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Editorial Nov 2012

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The Western Cape’s grapes or wrath.

Having just emerged from one of our wettest Winters for some time, we will soon be  wondering ‘what happened to all the water’. Well of course, most of Hout Bay’s winter rains went down the river and into the sea, the “run off”, that is. However, some was absorbed and became ‘ground water’ which eventually will gravitate from our mountains to the ‘Water Table’ which may take several months.

South Africa has only 60% of the World average rainfall and the Western Cape with its Mediterranean climate has much less. I suspect that such a climate, where winter rains dominate for just a few short months, has historically determined the demographics of much of the Cape and in particular the extent of agricultural activity.

The semi desert conditions of much of the Karoo and poor soil prevent the growing of the crops that flourish further North and in sub tropical areas where rain is more plentiful with multiple harvests possible.  The Western Cape’s long dry Summers were probably the main reason why it was never significantly populated by the gradual expansion of the Bantu peoples who drew a line in the eighteenth century at the Eastern Cape, where there was still a degree of summer rainfall which further West did not occur. Hence it was left to the Europeans who settled in the South Western Cape to venture into the interior over the Langeberg and who eventually found a few areas where water could be found and where some sort of farming could be established.

Whilst the veld supported lots of wild game it was not quite so suited for cattle and eventually sheep farming became the only viable reward for stock farming from the semi barren land. However, the farms with just a few workers managed to survive and still do to this day with a lifestyle that is austere to say the least.

Ironically, often in places where water was available the soil was bad and where the soil was good there was little if any water, hence farming was not for the faint hearted. Few crops could withstand the harsh climate and poor soils but amongst the crops that could survive were grapes and hence vineyards were established, and eventually other Mediterranean deciduous fruit were amongst the few crops that were possible, invariably only to be harvested annually requiring intensive manual labour for only a short period of the year.

In past good years, harvest time became a headache as extra labour was scarce, but in recent years there has been a steady migration from the Eastern Cape to the West and the availability of migrant labour, as in the mines,  has become readily available, and a significant part of the agricultural economics equation. Hence the situation at De Doorns and other Karoo settlements. Many of the immigrants have continued their journey to informal settlements in Cape Town and since 1996 the Western Cape’s population has grown by 29% to 5.8 million which also includes immigrants from Gauteng and other countries. These are the realities and our politicians must concentrate on pragmatism instead of political point scoring.

There is no doubt that the Western Cape’s towns and cities cannot accommodate the continuation of this massive influx without a change of plan together with changes in legislation to stem the chaos.

The fact is that the Eastern Cape has much greater farming potential than the Western Cape. It is therefore time that our Government recognised the fact and make concerted efforts to not only develop farming but to create agricultural colleges which could help to create skills and make the Eastern Cape a significant contributor to our supermarkets and our country’s food security as a whole.