By Nkanyiso Gumede
Smallholder farmers and land reform beneficiaries have been greatly affected by the lockdown in South Africa since it began on 26 March 2020. Lockdown meant less mobility for these farmers and a drop in demand for produce, which meant a loss of income. These farmers mainly supply to informal markets, which include bakkie traders, street vendors, hawkers, pension payout points, people buying for traditional ceremonies, and niche markets such as restaurants.
On the other hand, the markets for large-scale commercial farmers remained intact as supermarkets were declared an essential service at the word go of the lockdown. Seven days into the lockdown, on 2 April 2020, the regulations changed—now, informal traders could also trade, but this came with restrictions. Informal traders had to obtain permits, which was difficult since public transport was shut down. Without public transport, these traders had no means to travel to offices to acquire such permits, and the police still harassed those who got permits. This had a spillover effect, as land reform beneficiaries and smallholder farmers then lost access to these informal markets. Other farmers, however, who had tight contracts with supermarkets, never struggled to access markets.
In some provinces, auctions were open for farmers to sell their livestock, but the prices were low. At the same time there were reports that meat prices and other food products prices went up. The auctions were conducted online or in person, but lockdown regulations meant that not more than 50 people could attend. Some farmers decided not to sell, and returned home with their livestock, or they sold it at a loss. One livestock farmer said the following:
“I have cattle. I mainly sell on auctions. They are now online. But prices have declined drastically. Before lockdown you could sell a cow for between R11 000 to R12 000, but now prices range from R8 000 to R9 000. If you sell 10 cattle at R8 000, which otherwise cost R12 000 under normal conditions, you lose about R40 000. The same people that you sell to, then sell that same cattle at twice the amount. This needs to be fixed.”
Relief support and concerns about it
On 6 April 2020, the Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, Thoko, Didiza, announced the Covid-19 relief fund for South Africa’s smallholder farmers and land reform beneficiaries to the tune of R1,2 billion, of which R400 million would be reserved for land reform beneficiaries of the Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy (PLAS) programme, the rest would be allocated for smallholder farmers. Land reform beneficiaries welcomed the initiative but some raised concerns over the amount they would receive from the department—a maximum of R50 000. “The amount will not compensate for the loss that has come with the lockdown. It is too little for someone like me with a herd of 234 cattle, 140 sheep, and 30 goats” said a livestock farmer in the Eastern Cape.
Another concern is the prescriptive nature of the support, which often comes in the form of vouchers which are redeemable for production inputs and medication at pre-selected stores. These vouchers fail to meet the needs of the farmers. As one livestock farmer in KwaZulu-Natal said: “What if I have inputs and medication, and want to use the relief fund to pay my employees? These vouchers need to be flexible and respond to our needs. They must consult us before taking decisions”.
Labour and related issues
Lockdown meant that some workers from some sectors of the economy would be constrained home.
“When the lockdown was announced, I did not know whether we should continue to work on the farm or not. Some of my workers did not come to work because there was no public transport. I did not know whether I could fetch them. This meant that some activities had to stop on the farm. Only those from a nearby village came to work” said one crop and livestock farmer in KwaZulu-Natal.
The opposite was true for commercial farmers. They have workers living on their farms, and they have easy access to information; they knew they were declared essential service and could transport their workers.
Some land reform farmers had to release their workers because lockdown meant there was no income to pay workers from. “I had to release my some of my workers because I am currently not generating any income. It would help if the government’s support came in the form of cash, because I would use the cash to pay my employees,” one farmer said.
Many farm workers received no income, which makes it difficult for them to survive the lockdown. The Women on Farms Project reported that, in the commercial sector, some seasonal workers on grapes and wine farms in the Western Cape were facing a crisis of hunger because they were unable to access unemployment benefits (UIF) since labour centres were closed. Social relief efforts in the form of food parcels also failed to reach farm workers on farms. These were similar problems experienced by workers on land reform farms.
Rise in theft associated with lockdown
Mr Mfundisi who is a land redistribution beneficiary reported incidents of theft, which he associated with the lock down:
“The challenge we face is that people are not at work. They are at home because of the lockdown. Children are not at school. There is no food at home. The food parcels have not been delivered to the people. People are stealing livestock to feed themselves. Sheep are stolen. They are slaughtered in the dongas. You just find the head, feet and the wool (animal skin). Same thing with the cattle. Some are pregnant. They are supposed to give birth in September, but then you only find the insides of the cow and the fetus, and the head if you are lucky. The body is gone. These animals have not been sold, but have been stolen and slaughtered because people are locked in their homes, and they are hungry. Secondly, we pay the farm workers by selling at auctions, but these are now closed. If it is open, there are no customers because we have to observe social distancing. The government’s response is to give us feed… You cannot pay workers with feed, you have to pay them in cash. If you do not pay them, they are going to join the people who steal your livestock in order to feed themselves. The big question is what will you have at the end of the corona pandemic as a farmer?”
It is clear that the government’s failure to distribute social relief support—both cash and food–expeditiously, has a devastating effect for farmers and farm workers. Farmers bear the brunt of such failures when things like theft creeps up. It is therefore crucial that government social relief programmes are expedited and reach all people who are in need.
As we are moving to partial lockdown, it is important that access to markets for land reform beneficiaries is enabled. Farmers suggest that the government must purchase produce from land reform and smallholder farmers through the Covid-19 solidarity fund, and through government procurement in the long term. There are also calls for retailers to adjust their procurement requirements, and to procure their produce from small-scale and land reform farmers. They should also label the produce as such in their shops and ensure that they give farmers competitive prices. There is a need to create reliable and sustainable markets for land reform beneficiaries.
Any relief aimed to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 must be relevant and be based on a thorough consultation with those it targets. It must also be flexible and less prescriptive for it to be effective. Relief support that comes in the form of vouchers other than cash restricts farmers. It fails to offer farmers an opportunity to use the relief support to respond adequately to their needs. The C19-coalition also points to the important fact that some farmers do not use the chemical inputs from commercial agriculture which was provided in the voucher system—they rely on organic inputs sourced from neighbours and small local suppliers. Therefore, cash or flexible vouchers may be a better option for them. If the government is concerned about accountability regarding cash or flexible vouchers, it must come up with ways of ensuring accountability. But that cannot be an excuse for providing support that is irrelevant and ineffective. The government must consider this next time it issues relief.