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SOUTH AFRICA, WARTS AND ALL!

As the curtain is being drawn over 2019 and the issues of the day jostle each other for a place on the Information Highway, we ask those media people for whom apartheid South Africa was a sure fire headline grabber and where every opportunity was taken to show the world the so-called injustices being perpetrated by some awful South Africans against other South Africans, to please turn their cameras back to this land where the democracy they sought and propagated has now transmogrified into a counterfeit system rotten with corruption and incompetence.

After all, surely this is fair? Didn’t they always promise their reporting would be “without fear or favour”?

Those British and American newsmen who could always depend on South Africa to offer up a good yarn of racial conflagration, “unfairness” and that old chestnut, inequality, should now pay South Africa a return visit and actually tell it like it is.

They need not go to Soweto or any other South African township where they used to throw sweets into rubbish bins and photograph children trying to get the candies out of the bin. The world was told this was hunger under apartheid. The world in the main believed them.

We would today direct these “without fear or favour” media gentlemen to a place called Standerton, a commercial and agricultural town on the banks of the Vaal river in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province. The town is well known for its maize, dairy, cattle and poultry farming. Founded in 1876, Standerton flourished – until a few years ago when South Africa’s wheels started to come off under the post-1994 ANC/SACP alliance regime.

What has happened in Standerton is mind boggling, and would not be allowed to happen in any civilized country. A report in the Johannesburg Business Times (1.12.19) reveals that Mr. Chris Schutte, CEO of South Africa’s largest poultry producer Astral Foods, is actually subsidising most of Standerton’s infrastructure. This of course is the job of the highly-paid local municipal officials.

Under the newspaper headline “Investment is a fantasy while infrastructure is all but non-existent”, Mr. Schutte informs us that his profits halved in the year ending September 2019 due to water shortages. He has to truck water from the Vaal River to keep his operation going.

Three years ago, Standerton’s power supply was cut after the local Lekwa municipality racked up a R300m debt to Eskom, South Africa’s monopolistic electricity supplier. The crisis only ended when Astral obtained a high court order permitting it to buy directly from the utility. Schutte says he is “absolutely cynical” about President Ramaphosa’s calls for investment and promises of economic growth while across South Africa, critical infrastructure is broken or non-existent. “If you do not have infrastructure you cannot develop this economy. You can talk until you are blue in the face about investment conferences and people bringing money into the country, but if you drive 20km outside any of the (country’s) big metropolises, it’s all falling apart”.
MUNICIPAL
Astral stopped receiving municipal water five months ago which was “devastating” for a poultry business wholly dependent on it. Without Astral’s assistance over the past five years, the collapse of the water supply would have happened sooner and been much worse. “We were pivotal in maintaining certain parts of their (municipal) infrastructure. All their water pumps we serviced, replaced and repaired without charge, just to keep the water coming. But now the infrastructure has deteriorated to such an extent that they (the municipality) cannot keep up with the quantity we require.”

Instead of packing up and moving his business to a more deserving country with a more appreciative and intelligent government, Mr. Schutte ploughs on. Over the next two years, Astral will build its own pipeline to the Vaal, 7km away, at a cost of R120m. Meanwhile Astral relies on 120 truckloads a day from the Vaal. Because the Vaal’s water is highly polluted (which water serves South Africa’s biggest metropolis Gauteng!), the water has to go through a filtration plant before it can be used by Astral. The water supply interruptions have cost the company R93m so far, plus R2 m a month in diesel and rental costs.

“That’s 13% of our net profit just gone, “ says Schutte. “Lost on something that was there once but was not maintained. And still we don’t see any action with regard to maintenance”. Relocating to the Western Cape is an option “where things work better, everyone knows that”, says Schutte. “But we have to be close to our raw materials, soya beans and maize, which are up here (in Gauteng).”

Schutte has had full audits done on the electricity and water infrastructure in Standerton and received a “stern warning” that both are “under siege”. So although the company is getting electricity for now, “we know that every day the system is deteriorating more and more, and it will collapse somewhere”.

Astral’s abattoirs are of such a size that one can’t have generators to run all the cooling systems, and so on. “You need Eskom, and you need a consistent supply”, declares Schutte.
GOVERNMENT RESPONSE
Six months ago Astral sent lawyers’ letters to provincial and local government and the presidency reminding them of their constitutional obligation to supply water and electricity services, and that infrastructure is not being maintained. For six months, Astral had no feedback. Then the president asked for a further six months which was followed by a letter from minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma asking for more time because the municipality “was working on a plan”.

Says Schutte: “But the municipality has known about the situation for ages, and they always talk about a plan. You’ve got all these plans, and there are audits and they send people and they have telephone calls and meetings and more meetings, but on the ground, absolutely nothing happens.”

Astral has advised the municipality in writing that it has set aside R10 million to fix some of the infrastructure with regards to the water it needs. The municipality has asked Astral to hand over the money to them, but he has refused. Now nothing happens. (Here you see the mentality about which TLU SA has written so much. Some in the ANC alliance would rather see things collapse and will only move ahead to make something work if there’s something in it for them! We see this everyday!)

Astral is the largest employer in Standerton. It directly employs 2 600 people at the poultry plant and indirectly another 1500. “Without Astral, the town would have no income”, says Schutte. His comments on the lack of understanding of the very basics of how business supports the country are so tragic. Citizens watch the erstwhile functioning South Africa disintegrating before their eyes, while those “in charge” do nothing because it appears they don’t care if the roads turn to dust, or the shops disappear to be replaced by corrugated iron knock-ups like we see in the rest of Africa.

So Schutte is exasperated when he hears the government call on business “to come to the party. What government doesn’t seem to understand is that overseas investors look at what local investors are doing, and if you don’t have water and electricity, then what. Not even to talk about the railroad system.”

Astral used to transport all its maize to the mills by railroad “which is completely dilapidated. It’s gone”, says the Astral CEO. “Now, like the water, the maize has to go by road, at an extra cost of R40m a year.”

(Astral has now obtained a court order against Eskom to stop the electricity from the Rand West municipality being cut off. His other company Meadow Feeds is within this municipality’s borders. Despite telling Eskom of the enormous damage which would be caused to his company and other businesses in the area, Eskom ignored this warning and advised Schutte on October 15 that it would go ahead and cut the electricity on November 27. Astral and other businesses in the area needed to go to court to preserve something that should be their right – a consistent supply of electricity. Astral pays its account on time, but despite this, Eskom didn’t back down on its threats to cut the electricity.

We would like to see serious investigative reporting by the BBC or CNN (or both) on the collapse of a once functioning country. We see nothing of the “without fear or favour” journalism on South Africa overseas – just a few clips here and there of politicians making speeches, a few quick sound bites of mob violence, and some puff pieces of no real relevance to the state of South Africa. A country being destroyed is surely newsworthy, especially when it has always been newsworthy. But the early news reporting was more in line with certain agendas. Will the international media take a long hard look and report what they can see now? We wonder.
THE STRONGHOLD OF THE COMMERCIAL FARMER IN SOUTH AFRICA - TLU SA


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