Stealing fruit might sound like mere mischief. It has, however, become a massive threat to an industry worth billions of Rands, reports Gerrit Rautenbach for Hortgro, the deciduous fruit grower industry body.
I remember those late nights slipping out of the school res, making a beeline for oom Hendrik’s orchards. The best yellow clings in the world. But it never hurt oom Hendrik or the other farmers back then. At one school function, he even referred to those disappearing peaches as the angels’ share.
Those were the days my friend, I thought they’ll never end. But they did.
“Fruit theft, I reckon, is as old as fruit farming,” says Nic Dicey, Hortgro chairman and fruit farmer on La Plaisante just outside Wolseley in the Western Cape.
“But today, fruit theft is out of control. When you leave, drive the five kilometres to town and count the number of people on the side of the road, virtually everyone with a backpack filled with peaches stolen from me and my neighbours in broad daylight.”
The losses and damages due to fruit theft are massive but almost impossible to quantify. However, according to Louis Wessels, manager: legal services and administration at Agri Western Cape, individual producers estimated losses ranging from R40 000 to R600 000 last season.
The problem is, to really know what the damage is, you need to know how many thieves there are. But how?
They’re not going to report to a census return. They are criminals, says Wessels.
What makes it even more difficult is that fruit thieves come in categories. From the loners stealing a bagful each to the gangs coming in numbers with pick-ups, pillaging orchards, damaging trees, disappearing with a tonne of your best fruit.
How do you stop the raiding?
An obvious method is enclosing your orchards with state-of-the-art electrical fences and using drones to keep watch during daylight hours. Now we are talking serious money; money that adds to the bottom line of your fruit, making it more expensive and in the process making the thief’s offer more attractive.
“We do not have electrical fences yet, but razor fencing on the Berg River side – our weak spot. It doesn’t stop them but slows them down. They throw cloth over the fences or even dig burrows underneath,” explains Elton Jefthas, partner at De Fynne nursery and fruit farm close to Paarl.
The informal sector vs. the criminal sector
Joseph Hendricks from Hendricks Vrugte in Grabouw started his career in fruit as a vendor and has a soft spot for the informal market.
“In eradicating the criminal element, one must be cautious not to trample on the legal informal vendors. I am selling a lot of fruit to them, but they are legit with permits from their respective municipalities. These guys depend on their income and form a crucial link in the value chain.
“Fortunately, we have very little theft, being about four kilometres from the N2 where you see the skelms standing illegally on red and yellow lines, apple in hand, trying to persuade motorists to stop.”
However, Jan van der Merwe, assistant production manager at Hendricks Vrugte, believes he has a solution to help these illegal guys to become part of the informal sector: “There are many NGO’s in the EGVV (Elgin Grabouw Vyeboom Villiersdorp area) with the capacity to help. Then there are many farmers as well. And then, and herein lies the problem, we have many unemployed people in the area, like everywhere else in SA.
“My proposal is to get these NGO’s to draw up an accumulative database of unemployed people. We ask the farmers to each donate a bin of fruit. The NGO’s help the unemployed to get registered with their respective municipalities. And the process is in motion. They start earning, and next round, they buy their stock from the farmers. Now they become part of the legal informal sector.”
A challenge for developing farmers
“In amongst all of this are the new guys wanting to make their dreams come true,” says Ismail Motala, chairman of the Deciduous Fruit Development Chamber SA.
“There’s nothing worse than overcoming the hurdles of starting up, the weather, Eskom, price hikes and whatnot, just to see your beautiful crop being depleted by people who didn’t put one cent or one drop of sweat in to make it happen.”
This boils your blood. But, taking the law into your own hands is not an option. If you manage to apprehend the culprit, he might get violent or he might suddenly have a few mates coming to help him.
“If you happen to hold him (and watch out if you manhandle him!) until the police eventually come, they’ll most probably let him go as one bag of fruit is deemed petty. Not enough manpower or time to do anything meaningful about it. But the worst of all is there is not only one thief, it is like a plague.”
It is not only fruit
The more I hear, the more I fear. Farming is not for sissies. That’s when Jefthas, from De Fynne tells me that while the one lot is raiding the trees, the others are stealing Eskom cables.
“Ok granted, Eskom will come and fix those cables. But because cables are being stolen all over it takes time before they get to you. And you know what happens after two days of 40+˚C and no water on your fruit? Sunburn damage. And do you think those rogues will steal the sunburnt stuff? They’ll pick only your best!”
Dicey says, “The harvest lasts about four months. But those criminals need money for 12 months. As you can see, the main train track between Cape Town and Pretoria runs through La Plaisant. Come, let me show you something.”
All along the track, at about ten-metre intervals there are dug-outs where cable upon cable have been ripped out. Stolen. No wonder the once-proud Blue Train runs no more. I look at the damaged line and Dicey’s beautiful pear orchard next to it.
“And when these pears are ready, they’ll come and steal them too.”
Dicey sighs and I wonder if there is a way out, by curbing unemployment?
“But you know, I can employ more labourers right now. But nobody’s knocking. Maybe it is just so much easier to steal my stuff. Especially if you’re almost guaranteed to get away with it.”
What can fruit farmers do to stop the rot?
Daan van Leeuwen Boomkamp, general commander of Drakenstein Farm Watch, offers a possible solution. This group of 160 volunteers helps protect up to 200 farms against fires (with many arson cases), medical and animal rescues and more.
“We used to attempt to help with fruit theft, but it is a lost cause as it stands. Catching a thief red-handed, you can hold him until the police come many hours later, just to tell you the Drakenstein penitentiary is 140% full and the damage is less than R1 000. And he is free to go.”
But using the bylaws of the various municipalities is the way to go. Respectable people within the municipal areas must be appointed as peace officers giving them authority to enforce those bylaws whereby they can act against fruit thieves. The legalities are in place.
You appoint people from the area to safeguard the area. You teach them the details of the bylaw, you train them on how to apprehend a fruit thief. Take all the chairpersons of all the neighbourhood watches and appoint them first. They already have the back-up of their fellow neighbourhood members, but now the bylaws give them the clout to act.
“Fruit thieves in my watch operate in gangs,” Van Leeuwen Boomkamp says.
“If you, try to apprehend them, you are on very dangerous terrain. I have been shot at. The only way to stop the rot is going the route of the bylaws. We’ve been doing this since 2000 in the Netherlands. It works.”
What can the consumer do?
Driving back from Wolseley, I realised there is no golden rule, but a rule of thumb: If you find vendors in a space next to a road with decent parking, a well-constructed stall, and an array of fruit, the chances are better than good that they are legit. Consumers can also ask to see a permit before buying.
However, if you find a solo operator, next to a red or yellow line, waving some fruit in his hand at you, think twice (they must use those spots as the legit vendors occupy the legit spots). And remember that it is against the law to stop on a national road unless it is an emergency. It is also against the law to sell fruit by meandering through traffic.
Then suddenly I saw just that: A man next to the road with a peach in his outstretched hand. I stopped.
“Great peach, where is it from?” I asked him.
“A farm just down the road,” he answered.
“Do you work there?”
Maybe I looked like a priest, for after a slight hesitation he confessed: “I’ve done a terrible thing. These peaches are not mine. They are from another farmer. I took them and am selling them. Because I am jobless. And hungry.”
I felt sorry for him. “How much?”
“R30 for 15. R2 a peach.”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” I said, knowing a plump peach can easily pop R10 in a supermarket.
Let’s call him Jason. Jason is a criminal. Do not aid and abet Jason.
It’s up to you, the consumer, to help stop fruit theft.