Agri SA has called on President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare a state of emergency in KwaZulu-Natal and to empower the police and defence force to restore law and order in the province.
“KwaZulu-Natal is a very big and important producer of agricultural products and vital for food security in SA,” says Christo van der Rheede, executive director of Agri SA.
“In addition, the Durban port is vital for the export of agricultural produce and a lot of large producers have warehouses in the area to facilitate exports.
“The unrest is also hampering the distribution of necessary products farmers need to produce and package products,” says Van der Rheede, adding that the closure of oil refineries in the area might lead to petrol and diesel shortages.
In fact, the largest oil refinery in SA, the South African Petroleum Refineries (Sapref), has already announced the temporary closure of its refinery in Durban due to the unrest. Sapref produces more than a third of SA’s fuel, with the Automobile Association saying that its closure might lead to fuel shortage “within days”.
‘Serious threat’ to food security and exports
Van der Rheede says that the “criminal conduct is affecting agriculture amid the peak citrus production season, with large volumes of citrus – to the value of approximately R592 million – having to be transported weekly to the Durban harbour”.
“Any disruption could lead to financial losses for producers and will prevent the products from reaching international markets on time.
“The looting of shops, stoning of cars, blocking of roads and the burning of trucks and crops, as well as theft of livestock, are posing a serious threat to food security in the country.
“SA runs the risk of people not being able to buy or access food,” says Van der Rheede, adding that there are already reports of food shortages in KwaZulu-Natal.
“The situation South Africa is experiencing at present no longer has anything to do with peaceful protest but is being exploited to destroy the country’s infrastructure and threaten the lives of ordinary citizens,” says Van der Rheede.
Cane fields burnt, sugar mills shut
Reports of the burning of sugar cane plantations and other crops have been confirmed, as well as the hijacking of trucks.
Abigail Moyo, spokesperson of trade union Uasa, says the union is “devastated” by the closure of KwaZulu-Natal sugar mills as a consequence of the violence and looting in the province.
“We are concerned about union members employed on sugar cane farms who may lose their jobs if nothing is done to bring the situation under control.
“Approximately 300 000 tons of cane has been lost to arson during the current protests,” says Moyo.
“The local sugar industry was under threat from international imports over the last few years and now, just as the sector was stabilising through the interventions of farmers and government, they have to face the threat from fellow South Africans.
“We also urge South African to keep the welfare of fellow citizens in mind before engaging in mindless violence and looting,” says Moyo.
“We need to stand together as a nation; not destroy what we have achieved since democracy.”
Uasa has also pledged its support to government and called on authorities to get the situation in KwaZulu-Natal (and Gauteng) under control.
“The unrest and looting are already costing the country more than it can afford,” Uasa warned in an urgent release sent to 116 media outlets and news services.
“We fear massive job losses which may lead to further unrest.”
Tongaat Hulett, SA’s largest sugar producer with vast plantations in KwaZulu-Natal, reported on Wednesday that it has closed all of its sugar mills in the province.
Tongaat had published its latest annual financial results only 48 hours earlier, with management saying that it looked forward to catching up on milling and refining sugar cane left standing from the previous year after Covid-19 restrictions limited milling throughput.
The importance of Tongaat to the province can be seen in the fact that the company employs more than 3 100 people in SA, almost all of them in KwaZulu-Natal.
It produces around R6 billion worth of sugar in SA and, according to its latest annual report, spends nearly R100 million per annum on social projects – again mostly in KwaZulu-Natal.
KZN and the greater economy
KwaZulu-Natal is important in SA and for SA from an economic point of view.
According to figures from Statistics SA, the province produces around 16% of the country’s output and is the largest contributor to gross domestic product after Gauteng and the Western Cape.
Agriculture is especially important.
The province produces a wide range of crops and livestock – ranging from sugar cane, pineapples and vegetables to sheep, cattle and chicken.
It produces more than 600 000 tons of maize per annum. This is only some 5% of the country’s total maize production, but it still amounts to a lot of plates of food.
Figures also show that KwaZulu-Natal and its people cannot afford the destruction of property and infrastructure, especially the loss of farms and food. A survey measuring the importance of agriculture by Stats SA found that 18% of households in the province are involved in the agricultural sector.
In addition, the area has a big population. The latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey from Stats SA puts the adult population at 7.29 million, with the majority – some 4.75 million adults – staying in rural areas. Fewer than 2.5 million of the population are employed, with one million classified as unemployed and 3.8 million classified as not active in the economy.
The province’s expanded unemployment rate increased to 46.4% in the first quarter of 2021 compared to 43% a year ago.
The unemployment rate in KwaZulu-Natal is among the highest of all the provinces in SA, just less than the Eastern Cape (49.6%) and Limpopo (47.5%).
It is clear that looters, protesters and instigators cannot afford to damage the economy any further.
Consequences of inaction
“This will lead to hunger and starvation on a national scale, which in turn [could] fuel even more social unrest and mayhem.
“It is clear that criminals have no regard for law and order and that they will loot, destroy and steal non-stop until there is nothing left.
“SA is a constitutional state, and our Constitution places a constitutional obligation on the state to protect its citizens against such criminality,” he says, reiterating his call for a national state of emergency.
Listen to Nompu Siziba’s interview with Agbiz economist Wandile Sihlobo in March (or read the transcript here):