SETLAGOLE, South Africa — Under a midmorning sun that augured punishing heat later in the day, a handful of cows stood still inside a small pen, their ribs protruding. Too weak to reach the nearest grassy field some miles away, some munched on tall grass that their owner had cut from a strip of land along the highway, in a desperate attempt to save his cattle from the drought afflicting the land.
The owner, T. J. Koee — a former miner and a full-time cattle farmer for the past 16 years — listed the drought’s toll this year: 19 dead cows, 38 left, none sold. Last year, he sold 17 calves, earning enough to support his family and send two of his children to college.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do next school year because there’s no profit,” said Mr. Koee, 45, surrounded by a brown and dusty landscape that should have turned green by this time of year. “If this drought continues, all my animals will die.”
The worst drought in more than a generation has gripped South Africa and other African nations as El Niño, a weather phenomenon believed to have been intensified by climate change, brings record high temperatures and low rainfalls across much of the continent. The full impact of the drought and resulting poor harvests will be felt only in the months ahead, but they have already left 29 million people in southern Africa without reliable access to food, according to the United Nations. In East Africa, particularly Ethiopia, 10 million people will need food assistance next year, aid organizations warn.
The drought has compounded the effects of an economic slowdown in many African countries, brought on by slumping prices in raw materials and exports to China. As the currencies of commodity-exporting nations have fallen, it has become costlier for them to import food and other goods.
In South Africa, the government has declared disaster zones in five out of nine provinces, including here in the North West, a major producer of corn, the main staple in southern Africa. As reservoir levels have dropped, officials have imposed water restrictions from Johannesburg, the largest city, to villages across the country. Water supply has been cut during certain hours in some communities, and the use of water for washing cars, gardening and filling up pools has been restricted.
With forecasters predicting little rain in the months ahead, the drought has deepened an economic and political malaise in South Africa, the continent’s second-biggest economy and its most advanced. The country is close to slipping into recession, the result of falling commodity prices and the erratic economic policies of President Jacob G. Zuma’s administration.
The drought, the worst since the end of apartheid in 1994, has hit black farmers the hardest. For many, years of investment and work have evaporated in recent months, with minimal help coming from provincial governments led by Mr. Zuma’s party, the African National Congress. If losses continue or deepen, the drought could eventually pose a challenge to the African National Congress, which relies increasingly on the support of rural black voters to maintain its hold on power nationally.
Some of the A.N.C.’s most loyal supporters are small-scale black farmers who benefited from the government’s land redistribution policies.
Since 1994, the government has taken more than 200 million acres of agricultural land owned by whites and distributed it among 235,609 black South Africans, according to the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform. The figure is far below the A.N.C.’s goal of redistributing 30 percent of the land; by 2011, only 3.7 of agricultural land had been redistributed.
White South Africans still dominate commercial farming. Many black farmers have been unable to move beyond small-scale or subsistence farming because of a lack of capital, experience and land.
Still, between 30 to 40 percent of black-owned farms were profitable before the drought, according to the National African Farmers Union of South Africa, which represents black farmers like Mr. Koee. The drought is wiping out many of the gains black farmers made after the end of apartheid, said Mandla Buthelezi, the union’s senior vice president. He said he had lost 300 cows out of a herd of 800 in recent months on his farm in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal.
“This knock will take black farmers not less than 15, 20, 30 years to recover,” Mr. Buthelezi said. “We didn’t do our homework very well. We weren’t proactive. We’re just reacting to the drought.”
Willem de Chavonnes Vrugt, a white farmer and an official at a farmers’ association that runs workshops for black farmers, called the drought an “act of God,” but said that problems such as overstocking or overgrazing had aggravated the situation. “Nobody can plan for the severity of the drought the way it is,” he said, “but the drought is more severe if you’ve got bad farming practices.”
On his farm, fields normally blanketed in cornstalks by now were brown and unplanted because of the drought. Out of 300 cows, he had lost three.
Main Mmopelwa, a black farmer, has also lost three cows this year, including one on a recent morning, and now had only 12 left. A decade ago, he had amassed as many as 24 cows.
Unable to buy enough feed for his surviving cows, Mr. Mmopelwa did not know what to do with them.
“Who’s going to buy them when they are this thin?” he said.
Mr. Mmopelwa shares a 1,800-acre piece of land with 14 other families in Lekubu, a village about 100 miles northeast of here. About 600 cows graze on land that the absence of seasonal rains has left with balding patches of short grass. The provincial government has given struggling black farmers cattle feed, though far too little to prevent significant losses, farmers said.
With few fences inside their property, the 15 families are unable to control livestock to avoid overgrazing.
“The problem with black farmers is the lack of capital, land and skills,” said Jeremiah Moiloa, 24, who majored in agricultural sciences in college. “That’s why we can’t manage the animals during the drought.”
His father, James Moiloa, the chairman of a group representing the 15 families, has lost four cows recently, leaving him with about 100. A former civil servant, Mr. Moiloa, 73, became a full-time cattle farmer 12 years ago. He had attended workshops run by a farmers’ association, but his experience, he said, was limited.
“When we buy feed from the white farmers, we ask them for advice,” he said, looking at a pen that held his cattle, some of them visibly emaciated.
His son, though, was not pessimistic. He had written his final college report on how to breed Holstein cows in South Africa.
“This country’s population is growing and more people are drinking milk,” he said. “Dairy products are going to be very, very big.”- New York Times