The South African agriculture sector forms the backbone of South Africa’s economy, but this fact has been largely ignored by government.
It has taken the national crisis created by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic to highlight the industry’s role in bringing stability during uncertain circumstances, according to agricultural economist, Dr Philip Theunissen.
“The biggest risk during such a crisis is that the country might run out of food. Such a situation could potentially result in widespread civil unrest, looting, and even escalate into violence and death. The role of the local agriculture sector can [thus] not be over-emphasised,” he said.
He added that the provision of food was just as important as taking care of health aspects during the pandemic.
This was underpinned by a World Health Organization statement that said care needed to be taken to minimise the potential impact on the food supply, or unintended consequences on global trade and food security.
According to him, certain negative perceptions about farmers in South Africa were changing rapidly now that consumers were faced with the reality of the importance of food security.
It seemed as if the COVID-19 pandemic had “made it politically correct” to call on the country’s farmers to continue food production in the midst of the global health threat, he said.
Pierre Vercueil, Agri SA president, said government was failing “to openly acknowledge” the role all farmers in the country had been playing in mitigating the effects of the pandemic to date.
He said President Cyril Ramaphosa was on record as expressing gratitude to farmworkers without any mention of farmers themselves.
Vercueil pointed out that farmers and their workers were doing exceptional things under very exceptional farming conditions.
“The disregard of the state was also expressed by the fact that commercial farmers, such as the drought-stricken producers in the Northern Cape, were excluded from the R1,2 billion that was ring-fenced for financially distressed small-scale farmers. This is unacceptable.”
Political analyst Prof Andre Duvenhage, said it was clear that the country’s political leaders remained motivated by the needs of their constituencies, even in the midst of the pandemic.
So far, public approval or indebtedness from the side of the state for the agricultural industry was painfully lacking, he said.
“The 40 000 commercial farmers in the country should be lauded and praised for the [consistency] and [stability] they bring under these challenging circumstances.
“However, the time had come for the industry to start marketing itself [directly] to consumers to create awareness of the vital role it plays in the local economy and the wellbeing of individuals.”