The agricultural community in the Free State has not had it easy this year. Runaway veld fires destroying thousands of hectares, unfixed potholes costing farmers millions and a rise in farm crime are just some of the issues farmers have had to face in the province.
But farmers find some hope in the recently appointed MEC for agriculture and rural development, Thembeni Nxangisa.
“As a province we used to be the food basket of the country and we need to get back to that.”
“At the moment I have gathered sufficient information to say this is the direction which we need to take in the department,” he says.
In an exclusive interview with Food For Mzansi, Nxangisa shares his plans to reposition the agricultural sector in the province.
Duncan Masiwa: Farmers were excited to hear that you would be filling the hot seat in the province. How does that make you feel?
Thembeni Nxangisa: It is a very humbling gesture. I am a very simple person and my engagement and interaction with people, specifically with stakeholders, is always an open-minded engagement.
“I am excited that I have received this warm welcome by farmers. I have no delusions it will be a huge task because agriculture, in essence, contributes immensely to the economy of the country.”
I think the sector must be reorganised, re-energised and refocused to play and take its specific strategic role in the economy of the country. And we will attempt to do that jointly with all the farmers in sector, especially in the Free State.
As the new MEC for agriculture, what is right at the top of your priority list?
You will remember that the Free State lost its standing as the food basket of the country. We need to return to that and that is priority number one. We will do this alongside the farmers and other key stakeholders.
“Secondly, we need to fast-track the programme of smallholder farmers to increase them, to capacitate and to grow them. But of course, for food security we would want to sustain the current farmers who are providing food security in the province.”
So those are key elements. But for you to do that you need to re-energise the department and refocus the resources that you have, and restructure the budget so that it supports that programme.
Dilapidated roads remain a huge concern and farmers complain that little has been done. How do you react to this?
I have already contacted my colleague William Bulwane, MEC for police, roads and transport, to create access because that’s a serious network. We need to create gravel access roads.
Produce from the farms… when they get to the market, they are damaged because the roads are bad.
“In some instances when police respond to calls or queries on farm crimes it takes time because the roads are bad.”
I told him (Bulwane) that we need to join hands and that they must help us with this programme. But farmers have also agreed to join hands and see what they can do. I think it’s a good gesture that farmers have started helping in fixing the roads. It’s really all of our responsibility.
I will also be raising it in the executive and [make it] part of the new budget to best refocus this element. Without that it will be impossible for the Free State to go back [to being] the food basket of the country. It would really be a pipe dream and therefore we really need to get our house in order.
Food producers in the province are despondent and feel that their challenges can no longer be solved by the state. How do you plan to win their trust?
The president just launched a district development model where we have inclusive, sustainable development plans aimed at responding to all issues.
As a department we are participating in the module for rural roads. We have district directors who are participating fully in that module where we are trying to remove all obstacles and get the participation of all stakeholders to make it easier for agriculture to thrive and grow.
We are at the end of the year. What is on your wish list for agriculture in the province?
My wish is that farmers have a safe holiday season and new year. My wish is that it is a crime-free holiday. We have encouraged neighbourhood farmers to work together and to report unfamiliar elements who want to disrupt and disturb the farming community.
We all need food and our relationship with land is of such a nature that we are dependent on it. We need farms to work and work for us.
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