Now that the energetic Tina Joemat-Petterssen has moved on to an even more energetic portfolio, all eyes are on the new kids on the block who will head policy decisions with regard to agriculture in future. Will Senzeni Zokwana, the new minister of agriculture and his deputy, Bheki Cele, be key players in president Jacob Zuma’s promise to turn the South African ship in a more radical social-economic transformation direction?

Skepticism regarding their appointment not only focuses on their lack of experience in the agricultural sector. Political analyst, Dr Piet Croucamp, was quoted in the media during the past few days, saying that the appointment of Zokwana is “bad news” for the agricultural sector. According to Croucamp, the minister’s trade union background may spell trouble for agriculture. Until recently he was also chairman of the National Union of Mineworkers. Zokwana is also chairman of the Communist Party and is on record for believing in “radical land reform.”

One could, of course, also pose the question whether it is desirable to have Bheki Cele, who left the big chair of police commissioner under a less than rosy cloud, in the responsible position of deputy minister of the strategic portfolio of agriculture.

But don’t throw away the baby with the bathwater, says Dr John Purchase, CEO of Agbiz. “Let’s be positive and give them a fair chance and see what their plans are.” Purchase is, however, worried that their lack of knowledge of agricultural matters may not result in investor confidence in the sector. “It is unclear why they have been appointed. They may be part of president Zuma’s vision of radical socio-economic transformation,” Purchase said.

Aggrey Mahanjana, secretary general of The African Farmers’ Association of South Africa (Afasa) and group managing director of the National Emergent Red Meat Producers’ Organisation (Nerpo), says he is also surprised about the appointments, as “we expected people with agricultural experience to be appointed to these positions”. He, however, agrees that the new ministers must be given a chance. “Their previous experience with regard to the agricultural sector is not that important. They will have sufficient informed advisors in the department. Their character and leadership abilities are more important, but they must be able to keep an open mind and must be willing to accept guidance and advice from the role-players in the industry. The department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries is a complex department, precisely because it also includes the portfolios of fisheries and forestry and not only agriculture.”

Mahanjana also emphasises that the ministers must find a balance between the interests of commercial and subsistence farmers and that policies should not be biased towards the latter.

“The economy of this country is anchored in commercial agriculture, as this sector is responsible for food security. We are lucky to have such a sector, as many African countries only have subsistence farmers. The subsistence sector, however, should not be ignored, as it plays an important role in feeding people in rural areas. A good balance with regard to policies is therefore important.”

Mahanjana says that he knows Cele from the deputy minister’s time as MEC in KwaZulu-Natal and later as commissioner of police and he believes that Cele will bring a lot of energy to the table.

“Zokwana’s years as a senior member of the labour union movement may also yield a lot of advantages for the agricultural sector. He must have developed a lot of management skills with regard to the dynamics between people, conflict resolution and the economy – amongst other things.”

Mahanjana believes that the minster should be a leader and not an administrator. “Previous ministers sometimes dwelled too much on the nitty-gritty of their departments, such as the appointment of staff members. The minister must leave the administrative matters to the administrators and play the role of a minister who leads the department with a clear vision. There should also be no cliques, nor favouritism towards a specific sector and the ministers must be willing to work with all the role-players in the industry. They have the National Development Plan to guide them,” he says.

Johannes Möller, president of Agri SA, congratulated the ministers on their appointment. “It is a reality that the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries focuses largely on technical issues, with which the new political office bearers are probably not fully familiar. Agri SA is, however, willing and available to provide support in this regard,” says Möller.

Möller said he hoped that the working relationship between Agri SA and the ministry of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, which had improved considerably over time, would continue under the leadership of minister Zokwana. “Agri SA’s focus is primarily on promoting the interests of the agricultural sector and rural communities and it needs a similar focus on the part of political officer bearers in the relevant ministry,” he said.

Möller also referred to the need for good interaction with other ministries. “For obvious reasons, aspects such as rural development, land reform, water and trade matters are also of special interest to the agricultural sector. As in the past, we will have to be closely involved with these ministries and departments. The creation of a ministry of water and sanitation is of particular importance – not only to the agricultural sector, but also to South Africa as a whole. A focus on water quality is crucial, as the country does not have a good record in this regard,” says Möller.

Möller furthermore believes that it is only through a concerted effort that agriculture will be able to fulfil its role as envisaged in the National Development Plan and, more specifically, in terms of food security.

Louis Meintjies, president of TAU SA, said in a statement that he was deeply concerned about the appointment of the two agricultural ministers in question. “Agriculture in South Africa is already under threat with the elimination of free-market principles, such as the willing buyer, willing seller practice and the pressure on private ownership. Being a communist trade unionist, it would most likely mean that the minister’s sympathy will not lie with the interests of farmers. We are afraid that they will receive less support from government. Of course we look forward to be proven wrong,” he said.

In his first media interviews, Zokwana reassured stakeholders that he was not planning to implement new ideas hastily, but said that change in the agricultural sector was imminent. As a first step, he plans to listen to role-players and to debate towards the best solutions for farmers, workers and food security. However, he regards land reform as a priority. Zokwana also said that he believed harmony and effective communication between agricultural organisations is necessary in order to “feed the nation”.

Additional sources: Beeld, 26 and 27 May 2014, Landbou.com, image scource: eNews Channel Africa