ADVANCED PRODUCE EXPORT INDUSTRY
A visit to the trade in South Africa is different than visiting Canada or even the UK. For one thing, it is very far from the US, and, for reasons of both geography and history, South Africa is not a natural trading partner to the US. So few Americans make the trip. I was here to speak at the allFRESH Conference, which is, by far, the largest industry conference and trade show in South Africa, and the only other Americans in the place were agricultural attachés at the US Embassy and Bruce McEvoy, Director of Global Affairs from Seald Sweet.
So I find myself acting as something of an ambassador, not just for the trade but for the American people.
I have already lost track of my meetings. I’m up to speech number five but, already, I know I have met people with whom I will be in touch for many years. People rearrange schedules to meet, give up their holidays and weekends, and not one person has said he has only a set amount of time. Instead there is a thirst for knowledge, a yearning for friendship with America.
I don’t think it is widely understood in America how precarious the situation is here. South Africa is a country of contradictions. It is partly as modern and advanced as any in the world. The food export industry, selling counter-seasonally into all northern hemisphere markets, is as advanced as any in the world. Indeed on produce, you could argue it is more advanced, for this sector meets the food safety, food security and certification requirements not only of the US, but also of Japan and Europe.
These certifications go well beyond food safety, to issues of social responsibility and whatnot. How many American firms are certified as EurepGAP compliant?
The advanced produce economy of South Africa sits precariously across a nation in which large portions of the population are not only poor, but also tribal — many still believing in witch doctors and superstition. The Vice President of the country has been the subject of attention, for he seems to have had an affair with an HIV-positive woman. Not to worry, he explained: He took a shower immediately after sex. This is the #2 guy.
The Minister of Health is a national joke, as she touts beet root, garlic and other foods as cures for Aids.
It is to the enormous credit of Nelson Mandela, the long-imprisoned leader of the opposition to the Apartheid regime, that he built a new government in a spirit of reconciliation and that, so far, South Africa has avoided the heartache of nations such as Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia. But Mandela is old and does not have the influence he once did.
Beyond that, there is frustration brewing. Black Economic Empowerment is a big issue. Acquiring the desire and competency to run businesses is a multi-generational effort, and any quick fixes that try to short circuit the needed education, training and development of the bourgeois virtues of prudence, thrift, reliability and trustworthiness are bound to fail. Frustration in the program will continue to build.
But there is a great national undertaking going on here. They call it “Transition”, but, roughly, it is a dream of moving to a society in which historical injustices will be rectified and people will be, as a great American once dreamed, judged [not] by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have my doubts about their ability to pull it off. There are too many uneducated and ignorant people, easily swayed by demagogues, and there is too high a likelihood that there will be economic setbacks that will set the stage for the rise of these demagogues. It is too easy to play on base human instincts such as greed and envy.
But this is not for some American to say. I listened to an afternoon workshop of how to reform and transition terminal markets. There were frightening mentions of dangerous things, such as quotas. I had a lot of thoughts, a lot of opinions, a lot of experience. Now that it is over, I will try to whisper what I think to some people who may be able to make a difference. But I stood silent in the workshop for this dilemma: If it is to be resolved peacefully and without ruin to the South African economy, it must be resolved by South Africans.
HERE TO HELP
Yet, South Africans should know that they do not stand alone. America is a great multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy. And I paused before I began my keynote address to let the delegates know that although America may not be the traditional or natural trading partner with South Africa, in our people, who have wrestled with the devil of racism, the South Africans can find a great friend. For there is no people on this earth who more devoutly wish to see Transition succeed and the considered will of a nation prevail.
Sure there is the matter of American interests, and our interest in this part of the world is most certainly served by the rise of a vibrant and strong multi-racial democracy. But it goes beyond interests. No American can help but feel an affinity for a people who struggle, as all democracies must, to find the way to peace and prosperity.
Every little bit counts. I like to think that these speeches and meetings are not just for my benefit but that in helping to build business ties between our nations and by generously sharing what knowledge, expertise or experience America has, I can make a small contribution toward helping the people of South Africa on their own rendezvous with destiny.
Seeing Bruce McEvoy here from Seald Sweet tells us a lot. First that both Bruce and Seald Sweet deserve a hat tip for making a commitment in South Africa that includes acquisition of land. Second, it demonstrates what an important part of its business South Africa has become. Third, it demonstrates the desirability of geographic diversification in the produce industry.
I think the grower/owners of Sunkist ought to think a lot about Bruce McEvoy being here. As they evaluate the importance of these international ventures, including Sunkist ventures in South Africa, they should think long and hard about where Seald Sweet would be, if, post-hurricane, it didn’t have these international ventures.
We’ve mentioned several times — including a piece here, and I linked to an editorial column I wrote 15 years ago — the urge for the growers/owners of Sunkist to reassess their situation.
South Africa is very internationally oriented because the domestic market is so small. So there is much talk here about China and, specifically, massive plantings in areas such as citrus.
Up to now, Sunkist efforts internationally have focused on the southern hemisphere, which is counter-seasonal to Sunkist’s California and Arizona fruit. The growers/owners of Sunkist have accepted this on the basis that servicing customers year-round makes sense both from a relationship-maintenance and a sales staff-utilization standpoint.
What will Sunkist do about China?
If Sunkist would end the co-op and turn it into a publicly traded company, the answer is obvious. Sunkist would build packinghouses in China and market Chinese fruit to maintain its Asian business. Afterall, Sunkist’s current business will most surely be lost to much cheaper fruit from China, especially as Chinese quality is dramatically improving every year.
Indeed, maybe the Chinese fruit could even be used in other markets where Sunkist can’t sell now due to price issues.
But will the growers be able to see beyond their self-interest in maintaining a vibrant Sunkist, as a corporate entity, not simply as a tool to sell their own citrus? On this question much hangs.