The Free State province wants to use the agricultural sector as one of the key drivers for its economic turnaround plan in order to tackle the country’s triple challenges of inequality, poverty and unemployment, which currently stands at 27.6 percent for the country, officially and 34.9 percent for the province. The Weekly’s Martin Makoni asked Agriculture and Rural Development MEC William Bulwane, who recently outlined his plans for the province when he presented his Budget Vote Speech for the 2019/20 financial year, about his key priorities and how he plans to implement them. Makoni also asked Bulwane how the proposed land expropriation without compensation plan was likely to affect production and if people should be worried about losing their land. Excerpts:
What would you say are the key priority areas which you would like to focus on in the coming year as you implement the Provincial Agricultural Master Plan?
I think what is key is to implement Vision 2030 of the NDP (National Development Plan) and also look at how we can transform the agricultural sector or this agricultural economy as part of the mainstream contributors to economic growth. I also think what is key is the issue of land. How do you make sure that those who didn’t have access to land in the past, have it now? Here, I am talking of the expropriation of land without compensation. I think those are the issues you have to look at if you want to transform the agricultural sector. We should also look at how we can support farmers, the farmer support mandate. Our job as government is to support farmers irrespective of whether one is an emerging farmer or the big commercial farmers. When there is a drought, we support everybody and when there are floods, we support everybody… because of the challenges faced by all farmers due to climate change. I also want to look at how we can develop these emerging farmers into large scale commercial farmers. It’s important to know the support they would need to grow. We must give them skills to make sure that they actively participate in the sector. I would also want to see the large scale commercial farmers assisting the emerging farmers with their own resources so that they can lift them to become big players in the industry.
Farmers under the commonage system have been struggling for resources, particularly land and funding, how do you plan to assist them?
Our aim is to make sure that those who are in the communal areas are also developed so that they are also able to produce. Those that are emerging, we also want them to be helped so that they become large scale farmers too. If you go to most commonages, you will find that cows, sheep, pigs and goats are all put in one place. But these animals are affected by different diseases… you have anthrax in cattle and other animals, you have got swine flu in pigs, but they are all being kept together because there is no vision as a result of lack of resources. We want those areas to be developed because we believe that’s where our farmers can be developed from. We want them to own livestock at a commercial level and contribute to the local economy. We are looking into all those things. But corruption remains a problem when we carry out these programmes. I think that is the greatest enemy of development. If we don’t stand up and fight it, we will not get anywhere. That’s why we are so hard on corruption. We want to promote good governance because we are using the resources of government, and that is taxpayers’ money. And also, as a way of fighting hunger and poverty, I would like to encourage people to start small gardens in their backyards where they grow their own vegetables and not always spend money buying such basics.
The proposed land expropriation without compensation is quite an emotive issue, those with land are not prepared to let go, those without, want it urgently. How careful is the government in addressing the issue so that production is not disturbed when the programme is implemented?
I think it is important for us to first understand how the agricultural sector works in order to have that balance where we say, land must be shared amongst those who work it, irrespective of whether they are white or black. The sharing of the land is different from land grabs. Once you grab land, you will distabilise production, and that’s not what we want to do. But through sharing, the land can still produce what it used to produce. The only difference is that there will more people working the land. We want production to continue, that’s why when we start implementing the programme, we will trade carefully. There is a process leading to the actual implementation so that it’s not done haphazardly and disturb production. We still need more from this land. So, all of us must work towards achieving that goal without causing any problems. In fact, what we need to do as a country is to improve agro-processing and value-adding to our products.
The Free State is certainly not doing too well in terms of value adding because just about 11 percent of the agricultural produce from the province is processed before it’s sold on the market, how can that be improved?
Yes, it’s true that we are producing a lot but we are not processing our products before taking them to the markets. One good example is the contribution of the Free State to the beef market. We are only contributing 19 percent, whilst Gauteng, which doesn’t have the land or much cattle, are the biggest beef producers in the country. This is because they take the cattle from us and process it before selling it. We must be adding the value here instead of importing processed beef from them. Most of the abattoirs that we have here don’t even have access to the export market. That’s not right. We have the cattle, so we must expand the scope of production. The Free State needs to get into that particular space, but without disturbing production or the quality of the products.
So, what do you think needs to be done to achieve that? What’s lacking at the present moment in terms of the scope of production?
I think we need to engage ourselves as government and those who are the big producers in order to understand our value chain and what we can do to enhance it. We cannot continue getting everything from outside the province because when those goods land here, they are very expensive, yet they were originally produced here. We have to create that capacity here and meet the required standards so we can access different markets.
If you can please clarify on the issue of land expropriation without compensation; if somebody is considering buying a piece of land right now, should they be worried about this proposed action; will they still have their land three years from now?
What we need to assure everybody, including the white commercial farmers, is that the expropriation of land without compensation doesn’t mean land grabs. It simply means land must be shared amongst those who work it. Those who the land must benefit from it. That’s the assurance we want to give everyone. I was talking to one white man who said he was selling his farm for R45 million with everything on it because he wants to go to Australia. He said he wanted to run away from the land expropriation without compensation. I had to explain the whole concept to him so that he could understand that we don’t want to grab the land, but we want the land to be shared among those who work it. Land can’t be given to somebody who have parties at the farm almost every weekend. We want people who will till the land and produce food out of that land, clothes and so on.
There have been numerous reports of farm worker abuse as well as illegal evictions from the farms, how do you hope to address that?
Land redistribution aims at addressing such issues. We need to get into that space and have a clearer understanding of the situation on the ground. We need to understand the imbalances of the past. There is a lot of disrespect of human dignity among the people who are working on the land. Some of those who have been custodians of the land over the years don’t treat their workers too well. But I believe it’s very important for us to respect each other. We need to have an understanding that we need one another. A farm owner needs a farm labourer to be able to produce, and a farm labourer needs him for their survival. We live in a world of needs, hence we need one another. And if we can have dignity and respect towards one another, we can achieve a lot. We should also remove the politics from the farming environment. We cannot be politicising everything.