Political instability and the ongoing effects of the crippling three-year drought are among the biggest challenges facing Eastern Cape farmers but, despite the problems, farming remains the lifeblood of South Africa’s developing economy.
Speaking at the opening of Agri EC’s annual congress in Port Alfred yesterday, president Doug Stern said it was time for farmers to respond positively to the serious challenges facing the agricultural sector and tackle issues such as land reform and food security head-on.
Stern also had strong words about widespread political corruption and state capture, saying that the resulting economic downturn would have serious consequences for consumers in terms of rising food prices and personal debt.
But, he told the 123 delegates, farmers were in the fortunate position of contributing to food security.
“Farming remains the lifeblood of our developing economy. We are open for business and stand for growth and prosperity.”
Stern said political instability had created insecurity in the province’s agricultural sector, but farmers needed to persevere and raise their game by employing sustainable farming and business practices and embracing technology.
“Policy and legislation on issues like land and labour are the prerogative of government at local, provincial and national level,” he said.
“Organisations like Agri EC attempt to influence decision-making on behalf of their members so that they can focus on farming.”
The keynote speaker, television journalist Freek Robinson, reminded farmers that they were not only on the front line of building the economy, but also, more importantly, of improving race relations.
Highlighting recent racial conflicts involving farmers, Robinson said the agricultural sector was uniquely placed to play a key societal role beyond food production.
“Farmers can make a great difference, at the human level, by taking positive action to change the negative sentiments around farmers. You are champions of agriculture and champions of our human dignity and progress as human beings,” he said.
Absa economist Wessel Lemmer said agriculture remained a solid investment, despite the country entering a technical recession.
He said farmers were doing a remarkable job in producing some of the cheapest food worldwide and advised them to focus on technology and bio-security to increase productivity.
However, Agri SA’s development council head Ernest Pringle cautioned delegates about the realities of land reform and said a more proactive and aggressive approach was needed, including legal challenges at national level.
Delegates agreed that the Agri EC council would need to look into funding a “war chest” to assist the national body with future legal challenges.
“Figures show that more land is transferred through the market than through government mechanisms.
“The willing buyer-willing seller principle is working for land reform,” Pringle said.
“But until there is genuine dialogue between the government and organised agriculture, land reform will not happen.”