By Ed Stoddard
AMAJUBA, South Africa (Reuters) - Cattle are the traditional asset by which Nampie Motloung, a subsistence black South African farmer, has long measured his wealth. But a blistering drought has made them a liability.
"I have no choice but to sell some of my cows. I must do it before they die," Motloung, 62, told Reuters as his 30-strong herd ambled in the distance across the parched landscape.
"It pains me to do so. My cattle are my family's inheritance," he said.
The wealth of small-scale farmers and the dreams of emerging black commercial farmers are evaporating as South Africa's worst drought since the end of apartheid rule in 1994 scorches the land.
The state's response could be politically crucial. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) government relies heavily on rural areas and local elections loom next year.
KwaZulu Natal province, an ANC stronghold where Motloung resides and the Zulu heartland where President Jacob Zuma hails from, is one of the worst affected.
It has already been declared a disaster for water shortages, which will allow it to access some of the 364 million rand ($26 million) the National Treasury has allocated this financial year for immediate disaster relief.
Driving through the rolling hills of the province's Amajuba district reveals a stark landscape, the green foliage of hardy thorn trees unfolding over brown and withered fields.
Along one dusty road, a Reuters crew saw a dying cow stuck in the hardening mud, its head beneath the wire of a fence where it had tried to get a last drink from a vanishing puddle.
SELL OR STARVE
After drought last year cut South Africa's staple maize crop by a third, a powerful El Nino weather pattern - which typically heralds poor rains for the region - is forecast to persist for most of the summer and perhaps extend into the autumn.
South African livestock farmers were urged by the government last week to cut herd sizes as sizzling temperatures suck moisture from pastures, leaving them without the grass or nutrients to accommodate numbers that in some cases have been built up for decades as a store of family wealth.
Commercial agriculture is also affected, including new black farmers who have benefited from a government drive to redress the racial imbalances of the past by buying white-owned farms for redistribution to Africans.
Critics say many of the transferred farms have failed as new-comers lack capital and skills. But there have been success stories, notably in KwaZulu Natal.
Analysts say if some of them start failing because of the drought it could erode the ANC's rural base.
"Some of the medium-sized farmers in KwaZulu Natal have been a success story and so it would be quite a blow to the party if they failed now even if it doesn’t seem fair because it is weather-related," said political analyst Nic Borain.
Talent Cele, an affable 27-year-old Zulu with a self-proclaimed passion for working the land, is one of the new black farmers who is desperate for rain.
The almost 600-hectare farm he manages - formerly white-owned, being worked by a black cooperative - is bleeding its cattle in a vicious cycle.
"I have to sell cattle to buy feed because we have been advised to reduce the numbers. But feed is expensive and I also want to plant maize to feed the cows but I cannot. It is too dry," he told Reuters.
Yellow maize, used mostly for animal feed, has been hitting year highs above 3,000 rand a tonne, according to Thomson Reuters' data, because of the weather.
Cele has been selling 25 cattle a month, bringing his herd size to 225 from around 350. The average price for a good animal has also fallen to 6,000 rand from 10,000.
The ANC's political problems are also rooted in its perceived failure to deliver basic services such as water and decent roads to many black communities, a situation that has given rise to regular riots by frustrated residents.
Decaying infrastructure in water utilities has also become glaringly apparent recently, raising the risk of shortages.
By contrast, in parts of rural KwaZulu Natal the ANC has delivered admirably, solidifying its political support in the Zulu countryside. But its remaining shortcomings there may be amplified by the drought.
"It’s a perfect storm for the ANC as the evidence of the state of the water supply and a natural catastrophe converge," said Borain.
Back at Motloung's plot, he complains that his family must fetch water hundreds of meters (yards) away from a pump at Cele's farm. And his dam has dried up, so his cattle have to be watered laboriously by hand.
"I have gone to the local council but they have done nothing," he said.
(Additional reporting by Siyabonga Sishi; Editing by James Macharia and Susan Thomas)