As South Africa’s cane farmers buckle under the pressure of the government’s Health Promotion Levy, record low world sugar prices and a flood of imports from Eswatini, SA Canegrowers Vice Chairman Dipuo Ntuli is calling for a longer view, saying scores of vulnerable rural communities and small-town economies in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga face collapse.

“We have to keep the sugar industry sustainable. We have to make sure it remains sustainable because historically and even today, sugarcane farming had and still has a very important legacy. For a rural family, growing sugarcane, even on just 2ha, can make the difference between surviving or not surviving,” Ntuli said.

As input costs have increased, coupled with the growing global anti-sugar lobby and the onset of the worst drought in living memory in 2016, the viability of sugarcane farming has come under pressure. When the South African government imposed its Health Promotion Levy in 2018 and in that same year thousands of tons of cheap imported sugar flooded into the country, the industry was effectively on its knees.

Two years since its introduction, the industry estimates the HPL has cost the sector R1.5 billion, with about 9 000 workers being made redundant.

The recent announcement of the closure of the Darnall sugar mill by the embattled Tongaat Hulett group is a case in point as reports estimate at least 400 people have lost their jobs. At least 200 small-scale growers who supplied their cane to the mill will have to absorb hugely increased transport costs as they send their crop to mills further afield, and neighbouring small towns, dependent on the sugar industry for their economic activity, are likely to feel more than just a pinch.

According to Ntuli, while commercial-scale growers are able to ride the storm to an extent, the hardest hit are those who not only depend on their sugarcane plots for extra income but have ambitions to grow their small-scale operations to commercial scale.

She said the number of small-scale growers had dropped from nearly 50 000 at the turn of the century to below 20 000 today.

Dipuo Ntuli, Vice Chairman SA Canegrowers, works in her sugarcane fields on her farm in the district of uMfolozi. She says she is now committed to supporting small-scale growers, most of whom are women.

Dipuo Ntuli, Vice Chairman SA Canegrowers, works in her sugarcane fields on her farm in the district of uMfolozi. She says she is now committed to supporting small-scale growers, most of whom are women.

“That is my vision for the sugar industry. To help all those small-scale growers to stand on their own two feet. To help them to become commercial farmers through partnerships and mentorships with our existing commercial growers. The sugar industry has a proud history of transformation. It has not paid lip service to this. And you know, a large percentage of the small-scale growers comprises women. Growing sugarcane has promoted women in our communities.”

Ntuli, who says she is a proud member of the African National Congress, serves on the political party’s regional executive committee where she heads up the portfolio committee for social development, and has served as a ward councillor for KwaHlabisa in the uMfolozi district.

She was elected as best farmer in the uMfolozi region in 2003 and in her hometown of Mtubatuba, is well known for her community work, particularly among women.

As a leader in the sugar industry and in her area, Ntuli says it is time for the voices of those in rural communities to be heard by the government.

“We must not destroy what we already have because our economy depends on us to be responsible. We must support agriculture, particularly the sugar industry. Supporting our commercial growers to remain sustainable is also an imperative because they create employment for thousands of people, and they are our partners and our mentors,” she said.

SA Canegrowers Commercial Executive Thomas Funke said while the sugar industry Masterplan had the go-ahead, there was no quick fix to the sector’s plight.

“The reduction in the size of the industry has often been quoted as a potential solution to the current problem. This is an expensive option and yes, we are seeing farmers diversify their crops to other commodities such as macadamias, but the fact is, in the forthcoming season we still have 20 million tons of cane that has to be harvested, processed and sold on to an oversupplied world market at a rock bottom price.”

Funke said in reality the industry was no longer viable but most diversification strategies that involved the planting of alternative crops such as cotton, soya or macadamias, carried the threat of being less labour intensive, which would have a negative impact on employment for farm workers.

“In short, there is no quick fix to this issue. Macadamias are a good alternative crop to sugarcane, particularly on the KwaZulu-Natal coastline and in Mpumalanga, but the cost of developing a hectare is pegged at between R80 000 and R100 000 a hectare.”

He said reducing the size of the industry was financially inhibitive and expressed concern at the increased water supply required by alternative crops, such as cotton or macadamias.

“At least 70% of the sugarcane crop is under dryland,” he said.

With reference to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address in February where the development of alternative energy seemed to include only wind and solar power, Funke suggested sugarcane farmers be enabled to harvest their own fibre on farm, produce the electricity they need and then feed it into the grid.

“Gasification and anaerobic digestion are technologies that have been investigated and developed. The technology is economically sustainable and viable; all that is required is that a grower be permitted to feed the excess power to the grid. Also, the process of storing power or reverse metering must be allowed and growers should be allowed to use the excess power when and if they need it,” he said.

Ntuli, who was in fact born and schooled in Gauteng, said when she married her late husband Cedric Ntuli, who was better known as “Bra Mike”, she was a city girl who knew nothing about farming.

“I met my husband at church. He was working on the goldfields at the time. Once we were married he decided we should come back to his home in Mtubatuba. That was in 1988. He promised to teach me everything about growing sugarcane, and he did.”

Ntuli said she fell in love with the soil and when she received her first pay cheque from her harvested cane, she was hooked.

“I have worked my way up through the ranks of the sugar industry, from representing small-scale growers in the SA Canegrowers’ regional structures until in 2015, when I was elected to represent our area at the Congress of Growers. In 2016 I was elected to the Board of Directors. In 2018 I was elected vice chair and then re-elected in 2019. I have also completed management courses at Mancosa and at the University of Zululand. I don’t believe you can be a leader without having knowledge,” she said.

Ntuli, who believes the politicisation of agriculture in the country, is a strategy that all of us will live to regret, says she is now pouring her energies into the survival of rural agriculture and in particular, providing support for those – mainly women – who grow sugarcane.