Farmers' fatal despair: Suicides soar as worst drought in decades drives them to ruin

19 April 2017 - 08:20 By KATHARINE CHILD
A farm near Senekal
A farm near Senekal
Image: Sean O'Toole

A drought-driven economic crunch seems to be to blame for a spike in suicides by farmers, insurers say.

Suicide claims on insurance company Liberty increased by 20% last year - and one reason was farmers' suicides.

Liberty actuary Henk Meintjes said: "The economic climate hasn't been great for a while . [but] the number of confirmed suicides was 20% higher in 2016 than the average for 2014 and 2015."

Meintjes said the company had tried to find a reason for the surge in suicides and discovered a sharp increase in the number of farmers over the age of 55 committing suicide in the Northern Cape last year.

"We can't prove it is because of the economy faltering but it is likely," he said.

  • ‘I cannot pay my staff’ - Farmers hope winter will save them from army worm onslaughtSmall-scale farmers are pinning their hopes on the dry winter season to exterminate the fall army worm that has destroyed almost their entire crops‚ leaving behind only barren stalks.

Farmers were living in the same difficult economy as everyone else but on top of that they had the drought to deal with, he added.

There was a direct correlation between a failing economy and the suicide rate, Meintjes said.

"The Greek economic collapse led to an increase in suicides of 40% to 80% depending which statistics you look at," he said.

After the banking crisis in 2008 in the US, the suicide rate rose by up to 40%.

The risk extends beyond the agriculture sector. Momentum Insurance's claims for last year show that more farmers, company directors and business owners had taken their own lives.

  • Poor forgotten in drought reportingThe government has failed to respond to the country's national drought appropriately and the poor are bearing the burden of its dereliction.

Chris van Zyl, deputy general manager of farmers' group TAU SA, said many farmers in the Northern Cape had suffered from drought for years.

"They were already in a dire situation. If you have a few bad years before a drought really kicks in, it just worsens the situation.

"Banks would provide overdraft only to a certain limit. Many farmers had no options from a financial point of view."

Free donated fodder became too expensive to transport to the Northern Cape, so farmers slaughtered their cattle, he said. It would take farmers four or five years to build up new herds of cattle and return to profitability.

  • Farming awaits crop updates in better shapeSouth Africa will this week receive an updated forecast of this year's maize harvest when the crop estimates committee releases its second report of the season.

Two high-profile farmer suicides reported in the past year were those of Barries Snijman, an angora farmer who appeared on kykNET's show MegaBoere, who shot himself on his farm this month. In January last year livestock farmer Krisjan Kruger, 34, killed himself on his Eastern Cape farm.

Van Zyl said the effect of drought was compounded by farm crime, the lack of financial support and uncertainty over the government's land policy, all of which created "psychological stress".

Violence restricted farmers to their houses after sunset, creating feelings of isolation and vulnerability: "Home becomes a prison."

Oxfam researcher Roland Wesso said the effects of drought continued even after the rains returned.

"The drought is over meteorologically but not socially."

  • Armyworm crisis talksInternational experts began emergency talks in Harare yesterday to tackle an outbreak of crop-eating fall armyworm caterpillars that are advancing across South Africa and other African countries.

People with 40 to 60 cattle used them as security with which to borrow - but many had lost everything.

"In some cases you never recover from that," he said. "From 60 cattle to one can leave you impoverished."

He said the government's drought response had been inadequate and cattle had died. Vegetable gardens had withered in the drought. This caused huge stress to communities, he said.

Paul Makube, senior agricultural economist at FNB, last year called for the government to do more to help farmers after the worst drought on record. He proposed supporting farmers with feed, production and labour subsidies to keep them on the land, and improving irrigation infrastructure to ensure production, and other measures.