding to the African subsistence farming class.
This could be by primarily creating an African commercial farming class which can produce for markets (implying economy of scale, on the face of it well-nigh impossible).
They could thereby contribute to national food security in a rapidly urbanising country, or Ramaphosa could’ve implied a cash hand-out to correct injustices of the past. This would not really be about changing patterns of land ownership at all.
No mention, at all, was made of the continuing abuse of and weaknesses in the state-led system, whether efforts to improve it have been successful or failed, and whether further improvements are planned.
The president emphasised the importance of job creation and announced a job creation stimulus plan about which very little practical detail was provided.
He also focused on plans to improve water infrastructure. Specific mention was made of the Mokolo-Crocodile river project – years in the making – which will benefit areas like Modimolle (Nylstroom), Vaalwater, Lephalale, the Matimba power station, the Zeeland power plant and the Grootgeluk Mine.
According to Ramaphosa, government has decided to prioritise steps to ensure that water licence applications are finalised within 90 days after being lodged. No practical detail about how this will be achieved was announced.
Another announcement with zero details on what it actually means is that a new raw water pricing strategy is being developed. Also, a National Water Resources Infrastructure Agency is to be born. No details were included
Opportunities in Africa
Additional funds have been earmarked for maintenance on the N1, N2 and N3.
Government, business and labour have agreed to embark on a massive campaign to buy local products rather than imports. The list of local products to be prioritised will consist of 42 items and may well include agricultural produce, but the 42 products have not been finalised.
Ramaphosa did let slip that edible oils, furniture, fruit concentrates, personal protective equipment and steel products would be included, but the rest of the list currently remains a mystery.
An opportunity for the agricultural sector should arise from government’s focus on increasing exports to the rest of Africa. Yet, again, on this issue no practical details were provided by the head of state.
For the umpteenth time, Ramaphosa stated government’s commitment to fundamental economic reform. As ever, though, details were sketchy at best.
There was no reference at all to the labour market reforms the International Monetary Fund referred to as one of the kingpins to be insisted upon in their definition of fundamental economic reform.
Ramaphosa also repeated his mantra that Eskom was making progress in its quest to fix itself, and reiterated that regulations allowing municipalities to buy electricity from independent power producers are imminent.
The municipality of Stellenbosch in the Western Cape is expected to be the first to leave the national grid.
Despite his insistence that Eskom is progressing so well, Ramaphosa also said that there will be an additional electricity shortfall of 4 000 to 6 000 mW as several of South Africa’s coal power stations reach the end of their lifespan.
- Jan-Jan Joubert is an experienced political journalist and writer who has covered the South African parliament from the press gallery since 2001. His latest book, Will South Africa be ok?, tackles the state of South African politics since the 2019 elections.