The furore surrounding PESI vouchers is proof enough that we need Agricultural Ombudsman in SA

The recent numerous allegations of corruption, collusion and exploitation of farmers in the sector, warrants a need for an Agricultural Ombudsman.

The government should in the very near future look at the possibility of appointing an ombudsman to investigate these complaints and to help identify systemic issues leading to poor service or breaches of farmer’s rights in the agriculture sector.

Of late, the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development has been making massive announcements and investments in an effort to ensure food security and economic recovery in the country while also creating employment opportunities.

However, it doesn’t take rocket science to realise that these big announcements often attract opportunistic characters that would often hijack genuine relief efforts at the expense of the government developmental mandate. This type of behaviour surely interrupts and delays government mandate to uplift farmers and in the greater scheme of things, constitutes a threat to food security.

Recent reports of numerous allegations of corruption surrounding the allocation of Presidential Employment Stimulus Initiative (PESI) vouchers are but one example.

While tabling the Economic Recovery Plan in October 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the employment of this stimulus to create jobs and support livelihoods while also attempting to protect jobs in vulnerable sectors such as agriculture.

He mentioned PESI as an intervention aimed at helping subsistence producers and house hold producers who utilize land in the back yards of their homes and gardens in communal areas.

The argument from the government was that It is these producers who create a bulwark against the fight of food insecurity at household level and that these small patches of land remain their source of employment and livelihoods.

They were the targeted beneficiaries mainly because current agricultural policies do not address their needs adequately while they are also unbankable by the financial sector.

Majority of them were said to be women and therefore the department decided to target 50 per cent of women to be beneficiaries in the PESI intervention. Forty per cent of these would be youth and six per cent would target people with disabilities and unemployed military veterans.

In excess of 75 000 subsistence producers would be supported with farming input vouchers. On paper this is a brilliant programme, however, its rollout was marked by massive claims of corruption, collusion and flawed selection processes.

The red flag emerged shortly after the allocation of these vouchers, when thousands of the so called ‘backyard farmers’ started selling their vouchers, even on social media platforms.

No doubt, a genuine programme to uplift subsistence farmers ended up benefitting people who had absolutely no interest in farming. Then how did these vouchers end up in so many wrong hands? It’s either this was a deliberate effort or the selection and verification process itself was not up to scratch.

Real farmers who complained about being overlooked in the selection process, were prepared to purchase these vouchers in order to put them to good use.

And as if the selling of vouchers wasn’t enough, some beneficiaries started complaining that the middlemen that the Department had contracted to distribute the vouchers and help farmers to source various necessities, are selling these goods at inflated prices. In one example given, the feed that should cost farmers R100 was being sold by the middleman at a 300% mark-up for R400, even though it is sourced from the same store.

Some middlemen were also reported to be asking farmers for a commission of 25%.

Upon realising how bad the situation was, minister Thoko Didiza’s announced there’ll be an audit of the recipients of these vouchers and that they will clamp down and blacklist individuals selling the vouchers for cash.

This is welcomed; however, it is time the department of agriculture realise that it cannot be a player and referee at the same time, hence there’s a need for an agricultural ombudsman to handle all the complaints relating to agriculture. This will free the department so that it can focus on its core mandate of providing service delivery and let all those that have complaints about the service approach an ombudsman office.

Again, there’s just too many complaints against the department that it begs the question of whether they have the necessary capacity to investigate. In the absence of any unit dedicated at investigating these claims then It would make sense to outsource this particular function for thorough process and procedure.

Even after more than 15 000 small-scale farmers were approved for the coronavirus (COVID-19) Agricultural Disaster Fund in June 2020, some among the 55000 applicants had complaints regarding the selection processes.

Apart from approaching the department with their complaints, they had nowhere to go.

Another classic example that necessitates the need for an ombudsman, is the recent corruption activities surrounding state land allocation.

Although this publication welcomed the programme when it was announced, and further noted and welcome the minister’s commitment to ensure a corruption-free allocation, we did mention that we do so with a pinch of salt.

And right we were, as allegations of corrupt activities around state land allocation, where farmers claimed were asked to pay bribes or lose the parcels of land they were farming on, started emerging.

Again, the department is having its hands full in this regard, trying to investigate these allegations.

All these proves that indeed, is it high time government appoints an Agricultural Ombudsman to handle all these allegations of corruption, collusion and exploitation of farmers in the sector. Also, as farmer representatives, farmer commodity associations should be vocal in urging government to initiate this process to ensure since accountability to the public and farmers need an Agricultural Ombudsman.

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