Home COVID-19 Witzenberg: Farming in a covid-19 hotspot

Witzenberg: Farming in a covid-19 hotspot

The coronavirus has brought fear, disruption to the lives of farmers and agri-workers living amid the pandemic

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The covid-19 pandemic has impacted farmers in the Witzenberg municipal area in many ways. But what farmers and agri-workers from this area can all agree on is that the coronavirus has brought fear into their everyday lives. 

Witzenberg, a local municipality located within the Cape Winelands District Municipality in the Western Cape, and has recorded 205 cases of covid-19. It raised concerns as one of the coronavirus hotspots in a province that thus far has more than two thirds of the country’s recorded coronavirus infections.

Special measures instituted to curb the spread of the disease in the area include temporary testing and triage centres at the Ceres hospital. More stringent controls for entering and exiting the area were put in place. Safety protocols aimed at reducing the risk of infections in the workplace were implemented for agribusinesses and retailers.  

Farmers that Food For Mzansi spoke to say they are doing their best to adhere to safety measures to keep themselves and their workers healthy. However, the threat of the coronavirus has caused some disruption of their farming activities and there is a sense of fear of being infected. 

The owner of Thembelihle farm, Fumanekile Lang
Fumanekile Langman Jeke, farmer at Thembelihle farm in Ceres.

Fumanekile Langman Jeke’s livestock enterprise, Thembelihle, sits on a 230-hectare farm he leases in Ceres in the Western Cape. Jeke says that the covid-19 pandemic has brought concern, with him and his workers fearing that they may be infected with the coronavirus.

Jeke says since the start of the covid-19 pandemic he has been afraid to transport his livestock to the market. “I estimated that there would be a large number of people visiting the market and I didn’t want to put myself at risk of infection,” he says.  

This weighs heavily on his pocket. “The more animals I have on my farm the more money I use to buy feed and medicine to take care of my animals. I had hoped to alleviate my financial pressure by selling my livestock on the market, but that has been impossible,” he says. 

The livestock farmer explains that the covid-19 pandemic has made it really difficult for him and his team to farm, because they cannot operate as freely as they used to due to the lockdown restrictions.  

“For efficient farming one must be able to farm freely to get the best results,” he says. “I had to go to town to buy medicine for my cows. I could not get my medicine because of the new lockdown times introduced to the shops. I arrived at 2pm in the afternoon and I was told to come back tomorrow at 8am in the morning. Such situations impact us negatively and that’s our biggest problem at the moment. Sometimes when you need something you don’t get it when you need it.” 

On top of the economic challenges, there is a health risk involved. Jeke and his team of workers are afraid to get infected or to spread the disease amongst each other. They wear masks and drink flu mixtures and immune boosters to protect themselves from the coronavirus. 

“We have not done any tests on the farm, because we don’t even know how we can access testing centers. No health practitioners have visited our farms.  The only precautionary measures we practice is drinking flu mixtures and wearing masks.”  

Fortunately, none of his workers have been affected by the virus.  

Safety comes at a cost

According Raymond Koopstad, chairperson of the Partners in Agri Land Solutions (PALS), most of the agricultural businesses are complying strictly to the new regulations. The Witzenberg PALS initiative is a private land reform initiative that was established by the commercial farmers in the Witzenberg district.

Koopstad says all workers have a minimum of two masks and people are sanitising when they arrive at work, before and after meals and even when they move from different workstations. 

Previously there was a shortage in the supply of thermometers, but that has since been resolved and farmers and farm workers are being screened every morning, he says.

“There are fewer workers on the farms because the harvest season has come to an end and therefore no seasonal workers are required, so adhering to social distancing has been a lot easier.” 

Farmers and farmworkers are adhering to travel regulations, but it is weighing heavy on their pockets. 

It now takes several trips to get workers to work on time and that is additional expenditure for the business, Koopstad explains. 

On a farm 45km outside Ceres lies the TSR Boerdery farm where Theo van Rooyen farms with his wife Suse and his partner Raymond Gibson. The pandemic has changed their lives in unimaginable ways. The disease brought fear and anxiety upon Van Rooyen. He feared for his life when covid-19 was first announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa.  

TSR Boedery farm where Theo van Rooyen
Theo van Rooyen, owner of TSR Boerdery farm.

“When the president first spoke about the coronavirus I was shaken because I am over 60 years old and I knew that I was more at risk of not surviving if I were to be affected by the virus,” he says. 

Even in the midst of an outbreak Van Rooyen had to set his fears aside and be strong leader for his farmworkers. He had to convince them to be calm, take it day by day and not run away because they had to continue farming. 

“The biggest challenge I experienced on my farm was telling my farm workers that they could not go to Ceres, which is where the farm workers perform their shopping and banking,” says van Rooyen. 

“This made them angry,” he says. The workers wanted to send money home and buy clothes for their parents and children, but they couldn’t do so. The Eastern Cape farm workers were the ones who were impacted the most by these restrictions.  

After some heavy convincing and when the news broke out about the young lady who died of the coronavirus in Khayelitsha they realised that the disease is serious, and that they should stay at home, Van Rooyen says.

He explains that they were already having a difficult time farming before the pandemic. The novel coronavirus has further exacerbated their condition and is making it a lot harder for them to operate. The new regulations have forced them to grasp new ways of working. “It’s a lot of extra work, but we have to do it,” says Van Rooyen.  

They have had a difficult time adapting to the new transport rules. It meant they had to take a lot more trips to get the workers to work, which cost them a lot more money.  

“This was our biggest challenge. In the morning the farm workers would run and jump on the bakkie to secure their seats, so they could get to work on time. They were not social distancing. We have since resolved this problem by allocating them seats on the bakkie and they are used to it now,” says Van Rooyen. 

For safety, TSR Boerdery screens their workers every morning and provides them with face masks. Farm workers clean their equipment and sanitise their vehicles on a daily basis. The workers also sanitise and wash their hands regularly.  

“It took a lot of time and effort to adjust to the new regulations, but we have had to adopt these new rules to keep our farm workers safe and healthy,” says Van Rooyen.  

Sinesipho Tom
Sinesipho Tom
Sinesipho Tom is an audience engagement journalist at Food for Mzansi. Before joining the team, she worked in financial and business news at Media24. She has an appetite for news reporting and has written articles for Business Insider, Fin24 and Parent 24. If you could describe Sinesipho in a sentence you would say that she is a small-town girl with big, big dreams.
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