By Lilian Schaer, Agri-Food Project Services Ltd.
This is one of my favourite shots from a morning game drive in Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s largest game reserves at approximately 4.8 million acres and home to the Big Five: lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffalos.
Lady Luck smiled on me this spring – twice, in fact. Not only was the IFAJ congress held in South Africa this year, a country that has long been on my travel bucket list, but I was fortunate enough to receive an AAEA PIF stipend to help me get there.
South Africa is a fascinating country of contrasts and challenges, but also of beauty and of opportunity. Here are seven things I learned about South Africa:
Many jobs that are mechanized in North American farm businesses are still done by hand in South Africa – high unemployment means labour is affordable and abundant.
Africa will be feeding Africa in the future – Africa’s population is predicted to double by 2050, creating a huge demand for food. The President of the Pan African Farmers’ Organization, Theo de Jager, and others firmly believe Africa has the potential to feed itself, citing the entrepreneurial spirit and competitiveness of South African farmers, who are among the least subsidized in the world. After the economic downturn slowed trade with Europe, South Africa set about expanding its network on the continent. Already, more than 50% of South Africa’s ag exports now go into other African countries.
Job creation trumps mechanization – South Africa’s unemployment is high, with unofficial numbers pegging it as high as 40%. The abundance of affordable labour means large parts of South African agriculture are still unmechanized, even at modern, large-scale commercial operations like an avocado and tomato farm we toured that had hundreds of employees.
Cecil was just a lion – Much of the Western world railed against the shooting of Cecil the lion two years ago by a game hunter. Not so in South Africa, however, where game farming is big business and a whole industry has grown up around game reserves, game breeding and game hunting. It provides a profitable purpose for land that can’t be farmed, we heard, and actually helps preserve species population and genetic diversity.
Land reform isn’t working – After the fall of Apartheid in 1994, the South African government embarked on a project of land reform: returning ancestral lands to black South Africans who had been dispossessed generations before. Although some land has changed hands, the program is far from a success. White farmers are left without land and new black landowners are often without the skills or support they need to learn how to manage their new farm properly. Some entrepreneurial white farmers have built unique partnerships with new black landowners such as working collaboratively to farm the land and establishing contracts to buy and market their products.
Gated and fenced entrances like this one are common on South African farms – rural crime, especially murder, is a serious threat to farmers in the country.
Farming can kill you – There’s been a dramatic spike in white farm murders in South Africa in 2017, averaging about one farmer (called boers in Afrikaans) brutally tortured and killed per day. But farm murders in South Africa aren’t new, unfortunately, so security companies, fences, barbed wires and warning systems usually reserved for prisons are the norm on many South African farms.
The past is the present – almost 25 years after the end of Apartheid, the scars and remnants of the past are never far from the surface. There are still few black farm leaders and managers on South Africa’s large commercial operations, for example, and unemployment remains disproportionately high amongst black South Africans. And to me, a shocking reminder of the lingering race history happened at a farm we visited where we were asked to sign in using one of their company sign-in forms. This is a form they normally used for their employee training programs – in addition to asking name, email, country and gender, they also asked race.
The magic of nature – Sitting in a safari truck at dawn watching an elephant emerge from the bushes onto our gravel road in Kruger Park was magical and a moment I will remember for the rest of my life.
Thanks PIF and AAEA!