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Severe Drought Fuels Doubts In South Africa

As a whites-only poll on negotiations nears, poor farm prospects curb support for change

WESTERN diplomats and aid officials fear that the drought in southern Africa - described as the worst this century - will delay vital development programs and could set back democratic reforms.

"Human beings finally get their act together and Mother Nature comes and complicates things. It's the worst possible time for southern Africa," says Scott Spangler, assistant administrator for Africa of the United States Agency for International Development.

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In South Africa, the drought is breaking the spirit of white farmers, once the backbone of agriculture and the symbol of Afrikaner tenacity, just as whites are set to vote in a March 17 referendum on continuing the multiracial negotiations. (De Klerk faces hostilities, Page 6.)

White farmers in this western Transvaal corn belt are near-bankrupt and demoralized after more than a decade of drought, and fear losing their land under a black majority government.

Ten years ago, Delareyville, a small town of about 1,500 people, was the center of one of the most affluent corn-producing regions. Many farmers drove luxury automobiles and went on annual overseas holidays.

Today, the area is devastated. The accumulated impact of the drought has left farmers burdened by debt. Vast tracts of arable land lie empty and parched because farmers cannot afford to buy seed for the next planting. Most cultivated fields have been burnt brown by the searing heat and lack of rain. When rain comes, it is too late, and many crops are destroyed by early frost.

In a good year, the 350 farmers in this area produce 2 million tons of an average 11 million ton national corn crop. This year Delareyville expects to produce no more than 100,000 tons; the national crop is expected to yield less than 5 million tons.

"I must carry on - I have no option," says Abraham van Zyl, a corn farmer near here who is receiving emergency food aid. "If the government doesn't help us, then I don't know what is going to happen.... Then I see hunger for all the people."

Mr. van Zyl, who owns a 450-hectare (1,100-acre) farm south of this small western Transvaal town, is on the point of bankruptcy. An estimated 60 percent of farmers in the area face a similar fate unless they receive substantial government assistance soon.

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The nationwide drought has landed agriculture with a staggering $6 million debt and slashed the projected national corn crop by 60 percent.

South Africa, usually a net exporter of corn, will have to import about 4 million tons this year at a cost of almost $1 billion - nearly twice the price it would receive for the same volume of exports, according to agricultural officials.

But the officials fear food shortages because the transport system is not accustomed to distributing large quantities of imported grain.

This is complicated by pressure on ports and rail networks from neighboring states like Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi, which are also hard-hit by the drought and have to import corn.

During the first three decades of National Party rule, which began in 1948, farmers were assured of priority treatment from the government, and credit was seldom refused.

But over the past decade, white farmers have turned to the right-wing Conservative Party in increasing numbers and credit has been reduced as the government has switched to deregulation and free-market policies.

The government has pledged aid to help farmers but has not yet disclosed details of the aid package. Economists and agricultural officials say the drought has already reached the proportions of a national disaster.

Agriculture Minister Kraai van Niekerk warned last week that a projected growth in the recession-plagued economy during the second half of this year could be obliterated by the drought in summer-crop areas.

The Rev. Francois Sieberhagen, minister of the Delareyville Dutch Reformed Church, said the drought has led to severe personal hardship for farmers and their black farm workers.

Van Zyl has already paid off two of his six black farm workers and will be unable to pay the remaining four (who have 36 dependants) unless he receives direct cash aid from the government.

The farm workers are among some 100,000 black farm workers nationwide facing unemployment. Some 3,000 white farmers face bankruptcy nationwide.

Many black farm workers in this area have chosen to continue working for their food and shelter rather than face unemployment and starvation in the impoverished tribal homeland of Bophuthatswana.

The faith of some farmers is being tested to the limits.

"Sometimes it feels as though everything is falling apart," Van Zyl says as he gazes out at his withering crop. "I think God is cross with the people," he adds, referring to the division of Afrikaners between the right-wing and the ruling National Party.

Apart from the drought, withdrawal of government subsidies, spiraling production costs, and high interest rates, Van Zyl fears the political changes which lie ahead.

"I think the cost of the political changes has left no money for the farmers," he says.

"If a black government takes over I fear that we will lose our land and there will be no food in the country," he adds.

Van Zyl already owes about $190,000 to lending institutions. Apart from his farm, which is not saleable in the present climate, his last assets are 30 cows, which he sells at the rate of a couple a month to buy food for his family.

Like most white farmers in this once-affluent corn producing area, Van Zyl will harvest no marketable crop from his fields this year.

The corn plants are one-third the size they should be, and the ground-nuts are withering from lack of water and blistering heat.

Even if the rains came now, it would be too late.

"The insecurity begins to affect one mentally after a while," Van Zyl says. "It's not knowing what is going to happen."

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