Tough task ahead for two new master plan ministers.

The formation of South Africa’s government of national unity (GNU) has put two brand new cabinet ministers in charge of the country’s two agricultural master plans.

John Steenhuisen, formerly leader of the opposition as head of the Democratic Alliance, becomes Minister of Agriculture after the DA joined the unity government.

Parks Tau, formerly mayor of Johannesburg and a deputy minister in the previous government, takes over from Ebrahim Patel as Minister of Trade, Industry & Competition.

Both of them will find there’s lots of work ahead, particularly in reviving the poultry master plan, which their predecessors signed in 2019. The poultry industry was then in crisis due to a flood of dumped imports. 

The master plan aimed to curb imports, act against dumping and grow the local industry to serve expanded local and export markets. While there has been some progress, many projects are way behind schedule.

In the meantime, the poultry industry has suffered a series of other setbacks, including crippling electricity shortages, other infrastructure failures such as water and transport, and the worst bird flu outbreak in the country’s history.

The two new ministers should both be attending meetings of the master plan’s Executive Oversight Committee, of which they are ex officio members together with leaders of the poultry industry and other master plan signatories.

The committee is crucial to the master plan’s success. Initially conceived as the Master Plan Council, its function is to see that plans are set up and properly implemented in order to achieve master plan objectives. Unfortunately, this hasn’t always happened.

The most obvious example is poultry exports, which should have doubled by now, and be on the way to trebling in terms of the master plan timetable. Instead exports have not moved above the 2019 total, largely because the agriculture department has been unable to expand state veterinary capabilities to supply the health certificates that export markets require.

While the poultry industry has met its master plan commitments, the export drive is only one area where government action has fallen short of its master plan promises.

It will be up to ministers Steenhuisen and Tau to inject some fire into the master plan belly.

Steenhuisen faces a further master plan challenge in the implementation of the agriculture and agri-business master plan. That too, is behind schedule. But he need not despair, or search for a new agricultural development plan. Agricultural economist Wandile Sihlobo has been stating for the past few months that there are many well-researched development plans not put to proper use. No new plans are needed, says Sihlobo – just implement the ones you’ve got.

Additionally, Minister Steenhuisen will have to guide his new department’s response to a court decision that it can no longer dismiss bird flu compensation claims on the basis that infected birds have no value. That ruling potentially opens the department to claims totalling billions.

It’s going to be a tough start.