Black farmers ‘losing hope’ as R500m project collapses

DA Eastern Cape leader Athol Trollip says all the country's colleges need to be recapitalised
DA Eastern Cape leader Athol Trollip says all the country’s colleges need to be recapitalised

A R500-MILLION project aimed at assisting emerging black farmers is on the brink of collapse.

In June 2010 President Jacob Zuma handed over 85 new tractors to the Maibuyele Emasimini (“back to the fields”) project in Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal to encourage small-scale farming.

But in Mpumalanga, of the 32 new tractors allocated to Dr J S Moroka Municipality, only six are running. The rest have broken down due to lack of maintenance.

Tractor drivers in Machiding, who battle to get diesel or to fix broken tractors, went on strike early this month due to non-payment of salaries.

In Mmametlhake and Marapyane areas, more than 30 farmers missed planting 65ha of sunflower seed this season as 17 tractors allocated to their area were either broken down or had no fuel.

The African Farmers’ Association of SA reports that in KwaZuluNatal alone, 185 000ha of once-productive redistributed land is standing idle as farmers wait to benefit from the project.

The collapse of the initiative comes against the backdrop of government proposals requiring commercial farmers to give half of their farms to workers and to limit individual ownership of land to 12 000ha, and the neglect of the country’s agricultural colleges being raised in parliament and acknowledged by Agriculture Minister Senzeni Zokwana.

Annette Steyn, a member of parliament’s agriculture portfolio committee, said the state of colleges countrywide did not augur well for the government’s ambitious plan to support emerging black farmers. Disintegrating infrastructure and staff shortages were undermining the supply of trained agricultural extension officers, who were supposed to provide farmer support, Steyn said.

Emerging farmer Abios Maloka said that last season 25ha of maize crops went had gone to waste as they were planted too late because the fields had not been ploughed in time.

“Instead of assisting farmers, [the programme] brought devastation and hopelessness. Before, we would plan in advance to get their fields ploughed, but we were given a false sense of hope.

“Now we are sitting with heaps of fertiliser and seed that has not been used.”

Job Mthombeni, Mpumalanga president of the African Farmers’ Association of SA, said his organisation had raised concerns with Agriculture MEC Andries Gamede about the collapse of the project.

At first, he said, the project ran efficiently, the shortage of tractors being the only problem.

In November, the department took over management of the project.

“Since then we [have been] getting complaints about tractors breaking down, not ploughing in time for planting and drivers not being paid.

“This has cost farmers lots of money and many have abandoned their farms. We met the MEC last month. He asked us to collect detailed information about the [problems],” he said.

The association’s KwaZuluNatal president, Mandla Mthembu, said the tractors should have been given to farmers, not to the provincial departments.

“You cannot drive a tractor like a taxi, at a high speed over a long distance with a plough. That is why they are breaking down. Maintenance costs escalate.

“Mismanagement has destroyed the [project’s] good intentions,” he said.

Agriculture Department spokesman Bheki Nyathikazi failed to respond to detailed questions sent on Thursday.

Yesterday, he promised to get communications head Zanele Shabangu to comment as she was his senior.

But Shabangu said Nyathikazi was “the right person to speak to”.

DA Eastern Cape leader Athol Trollip said all of the country’s colleges needed to be recapitalised, including acclaimed institutions like Grootfontein at Middelburg, Elsenburg in Stellenbosch and Cedara near Howick in KwaZuluNatal.

He said colleges should play a vital role in the much-needed transfer of agricultural skills.

But he said he was encouraged by signs of political willingness to address the situation.

-Sipho Masombuka and Bobby Jordan

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