PICS – ‘Unsung heroes’ continue to produce our food

Farmworkers keep the wheels turning to deliver essential foodstuffs for people and animals during the coronavirus pandemic.

Phetesane “Ou Dawid” Sello talks while he works, with his gaze fixed on the tools between his palms and his hands moving in continuous rhythm. Neither breaks, not even when he laughs.

“I’ve been doing this for 42 years,” the 68-year-old grandfather said this week from behind a workbench at Karookom – a mixed use operation in the Free State where Sello is the foreman.

He is one of the “unsung heroes” to whom President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday paid tribute for working through the national lockdown to keep the country’s wheels turning while it works to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Among us are the men and women who rise at dawn every day and labour through the night to keep this country going,” Ramaphosa said. “I speak of the farm worker who is helping to keep us supplied with food.”

In addition to working at Karookom, Sello also has his own farm.

Phetesane David Sello, a worker at Karookom farm in the Free State speaks to The Citizen, 1 April 2020. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

“How can I not be proud?” Sello said, in response to the president’s words.

“There’s nothing else I would ever want to do. I love everything about farming,” he said.

But he conceded that even after all these years, he still struggled with being away from his family.

“My wife passed away eight years ago, but I have four children and five grandchildren,” he said.

Sello’s family lives in Bothaville, 8km away from Karookom, but he cherishes the weekends when they are together.

“I wake up at 5am every day, except Sundays. On Sundays, I sleep in until 7am and then I go to church and spend time with my family,” he said.

The lockdown has pushed Sello’s next reunion with his family back at least three weeks. “But they’re very proud of me and there’s nowhere I’d rather be right now,” he said.

Phetesane David Sello, a worker at Karookom farm in the Free State speaks to The Citizen, 1 April 2020. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

The lockdown has also forced apart Simon Budaza Mokara and his young family. “I have a wife and two children, girls. They’re in Orkney,” the 41-year-old said this week. “I miss them already. But I carry them with me.”

A general worker, Mokara pointed out that he was also one of the best drivers on the farm. “And that’s something I’m proud of,” he said.

He was proud of being South African and a farmworker, too. “I help provide others with food. Without food, people die. I’m very proud of what I do,” he said.

Japie Grobler has owned Karookom since the 1970s. This week he echoed the president’s sentiments. He said modern commercial farming demanded skill and technical expertise from farmers and farm workers alike and that they were completely reliant on one another.

Karookom farm in the Free State is pictured, 1 April 2020. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

“We’re like family. And we appreciate each other now more than ever. We all understand the position the country is in and we’re all in it together.”

Statistics South Africa’s most recent Labour Force Quarterly Survey revealed that as of December last year, there were about 885,000 workers employed in the agriculture sector.

Dr Moraka Makhura, a senior lecturer at the University of Pretoria and the director of the Collaborative Centre on Economics of Agricultural Research and Development, said agriculture played a critical role in SA.

Karookom farm in the Free State is pictured, 1 April 2020. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

“Local farmers ensure we can export and earn foreign exchange through exports, mostly of citrus fruit, wine, apples, pears and quinces, nuts and cane or beet sugar.

“And local farmers and farmworkers are responsible for producing the top seven products by value to the table: red meat, poultry, fruit, maize, vegetables, milk and sugar. These are critical food products that are both strategic and essential.”

He said farm workers were “a critical step of the food chain”.

“For food items to be in the retailers, supermarkets and spaza shops, farm workers have to produce them. Should the farm worker link in the chain break, the whole food chain will run dry,” he said, “So, the acknowledgement of farmers and farm workers as essential services providers was really great.”

Karookom farm in the Free State is pictured, 1 April 2020. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

Makhura also pointed out the farming sector was both unique and fragile and required “very specific interventions that are appropriate and target the farmer and farmworkers” during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We need to empower more farmers and farm workers to be mobile and support them with protective measures and information about the virus, as well as psychological support,” he said. “Because we need them to stay on farms and continue producing food, but in a safe and healthy way.”

He also said SA was entering a critical time on the farmer’s annual calendar.

“Over the next three months, we need to make sure farmers have cash flow to complete production activities, like harvesting summer crops, and prepare for winter vegetables production and feed for livestock.

“And over the next six months, the supplementary feeding time for livestock sets in and preparation for summer crops start. So, we need to start processing production loans or financial assistance and to sort out water rights now.”

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