There is a tendency to treat social transformation and economic growth as two distinct matters, but Stephanie van der Walt believes that the two are inseparable, both are non-negotiable, and that the South African fruit industry is proof of that.
Stephanie is the first general manager of the newly created Fruit Desk, where her mandate is to share her holistic understanding of trade, economics, development and agriculture in radial ways, through representing the fruit industry in debates at policy level at government level, through communicating the complexities of international trade and treaties with the farming sector.
The complexities of international trade and its seeming incongruities are encapsulated in the questions she often hears from local industry, for instance: why does Chile have a free trade agreement with China and we don’t (because South Africa negotiates as a member of the Southern African Customs Union + Mozambique) or: Why doesn’t our membership of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) bloc give us preferential trade access (because it is a purely political arrangement).
Being tied to the wider region of Southern Africa in trade negotiations is cumbersome and causes frustration but, she points out, it is much better to be organised than not, and moreover, as Zimbabwe amply demonstrated, destabilisation within the region is a loss to all.
“It is very important to participate in non-agricultural market access negotiations,” she says. “The time to focus on just one thing is past.”
Is the agriculture sector worried about the country?
South Africans went to the national polls on 8 May. Many discussions, for instance on land reform or on black economic empowerment in agriculture, were put on ice until after the election. Is the industry worried about the South Africa of 2019?
“There’s nobody who’s not vigilant. We’re keeping an eye on the situation, and that’s also why the Fruit Desk was created: to be responsive to the time in which we’re living. The industry has to be aware of what we need from national leadership and from the industry’s leadership, what we want to achieve and how to get there.”
Her background in development is unusual in the formal agriculture sector but in her view, the two are a perfect fit. “Economic development is, per definition, the amount of people who can eat what they haven’t produced,” she points out. In China, a country where she has been shown around the agriculture sector as a guest of government, the maxim is: agriculture first, and everything else will follow.
WTO dispute with the EU
The ball is currently in government’s court to decide how to proceed on the matter of a possible WTO dispute around the EU’s citrus black spot regulations, which the South African industry regards as a non-tariff barrier.
“Industry has taken it as far as it could. In my opinion it was inevitable that after all these years it would move in some or other direction. All of the research has been done, now it depends on the departments of trade and industry and of international relations and how they prioritise the matter.” However, as a previous employee at the World Trade Organisation she is very careful about what the industry can achieve at a body which has made some controversial rulings before.
“In SA we’re doing a tremendous amount with a few people”
What South African agriculture needs, Stephanie feels, is the wider communication of the sector’s data. Data that, for instance, demonstrate the efficacy of the many schools and early learning centres and clinics on farms, initiated and funded by farming enterprises; statistics showing the developmental and economic impact of agriculture’s economic inclusion and transformation projects.
Projects that are some of the most progressive in the country, but unbeknownst to the public at large. “The fruit industry works on many levels and in South Africa, we’re actually doing a tremendous amount with a few people,” she says.
Industries outside agriculture are very keen to hear what agriculture (which often plays its cards close to its chest out of a desire for self-defence in a sometimes antagonistic environment) is doing. The broader public is largely unaware of the fruit industry’s contribution to the economy and standing in the world. “To protect yourself you need to be visible. The fourth industrial revolution is all about data, and that’s where the agricultural sector is lacking,” she says. “Create a narrative, get data from the many projects the industry has on the go, show what you’re doing and get it out into the public domain and part of the public discourse.”
“Our ability to keep calm and carry on is a big resource to local industry. We have a lot of expertise and innovation, but building our image and communicating that to the outside are areas in which the Fruit Desk can assist.”
“When I was being interviewed for this job, I was asked what drew me to the fruit industry and I answered that it is its high levels of ethics and conscience. That really appeals to me.”
For more information:
Stephanie van der Walt
Tel: +27 12 807 6686