Melanie Verwoerd: Food or SAA? Time for government to prioritise

2019-12-04 05:00

Very few of us would notice if SAA didn’t exist any more. However, if our food production stops or even just slows down dramatically, it will affect every single one of us – especially the poor, writes Melanie Verwoerd

Last week I was in Oudsthoorn, where I addressed a large group of farmers. Having grown up with grandparents who were farmers, I love these types of events. 

Farmers are people of the earth. They are straightforward and you always know where you stand with them.

They are also proud and the men in particularly don’t easily show emotion. This is why it broke my heart when they started to talk about the devastating effect of the drought on their farming.

A number of them struggled to contain tears as they talked about the desperation they felt.

As bad as it is, the Klein Karoo is still slightly better off than other parts of South Africa. According to the Weather Bureau we are experiencing the worst drought since 1992.

Almost all provinces are affected to some degree.

When you live in urban areas, it is hard to understand the effect of this, unless of course the taps start running dry. It is only when you see the carcasses of animals that fell because they could no longer walk, when there is only dust as far as the eye can see, when farmers well up when they talk about having to kill livestock – that you realise how big the crisis is.

Although government has allocated some money for drought relief it is a drop in the ocean (or perhaps we should rather say desert). This year the state allocated R260 million to help offset the effects of the drought, but even the President acknowledged that this was “woefully inadequate”.

He has now appealed to other levels of government – in particular local government to see how they can assist. The problem is that most of the towns worst affected by drought – are also in severe financial crisis.

The provinces are also falling short. The Eastern Cape government made R74m available for drought relief, but according to the MEC for rural development and agrarian reform, Nomakhosazana Meth, about R643m is actually needed.

In the Western Cape, the government allocated R50m for emergency relief, but estimate that R147m is urgently required.

However, we are hearing very little about the drought and if we do there is not really a sense of urgency from government – unlike all the talk around SAA over the past few weeks.

I understand the emotional attachment to a national carrier. I also agree that workers should not have to pay for the mismanagement of the Board and political cronies over the past few years.

However, the fact is that according to a SAA financial report for the year ending in March 2018, it suffered a R5.4 billion loss, with the company’s liabilities exceeding its assets by around R13 billion.

Another presentation showed a loss of more than R5 billion in the year ending March 2019.

It is also estimated that the government has bailed SAA out with as much as R57 billion since 1994 and if it does not want to see the airline go under, will have to spend many more billions on it soon.

So this is where I start wondering about priorities. Surely it is more important at this stage to ensure food production and security, than having an ailing national carrier?

SAA has around 5 000 employees, compared to the estimated 2.88 million households (or 19.9% of the population) involved in agriculture as farmworkers (according to Stats SA’s 2011 census).

The Western Cape department of agriculture has estimated that already more than 33 000 jobs have been lost in the Western Cape alone due to the drought.

That is more than six times the whole staff component of SAA – only in the Western Cape. Although it would be sad if there are job cuts at the airline, many would be able to find work at other airlines.

Farmworkers on the other hand have no other alternatives.

Something needs to be done urgently. There are about 40 000 commercial farmers in South Africa – each one feeding, on average, 1 375 people.

Very few of us would notice if SAA didn’t exist any more. However, if our food production stops or even just slows down dramatically, it will affect every single one of us – especially the poor.

Let us also not forget that agriculture is one of the two key sectors that government has identified for job creation.

Back in Oudtshoorn, at the end of the meeting, an elderly man got up slowly.

He leaned heavily on his kierie as he turned around to address the younger farmers.

At times tearful, he encouraged them to keep hope and not to give up.

His final words moved me deeply.

“Julle moet bid, maar julle moet ook aanhou spit”. (You must pray, but you must also keep digging.)

Farmers don’t easily give up, but government needs to answer their prayers.

Not only for their sake, but for all of us who need their food to survive.

– Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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