The scope of theft of agricultural products such as maize, fruit and livestock is exceedingly difficult to quantify, but the fact is that such crimes have a profound impact on farmers’ sustainability and profitability. In addition, they are forced to spend vast sums on security measures such as electric fencing, something they can hardly afford.

“It’s impossible to fully determine the extent of theft on farms. A 2018 Agri SA survey showed that seven out of 10 participants had at some stage suffered losses due to the theft of infrastructure. [These crimes] cost the primary production sector R5,7 billion in 2018,” said Tommie Esterhuyse, chairperson of Agri SA’s Centre of Excellence: Rural Safety (TE).

Farmer X, a citrus producer from Limpopo, who wanted to remain anonymous to ensure the safety of his farm and family (FX), added: “It’s difficult to quantify the true extent of these crimes. We’ve found that theft escalates early or late in the season. Even if only 1% of an orange yield of 65t/ha to 80t/ha is stolen, it still has an enormously negative effect on business. The erection of fences adds markedly to farmers’ overheads.”

A general disrespect for the law, coupled with poor law enforcement and light sentences (often a R2,000-admission of guilt fine) for convicted thieves are definitely contributing factors. In July 2014, there was one small fruit hawker’s stand on the George’s Valley Road leaving Tzaneen. Now there are 14 such stands, all much bigger than the original one. The law enforcement agencies do not enforce the ‘no hawking’ rule. This is a prime example of disregard for, and lack of enforcement of, the law.

Organised crime groups/syndicates specialise in specific agricultural products. The syndicate is run as a business with a well-established network of people and well-established markets.

It’s difficult to ascertain the number of such crime networks operating in the agriculture sector, but the fact is that they do exist and should be taken seriously by all role players in the agricultural value chain.

What is the role of hawkers in the trade of stolen agricultural produce?
DD: Fruit theft is common, but one cannot make a broad statement that hawkers always sell stolen fruit. Packhouses and farmers sell second- and third-grade fruit to the informal sector, which lands up in the hawking trade.

However, it is sometimes evident that fruit being sold by hawkers is stolen, as it is export quality and often sold for a price lower than would be paid to a farmer if it were delivered to a packhouse for export. In Tzaneen, hawkers sell avocados well before the commercial harvest season, making it likely they were stolen. –