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How black farmers are constrained by state corruption in eastern Free State

In the shadow of the Vrede dairy farm saga, the struggling farmers on redistributed land in eastern Free State are neglected by the state, and forced to lease out greater proportions of arable land to white commercial farmers due to the lack of grain production machinery. Whilst their arable land is leased out to white commercial farmers, they focus on less capital-intensive livestock enterprises (cattle and sheep) for survival.

The struggling farmers are aware of current state support mechanisms such as ‘recapitalisation funding’ and other forms of support such as mechanization, as well as drought, and fire relief packages, available for black commercial farmers. However, the distribution of such state support is problematic. Research findings from a survey of 62 farms in eastern Free State conducted by myself suggest that only a few politically connected farmers in that part of the country are major beneficiaries of state support, and most of the struggling farmers are aware of that, and have actually raised it as a challenge in “farmers day” meetings, in the presence of state officials and the African Farmers’ Association of South Africa (AFASA) leaders, to receive disempowering responses from authorities

AFASA leaders, such as the provincial Free State AFASA President, Mr Mbhele blame the struggling farmers for not joining AFASA and National Emerging Red Meat Producers Organisation (NERPRO), which bars them from economic opportunities, and state support. Somehow, the AFASA leaders associate such withdrawal behavior on the part of struggling farmers with “parasitism” – i.e. another way of saying the struggling farmers are “pathetic and unable to help themselves, they just sit on their farms and wait for state resources”. Indeed, that is how flamboyant “farmers day” meetings become.

Instead of recruiting farmers into AFASA, the provincial Free State AFASA President is occasionally seen from farm to farm, negotiating rental agreements with struggling farmers for his own expanded reproduction, as other successful farmers in the eastern Free State. Against this backdrop, fueled by competition for accumulation, AFASA leaders have apparently become unpopular amongst struggling farmers in the same locality as shown in the table below.

Involvement of farmers in farmer associations (n=62)

 

Freq.

%

 

AFASA

7

11

 

NERPRO

Both

Non-Participant

3

18

34

5

29

55

 

 

Total

62

100

One of the passive resistance strategies used by struggling farmers against powerful AFASA leaders is ‘boycotting’ AFASA conferences, and marches, such as the AFASA 2016 march to the state President’s office, as well as non-renewal of AFASA membership, even in cases where formal invitations have been received by struggling farmers. Struggling farmers point out that their voices are belittled and ignored in national demonstrations of AFASA, which tend to elevate the views of the most prominent farmers within AFASA.

During interviews the struggling farmers spoke quite strongly against AFASA leaders on the basis of ‘state neglect’. Below are some of their voices:

“I am not a member of any farmers’ organization because there are no benefits. There is corruption. It’s a waste of time. Only a selected few get benefits in farmers’ organizations”.

“AFASA leaders take everything for themselves. Every year they get [farming] inputs [from the state], but do not redistribute to struggling farmers”.

“AFASA leaders sell state resources. They are corrupt. They offered me 300 bags of fodder [which was intended to be drought relief for struggling farmers] for R66 000, and I declined the offer. In the past, state support went to white farmers, and little went towards black farmers. But today, state support goes to ANC comrades. I’ve never received anything from the ANC government. This is institutionalized corruption, from local to provincial, and all the way to national government”.

“The owner of Qwaqwa Stars [football team] gets everything for his farm near Van Reenen. It is the politically connected that get state support for farming. State support should come to us directly, not via farmer representatives”.

The main reason struggling farmers opt to lease out arable land to white commercial farmers is the lack of farming implements such as high capacity grain production machinery, so crucial for expanded grain production.

“When Ace Magashule was the MEC for Agriculture [in Free State province] he arranged 2 tractors for us, a group of 25 farmers. We had to pay R130 in order to hire a tractor from that arrangement. But those farmers with bigger farms captured those tractors. We were paying, but we still could not access the tractors; and I chose to dropout of that scheme and purchased my own tractor, even though it is a very old tractor”.

Elite capture of state sponsored resources, such as farm equipment [tractors, and other implements], as well as state sponsored drought, and fire relief packages illuminate the contradictions of the distribution of public goods, and the irony of capitalist production inherently fueled by competition, as leaders of farmer organizations such as AFASA, who are themselves farmers, are accused of corruption by struggling farmers. Some struggling farmers emphasize that state resources should come directly to them, and not via farmer representatives.

Nonetheless, some, though very few i.e. only 6, in a sample of 62 farmers in the eastern Free State received state support in the form of recapitalization funding from 2016 – 2017, and the latter have seen major changes in their farming enterprises in terms of productivity, but such cases are very rare, and not without problems. For example, Farmer A who had been renting out a bigger proportion of arable fields (70%), had the remaining proportion (30%) of arable land planted with maize through recapitalization funding from the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR), after almost 20 years of not planting anything at all, due to the lack of high capacity grain production machinery.

However, there are contradictions that have been observed by struggling farmers in the manner ‘recapitalisation funding’ is structured. For example, the type of crop choice (maize in the above case) was not the best choice in terms of price fluctuations i.e. the maize prices for 2016 and 2017 were low [e.g. down to R1600.00 per tonne]. But those farmers that produced beans, for example, made a profit [e.g. R14 000.00 per tome] or managed to successfully reproduce themselves as capital, yet state support in the form of ‘recapitalisation funding’ only focused on maize, which was an unfortunate coincidence for struggling farmers, which leaves one to question the involvement of agribusiness as mentors, and advisers in ‘recapitalisation’ state support, i.e. were they not able to advice struggling farmers and the state about future maize prices given the availability of information at their disposal? 

Grain SA, the main mentoring partner for the dissemination of state funded recapitalization support in the eastern Free State, suggested using its own bank account for the maize sales income of the beneficiaries, to make sure that the struggling farmers reinvest it back into their farming enterprises, as per contract with DRDLR. The latter has raised serious concerns amongst the beneficiaries, and some have ‘obstinately’ pushed for the maize sales income to be deposited directly into their bank accounts by AFGRI, for investment in other farm enterprises, such as beef cattle. Grain SA has attempted to stop these actions of ‘side-investing’, with failure. At least one of the farmers has invested 100% of the maize sales income into beef cattle at a cost of R421 000 for a herd of 25, plus 1 bull. Such action was a direct response to the problems of recapitalization support geared towards grain production (and unprofitable maize in particular). Farmer X views investment in beef cattle a much better outcome for his family farm enterprise than grain production for all its problems associated with capital intensiveness.

The DRDLR, by focusing on grain production, is only trying to revive grain production on the arable land of struggling farmers who had hitherto been forced to hire out greater proportions, or 100% of their arable fields to efficient grain producers, the white farmers. But the state ‘recapitalisation’ project has been undermined by unforeseen circumstances such as service cost inflation by service providers (or agribusiness), and the generally low prices associated with maize, the recommended crop by mentors/agribusiness.

It remains unclear how the Free State provincial AFASA President became one of the beneficiaries of the 2016 – 2017 ‘recapitalisation’ funding for his private farm, against the backdrop of more deserving struggling farmers in the eastern Free State, who are in a far worse economic position than the incumbent Free State provincial AFASA President. The Free State AFASA President has a 260ha farm in eastern Free State, where he currently resides and farms on a full-time basis, after resigning from his teaching job, and selling his taxi business, to farm full-time on a farm he purchased through Land Bank for R100 000. He currently farms with sheep, beef cattle, dairy, and grain (maize for silage/dairy feeds); and is one of those farmers who received recapitalisation funding in the year 2016 - 2017. He forms part of the 29% of black farmers in the eastern Free State who can be categorized as ‘successful reproducers, and accumulators’ in relative terms.

Even though recapitalization funding support from DRDLR is progressive for the struggling farmers under study, however, it is undermined by fluctuating maize prices, which leaves the struggling farmers without profit from maize sales. Other local grains (dry beans, soya, wheat or sunflower) could have been more remunerative for the supported struggling farmers.

Where service providers are contracted by the state to provide services such as planting and harvesting where recapitalization funding has been made available to struggling farmers, the tendency is the inflation of costs for services offered, which could be interpreted as corruption or elite capture in the collusion between the state, agribusiness, and mentors.

The ‘recapitalisation’ funding in that part of the country has not been immune to the elite capture by AFASA leaders, for their own private farms. The current and former Free State AFASA President are not the only political leaders involved in the latter, in that part of the country.

Other than recapitalization funding towards grain production for struggling farmers mentioned above, some farmers in the eastern Free State have received some support through NERPRO. The latter include loans towards mechanization, and accumulation of the promoted bonsmara beef cattle herds in particular. Consequently, some struggling farmers have seen positive changes brought by the support from NERPRO. For example Farmer D received 20 bonsmara beef cattle not so long ago, and this had increased to 50 heads by September 2017, which shows a significant increase of the beef cattle herd as a result of state support in the form of a loan from NERPRO. During the interview the same farmer (Farmer D) stated that: “We sold some of these cattle to pay-off the Land Bank loan for the farm”. The income from minimum beef cattle sales goes a long way towards meeting the living expenses of the Farmer D household members, living on and off-farm.

But, in the eastern Free State, state support is fragmented, and not all struggling farmers have received it, yet some are members of NERPRO, and AFASA. A much more diverse, comprehensive and transparent support structure is needed than the current random hierarchical support structure witnessed in that part of the country. The current farmer support structure in the eastern Free State is laden with contradictions.

Conclusion

The problem of ‘state neglect’ and ‘elite capture’ of state resources by the rural elite in South Africa’s land reform has been observed in the eastern Free State as well. In that part of the country, the struggling farmers who are neglected by the state and the rural elite can see these inequalities in their rural landscapes, and have responded, through passive resistance strategies, by way of distancing themselves from farmers’ organizations, and have openly accused political rural leaders of corruption, and state neglect in “farmers day” meetings, to receive disempowering responses from authorities.

Against this backdrop, the collective resistance capacity of the struggling farmers is further undermined by a generalized crisis of survival they currently face as poor farmers, as well as by the individualism they have to adapt, and internalize, as aspirant accumulators in order stay competitive in commercial agriculture. It is very hard for them to organize themselves as a collective voice.

It is recommendable that the ‘political will’ energy that is evident in ‘elite capture’ strategies of the rural elite, has to be shifted towards supporting the more deserving constituency of struggling farmers in that part of the country, and beyond. In that way there could be increased productivity on farms owned by struggling farmers, towards the same, if not more, productivity levels as witnessed on successful farm enterprises owned by differentiated categories of successful farmers. It has been observed that where state support has been received, regardless of whether through corruption or not, farm productivity increases, and there are greater chances of re-investment, and sustainability. This illuminates that there is more room for ‘political will’ on the part of state actors to support a broader, more deserving constituency of struggling farmers on recently redistributed land in South Africa.

Mnqobi Ngubane is a PhD student at PLAAS, working on farm production dynamics on redistributed land in eastern Free State province.

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