THE BLOG
06/03/2018 09:44 SAST | Updated 06/03/2018 10:47 SAST

Farming Sector Must Absorb More Black Agriculture Graduates

In 2017, South Africa experienced the agricultural sector taking the country out of recession during the toughest times.

Siphiwe Sibeko/ Reuters

The agricultural sector plays a strategic role in the economy of South Africa. The sector is dubbed the strongest on the continent, worth about $15-billion (R174-billion) to the annual GDP. This is thanks to the sector's energetic, innovative and hard-working farmers, who continue to maintain the sector's power as international role players.

According to the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries (DAFF), agriculture accounts for 2.5 percent of GDP, with forestry accounting for just 0.4 percent and fisheries 0.1 percent.

In 2017, it was agriculture that dragged the country out of recession, at a time when the economy was being downgraded with resultant vulnerabilities in the rand. This ultimately shifted the economic balance in the country.

Accordingly, the sector has to continue to play a role in feeding the domestic market of 55-million consumers, despite pertinent challenges such as drought, policy uncertainty and land reform, among others. In 2014, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimated that 1.09-million people were employed by the sector.

At the same time, it is acknowledged that in 2017 South Africa experienced a number of jobs being shed in agriculture owing to various factors including bird flu, drought, and armyworm.

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

Notwithstanding the challenges facing the sector, there is a widely shared hope in the industry emanating from different role players. President Cyril Ramaphosa in his recent speeches gives hope to the industry and its future. Agriculture is expected to do more in South Africa.

The National Development Plan states that agriculture could create nearly 1-million jobs by 2030. In past years the realisation of this has seemed impossible to even approach, let alone viable reach. Despite the resolution of the ANC conference towards land reform, the president has maintained stability by insisting that the implementation of that goal won't be done in a manner that destroys the production cycle and therefore the economy.

Agriculture in South Africa is expected to tackle inequality, unemployment and the social exclusion of minorities derived from the country's history. Without a doubt, the private-sector leadership in South African agriculture needs to reshape and refocus their operations and be more inclusive, for the sector to achieve what the NDP envisages.

Yes, the sector's potential and strength is unquestionable and is widely reported in black and white, but there are things that the sector fails to tackle – particularly the private sector, which might be a threat to future stability.

This situation by the agricultural private sector in South Africa, if not looked at by agriculture managers, will have negative effects in a sector which seeks inclusive growth.

The slow rate of absorption of agricultural graduates by the sector, in particular, those from previously disadvantaged agricultural universities and colleges, is a worrying concern. According to Kriel (2015), South Africa has a surplus of 15,571 vacant agriculture professional jobs available. He says that each year these posts are filled by fewer than 3,000 students.

Also, a recent study by Mlungisi Mama that was reported in Farmers Weekly suggests that there are few agricultural blacks graduating with agricultural-related degrees. Mama observed that "at the University of Stellenbosch, the number of black students graduating with a bachelor's degree in agriculture is on average only slightly more than 20 per annum, compared with about 140 white students per year. This indicates that the white students see the potential and value that the sector offers".

On the flipside, the University of Fort Hare, which is also known for its agricultural contributions to research and producing good agricultural graduates, produces a more significant number of agricultural graduates each year, and some because of their quality and potential are enrolled for their postgraduate studies at universities such as the University of Stellenbosch (SU), the University of Pretoria (UP), the University of Free State (UFS) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).

In all these universities that they are in, I doubt there is any supervisor or lecturer questioning their potential. How is it possible then, that the agricultural private sector, which according to Kriel has a large number of vacant posts, is unable to absorb these promising graduates from previously disadvantaged schools?

Currently the sector is facing a lot of political instability due to its historic ownership patterns.

As we speak, many agricultural graduates are changing professions due to the failure of the sector to absorb them. This situation by the agricultural private sector in South Africa, if not looked at by agriculture managers, will have negative effects in a sector which seeks inclusive growth.

At the same time, the sector is facing a lot of political instability, due to its historic ownership patterns. But I believe this will become a thing of the past if the sector can do more to change its employment-population demographics in the next five to 10 years.

It is important that the managers who share the values of an inclusive South Africa rise above these challenges and build a nonracial agricultural sector. The new president has promised a more united country. He and the other more progressive members of our society will want to see more agricultural-sector managers supporting him, instead of always criticising.

Rogan Ward / Reuters
Rogan Ward / Reuters

In 2018, the country will celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of our first democratic president, Nelson Mandela. We as the black agricultural graduates appeal to the private agriculture sector to do more, or if they cannot, to please explain to us what the problems are, so we can begin tackling them together.

We have the skills and the qualifications and would urge those in the sector with the power to make a change to recognise this, despite the fact that we are from the so-called black previously disadvantaged schools.

The current Agri-SA manager, Mr Wandile Sihlobo, and Buyambo Mantashe (Red Farms agribusiness manager) are some of the products of previously disadvantaged schools. This shows that those universities do produce quality graduates.

There can be no true future if the industry does not work closely with universities such as Fort Hare and instead sticks to the tried-and-tested employment hubs in Pretoria and Stellenbosch. If we are to match the inclusive growth that president Nelson Mandela shared, more still needs to be done.