Viewpoint: Agriculture and Mining in South Africa

Four years ago my wife and I went to the Richtersveld with friends and on the way home we decided to visit Port Nolloth – we hadn’t been before and were curious to see the town. We parked close to the harbour to have lunch. Nearby there was a pile of discarded building material where about 10 men were searching for scrap metal; one miner approached us and politely asked if they could have leftovers from our lunch.  We gave them what we had and they ate immediately, obviously hungry.

After lunch we took a drive to see what the town was like. We were disappointed. It was run down and scruffy, the overall impression was one of poverty. And then it dawned on us – over the years quantities of high-value raw diamonds and crayfish may have come through the port but precious little money has stayed behind to benefit the locals, it all passes further up the value chain to big cities like Johannesburg and London. The same could be said about Klienzee on the west coast which mined diamonds – we visited about 20 years ago and were welcomed to a thriving town, now there is nothing.

Two years ago we went birding at Nylstroom and from there drove through to Waterberg past Rustenberg to Kimberley , the heart land of South African coal and platinum mining. The whole area looked depressed. The roads were a mess and lined with huge squatter camps. How could such obvious poverty be present in the centre of a thriving industry? South Africa has been criticized for not taking advantage of the commodity or mineral boom, but if this is what minerals do for a country (are we suffering from Dutch disease?) surely it would be better to keep our resources underground, and when the rest of the world runs out, get a decent price?

The recent news has been full of the poor working conditions at the Lonmin mines –  at least with tunnelling a lot of people are employed. With open cast mining (iron and coal) very few people are on sight – it’s all big machines – so very little wealth is pumped into the community. And clearly the mine companies don’t want to spend more than the bare minimum on housing for their staff because when the mine runs out the houses are dead capital (like Kleinzee). When mines closes many people lose their work and, often, the only way to make ends meet is illegal mining – we all know how many people have been killed in the last few years.

At the edge of the Excelsior farm there is a high hill overlooking the valley; Robertson, Bonnievale and Ashton. It is a beautiful view –  rows of vines and orchards stretching before you with the meandering river running through it and the backdrop of the mountains. The farmsteads looks neat and tidy but so do the groups of farm worker cottages and gardens dotted around – the whole image is harmonious and restful.

Direct agriculture represents c. 3% of GDP but, according to the Department of Agriculture at Stellenbosch, if you include food processing, packaging, transport etc (which happens in South Africa) agriculture contributes 15% of GDP. Mining contribute 8% to GDP and the overwhelming majority of raw materials (diamonds, platinum, iron, coal etc) are exported for others to add value and make a profit. Why don’t we add value in South Africa?

There seems to be a fashion for criticizing the agricultural community. In the Western Cape, farmers do much to look out for and invest in those they employ ; housing is generally of high standard and agriculture creates a lot of jobs in rural areas where educational achievement is very limited and the options for employment even more so. In our area there are huge farming factories, pack sheds, wineries and a booming tourism industry, all of which sustains the community. At Excelsior we are proud to have 3rd generation people who choose to work with us. We strive to support our community by providing educational opportunities so that today’s children have a choice of future careers.

Why does the government not force industries to add value and invest in the communities that support them? Instead of raping the country for raw materials, perhaps the mining industry could learn from the agricultural industry – add value and invest in the community; job provision, decent housing and education.  Surely South African industries should be supporting and investing in the communities they work with to provide sustainable industries with jobs for the future not just making a quick buck and running for the hills.

Freddie de Wet, Owner, Excelsior

September 19 update: Marikana Truth

The New Age: Mine Shooting Bloodbath

Times Live: Lonmin deaths regrettable

Business Day: Lonmin stuck between rock and hard place

South Africa. inf: South African agriculture

OECD: Agriculture Policy Reform in South Africa

Mining Weekly: Mining and Agriculture can create jobs

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