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Unrest in South Africa disrupts agricultural logistics, raises food security concerns


Reports of planted crops being set on fire in affected region

Major port faces force majeure, road transport impacted

Long-term impact unlikely on grains production, trade

  • Author
  • Shikha Singh
  • Editor
  • Wendy Wells
  • Commodity
  • Agriculture

Unrest in South Africa's eastern provinces is posing a threat to the country's already precarious food security situation by disrupting agricultural trade and transportation, and damaging infrastructure and planted crops in the region, various sources said.

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Reports of ransacking at grain warehouses, damage to trucks and the burning of planted crops have emerged from KwaZulu-Natal province amid blocked highways and the shutdown of the country's major port at Durban. This is likely to halt the movement of food and agriculture commodities within as well as outside the country, sources said.

South Africa is a major producer of grains, particularly corn, and last year most of its grain exports headed to Zimbabwe, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, according to the US Department of Agriculture's attache. In 2020-21, corn exports from the country were forecast to rise 40% year on year to 3.5 million mt.

KwaZulu-Natal, the epicenter of the rioting and looting, is a major producer of sugar, milk and poultry, and also serves as an entry point for imported food products including wheat, rice and palm oils, said Wandile Sihlobo, Chief Economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa. "The biggest risk in the short term is the free movement of goods, including food and agricultural produce on the roads, specifically to and from the Durban port," Sihlobo said.

Durban port is the country's entry and exit point for agricultural products, he added.

The violent protests erupted in KwaZulu-Natal province last weekend after former South African President Jacob Zuma was jailed for 15 months for contempt of court, and comes at a time when South Africa is already dealing with COVID-19's impact on its economy and infrastructure.

Impact on agriculture

South Africa many not face any long-term impact on the grain sector, as KwaZulu-Natal province is not a major producer of the coarse grain, Sihlobo said.

However, concerns could emerge if the protest spills into adjoining provinces.

Reports of sugarcane fields and other crops been set alight in affected regions have been received by Agri SA, South Africa's federation of agricultural organizations. The disruptions are also affecting agriculture during peak citrus production season, with large volumes of citrus crops due to be transported weekly to Durban harbor, Agri SA said. Citrus comprises a large portion of South Africa's agriculture exports.

The biggest concern is about food transport. Sihlobo said he fears a shortage of fuel for transportation could emerge after a refinery in Durban declared force majeure. "I highlight this because a large share of South Africa's food is transported by road," he added.

Around 75% of the country's grains are transported by road, and are mostly exported via Durban harbor.

Logistics hit hard

"The logistics sector has been hit severely," the Durban Chamber of Commerce said in a statement.

According to reports, the Transnet National Port Authority declared force majeure in the key ports of Durban and Richards Bay on July 12, and road transportation is also severely impacted in the country.

"The number of trucks that have been burnt over the past two days has caused other business owners in the industry to ground their trucks," the Chamber added.

Temporary shutdowns at factories and disruption to transport networks is heightening concerns of short-term food shortages. "We are particularly concerned about the potential impact of the disruptions on food security in the country and various supply chain issues," the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa said in a report.

Food security concerns

"The looting of shops, burning of trucks and crops as well as the theft of livestock are posing a serious threat to food security in the country," said Agri SA in the report. "South Africa runs the risk of people not being able to buy or access food," it added.

"This disruptive activity is damaging to the economic infrastructure; the threat to food security should be taken very seriously," the Durban Chamber of Commerce said.

The latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification analysis for the country estimated that 11.8 million people faced high levels of acute food insecurity between January and March.

Long-term ramifications, however, appear unlikely as South Africa is estimated to have abundant food production in 2020-21 following a favorable growing season.

The country is forecast to produce 16.5 million mt of corn in 2020-21, up 4% year on year, and 2.1 million of wheat, up 37% over the same period. Corn and wheat are the most widely-consumed grains in the country.