Georgia -- and Congo -- on South African farmers' minds

Leading farmers to Georgia: Bennie van Zyl, director of the Transvaal Agricultural Union.

Mail & Guardian | Jun 24 2011


Moses, these days, still has white hair. But he has no shepherd's staff, nor does he lead his followers with the help of stone tablets and a column of fire.

The 20th-century Moses sits in a khaki safari shirt before a laptop on the ninth floor of an old Soviet government complex in Tbilisi, the capital of the formerly communist Republic of Georgia, and manages his flock by email and on Facebook. Like the biblical Moses, though, Bennie van Zyl also struggles with impatience in the ranks.

"The questions they ask!" he said when I went to see him in Tbilisi this January. At one stage a few days earlier, he had been getting 60 online queries an hour. "If they go to the website, the information is all there."

The website he meant is boers.ge. It's the online portal for the project Van Zyl, the director of the Transvaal Agricultural Union (TAU), has been masterminding for nearly a year now: to send South African farmers to Georgia to rehabilitate the Georgian agricultural sector, which has languished since the end of communism.

Many of the TAU's (predominantly white) members are fed up with farming in South Africa, hence the flood of queries. But mountainous Georgia is also so far away, it's almost unimaginable. On the wall behind his laptop, Van Zyl has pasted a map he uses to conjure up soothing, familiar images. Ajara, the province in the west by the Black Sea, "looks like Tzaneen", he told me, pointing, and Kakheti, the wine-growing region in the east, "reminds me of the Franschhoek or Paarl area, or the eastern Free State".

Farmland looks like farmland anywhere, to some degree. But here's the distinction Van Zyl draws between Georgia and South Africa that makes Georgia appear to be a promised land: he perceives a sense of possibility suffusing the landscape, of flush times to come, as opposed to already receding into the past.

"Oh, Eve," he said, turning from the map, a smile spreading across his face, the irritations of the farmers' emails forgotten. "Georgia is the most beautiful country in the world!"

Since early 2008, more than two dozen countries have approached South African farmers to ask them to come till their land. Most of these are in Africa and they mainly work with the TAU's counterpart, Agri South Africa (ASA), which, contrary to the TAU, has set a policy to help farmers go only to other African countries.

"I would go all over Africa, but I will never leave this continent," said Wynand du Toit, the deputy head of the ASA-affiliated mission to settle 49 farmers in the steamy south of the Republic of Congo. "This is my home."

The backdrop is diminishing food security. During the latter half of the 20th century, the world's agricultural powerhouses steadily produced more than enough grain to support a growing global population. But recently, and fairly suddenly, our food system has been revealed to be more fragile than we had thought.

In places like India and Ethiopia, newly emerging middle classes want to eat more meat, and developed countries want to make more biofuel. Both of these industries drink up grain. As the world becomes more and more one marketplace, freak spells of weather in one place reverberate in others, as when a drought last year in Russia spiked bread prices and sparked riots in Mozambique. And freaky weather may increasingly be the new normal, as even slight increases in temperatures upset the Earth's fine climactic balance.

It doesn't take a particularly benevolent leader to start worrying. Rising and fluctuating food prices pose a direct threat to regimes. "Give us this day our daily bread," goes the prayer, and with that assured, one can more or less be satisfied, but all kinds of dissatisfactions feel sharper on an empty stomach.

It was a fruit vendor who set himself on fire in Tunisia and touched off the conflagration of protests that recently swept the Arab world. He was protesting against the government he felt made his life as a food middleman unbearable. Bread became the theme of the subsequent anti-government demonstrations, as if freedom, being the sublime goal, had found its earthly signifier in flour. Tunisians waved French loaves at the riot police. Yemenis took to the streets with chapattis taped to their temples.

In a world where war is provoked by food scarcity, farmers are the peacekeepers. No surprise, then, so many regimes want more of them. Nations from Gambia to Zambia have been appealing to investors from countries with better-developed agricultural sectors to till their land. Between 2008 -- when a grain-price spike set off riots in 30 countries -- and 2009, nearly 60-million hectares of land deals were announced, an order of magnitude more than the pre-2008 annual average.

Heading for Congo: Agri South Africa's Wynand du Toit and his wife Frances.

In this race to woo farmers, South Africans are emerging as highly eligible catches. In places like Georgia and Congo, they have a reputation as formidable ploughmen, although how they got to be so effective must by necessity remain a little vague in their suitors' imaginations. By extending South African farmers' 30-year leases on 80 000 hectares, with more land likely to come, Congo "is expecting abundant food", Pierre Mabiala, the Congolese Land Affairs Minister, told the United Nations' news agency IRIN.

Of course, the best for Mabiala would be to boost his own people's ability to grow food. But in many developing countries, the gap between what exists and what is needed is so big, it can seem impossible to bridge. In the Republic of Congo, the oil-rich principality west of the Democratic Republic of Congo, 95% or more of the food is imported, mostly from its former colonial master France and at heartbreakingly inflated prices. Congo has 12-million hectares of fertile land, enough to feed all its people and many others besides. But only 2% is farmed, mainly without modern tools. Building the internal know-how to get all the rest under cultivation would be a staggering undertaking.

In Georgia, meanwhile, reconstruction policies after communism mandated the division of formerly communal land into small private plots, on which farmers also using traditional methods now struggle to achieve any economies of scale.

So it can seem easier to import already successful farmers than to mint your own. The South Africans driving to Congo in a convoy next month to start clearing the tropical grass that grows taller than their Land Rovers have agreed to supply local markets before exporting and to set up an agricultural college to mentor Congolese growers. The Georgians, however, haven't made such demands. They just want what South Africa has got: properly modern-looking rural panoramas.

In his office in Tbilisi, the Georgian Cabinet minister in charge of attracting South African agricultural investment, Papuna Davitaia, answered the question of why Georgia was interested in South Africans by whipping out his iPhone.

"You flew to Georgia on an airplane, yes?" he asked me. "Did you see lots of cultivated land? No. The country looks brown." He leaned towards my chair to show me aerial snapshots of fields he had taken out of his plane window on a recent trip to Johannesburg. "When you fly over South Africa, what do you see? Lots of cultivated land. It looks good."

Davitaia's answer was a little funny, because one of the drivers pushing South Africans to consider farming abroad is their frustration with South Africa. The government has taken a recent interest in helping its farmers to do business in other African countries, working with Uganda and Angola on land deals along the rationale that shoring up the continental food supply also secures South Africa. "For us, it is win-win," said Selby Bokaba, the spokesperson for the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries. "It is not an exodus. The farmers are leaving with our blessing."

Bleeding farmers can only be win-win up to a point, though. And some farmers openly embrace the exodus storyline. ASA points to crime, the creeping pace of bureaucratic processes and confusion over land claims as sources of uncertainty that inhibit farmers from making long-term investments in their South African properties, although a spokesperson said that farmers were "very grateful that we have better access to the political decision-makers" of late.

Van Zyl suspects that the interactions between white farmers and black politicians cannot but end negatively, given the history between the two groups. "I told [President Jacob Zuma] straight in his eyes, 'Mr Zuma, you cannot today say the commercial farmers are the most important to you and the next day dance in front of Cosatu saying bring me my machine gun,'" he said. "The whole world asks, 'Who does he want to shoot?'"

The Georgian government, on the other hand, is pulling out all the stops to appeal to farmers like Van Zyl. Boers.ge, the website it designed to promote Georgia's opportunities, carefully strokes a fed-up farmer's erogenous zones, boasting of the country's lightning-quick home-affairs queues and its new police stations made of Plexiglas, making the police service transparent, literally. Van Zyl was given an office within the ministry of diaspora, as if South Africans might just be long-lost Georgians on their way home.

At the end of January, on the first of four information tours organised by the TAU and the Georgian government, about 30 South African farmers were treated to a dinner hosted by the first lady of Georgia, who was born in Holland and chatted with the farmers graciously in Dutch. At the end of the night, a young Georgian official seized a microphone and performed De la Rey, the Afrikaans anthem celebrating the Anglo-Boer War general. He gurgled his g's on "General, General, soos een man sal ons om jou val" with gusto, having practised his accent by listening to the song over and over on YouTube.

The morning after the dinner, Van Zyl, his 30 farmers, a few Georgian officials and I piled into minivans to see the farms the Georgians had to offer. As we rolled through Tbilisi's industrial outskirts into the hinterlands, one of the farmers in my van jokingly shouted, "We come in peace!" The Georgian countryside, though, looked only ambivalently welcoming. On the way to the farms, we stopped to use a series of latrines, which were as uniform in their unspeakableness as they were great in their variety, ranging from a hole in the ground to a hut housing a pillar of poo as tall as a Namibian termite mound. (An American magazine once awarded Georgia the prize for the world's crappiest outhouse, after, yes, sending a poor reporter on an exhaustive global search.)

The landscapes we saw outside our vans' cold-fogged windows seemed to harbour a daunting array of natural and cultural mysteries. There were astonishingly conical peaks whose white tops were swirled like soft-serve cones by the wind. An enormous frozen lake across which a single tiny car was driving. Vast Soviet-era apartment blocks.

One farmer wondered aloud about the little puffs of grey smoke that hung outside every apartment window. What were the Georgians inside up to? "Smoking hubbly?" another farmer guessed.

Agriculture in Georgia has languished since the end of communism and there is not much cultivated land.

When we got to the plots the government wants farmed, they weren't exactly what the South Africans had been hoping for, either. Mainly, they were too small. South Africans regularly farm on thousands of hectares. In Georgia, a few hundred hectares is a mammoth farm. "According to us, these are subeconomic units," a Delmas farmer named Frans Venter explained to me.

Such disappointments commonly follow encouraging starts. Last year, the World Bank sent researchers to follow up on the decade's high-profile farmland acquisitions, most of them in Africa. It found much of the land lying fallow years after the development deals had been inked. Mozambique was typical: between 2004 and 2009, 2.7-million hectares of farmland were leased or sold to investors; in 2009, at least 50% of the planned projects hadn't got off the ground or were trailing far behind their original blueprints.

The World Bank concluded that deals needed to be analysed hard-headedly for their economic viability. Just because a patch of soil is cheap doesn't mean a farm will flourish there. There must be infrastructure, access to markets, a state that allows for reasonably transparent business transactions. Expectations could also be a problem.

These days, we imagine solutions to complex challenges can come overnight. But farms can take generations to establish. They rely on natural processes that resist artificial abbreviation, such as the wheeling of the seasons and the gestation of baby animals.

"We are expecting abundant food," the government of Congo said. But by when? The South Africans headed there hope to restore Congo's terribly depleted cattle stock, but that will take years of breeding.

In Georgia, the farmers on my tour were startled to find that certain problems they had come to think of as peculiar to Africa also existed in Eastern Europe. Surveying the Georgian countryside, Frans Venter realised that, to quilt together a plot big enough to farm, "you'd have to work something out with the villagers" who own bits and pieces of land. He shook his head. "It's the same as South Africa."

But, of course, the benefits farmers are looking for when they seek new pastures outside South Africa are not only economic. They are also emotional -- which doesn't necessarily make them unreasonable.

Most people want to know they are doing good with their lives. They yearn to see this confirmed not only in their bank balances, but also in the responses and the acknowledgements of the people around them. As a result of South Africa's history, there is a general social understanding here that commercial farmers, although perhaps by now an economically necessary evil, are leading a lifestyle that is at least latently exploitative.

The farmers who go to Congo or Georgia hear the exact opposite message: they will be received as handymen, as appreciated experts, even as redeemers. Observing South African farmers in Georgia, it seemed to me that the chance to put on the robes of the healer could be, for the white South African accustomed to thinking of his broader social role as a destructive one, an incredibly powerful and healing experience.

Van Zyl passionately looked forward to putting on sheep-slaughtering demos for Georgian butchers, so somebody could benefit from the knowledge about sheep he had built up over a lifetime. His aide, Ben Stander, showed me a laptop full of technical soil analysis he wanted the Georgian government to take for free. Cultural wisdom must circulate in a society like blood in a body, and it was as if a plug that prevents Van Zyl and Stander from freely passing on their heritage in South Africa had broken loose; their sense of relief and pleasure was palpable.

Francois Venter (no relation to Frans) and his wife Juanita told me they wanted to invest in Georgia even if the agricultural opportunities turned out not to be so hot. Francois might get into construction, to improve the local architecture. "Those crappy buildings?" he said, flinging his arm around a Georgian official and pointing to some of the loathed Soviet-era apartment blocks. "I want to push them down to the ground!"

"Great!" said the Georgian official gamely.

Juanita had been shaken by how grey Georgia looked, especially the cities. So she had started thinking of a florist shop. "I want to give them flowers so they'll see things are pretty, still," she said. "I think if there's colour around them, they'll feel happier."

Eve Fairbanks is an American writer living in South Africa as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs

Photos: Madelene Cronjé, M&G

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