White farmers take up land cause

With its rolling green fields, fat dairy cows and state-of-the-art milking enclosure, the Fort Hare Dairy Trust outside the Eastern Cape university town of Alice could easily be a shining symbol of how successful land reform could be in South Africa.

The trust, started from a partnership between 70 white farmers from the Tsitsikamma and Underberg areas—through their company Amadlelo Agri—and the nearby University of Fort Hare, provides intensive hands-on training to black farmers from around the country.

“We met in 2004 and came to the conclusion that land empowerment is not purely the responsibility of the government,” says Amadlelo Agri chief executive Jeff Every.

“If land reform is to happen properly in South Africa white farmers have to play a role in providing skills training and resources.

“We have had all the privileges. We have to share what we know and what we have.”

The farmers signed on an empowerment company Vuwa Investments, which was given a 35% stake in the company.
The farmers kept 49% and the rest of the company was shared between 600 workers from the 70 dairy farms. Next Every met the Agricultural Department at the University of Fort Hare and discussed the farmers’ plan.

“We said let’s join forces to do research and training for aspiring black students and managers, so that they have a chance of being successful,” Every says.

The university offered to contribute research and scientific knowledge to the farm and donated R2-million to the project. It also offered a piece of land outside town, which it owned through the Department of Agriculture.

A further R5 million was received from Amadlelo and two amounts from the Land Bank—R7,5-million in equity and R7,5-million credit.

Now that it had the land, the farmers would need a manager. Every already had someone in mind. Leonard Mavhungu was born and brought up in Thohoyandou in Venda.

For a time he worked for Rand Water, but found he longed to live the life of a farmer. He met a recruitment agent and asked about the possibilities of farm work.

Days later the agent told Mavhungu Amadlelo Agri was looking for interns. Mavhungu was interviewed and in 2005 he was given a position on the company’s two year farming programme. Some of South Africa’s top pasture farmers would be his mentors.

When Mavhungu graduated from his internship he was asked about starting up a dairy farm in the Eastern Cape.

He remembers arriving at the stretch of land outside in Alice with his wife and child in February 2007.

“There was nothing here,” he says.

“It was bush.”

He went to work on February 28 2007. He chopped out the bush, dug trenches, laid irrigation pipes, built cattle enclosures, erected fences and learned to service tractors.

“I got to work straight away. My wife and daughter were with me. They helped too. I was given a few implements to work with and I hired some labourers. But it was tough. I learnt as I went. You can’t do this job if you don’t have a passion for farming.”

When Mavhungu needed advice all he had to do was phone his mentor, who farms in the area.

“He has a deep knowledge of farming so his advice helps me a lot,” Mavhungu says.

The hard work paid off and by October 2, 2007 Mavhungu was milking cows. Today the Fort Hare Dairy Trust is a state-of-the-art commercial dairy farm.

It has an 800-cow rotary parlour that produces around 10 000 litres of milk a day. Much of that milk is supplied to the Clover milk company.

The farm, which requires 600 tons of maize a year, sources much of its produce from farmers in the Alice area. Every predicts that at its peak the dairy will produce double its current output.

He credits the success of the project to Mavhungu’s passion for farming.

“Leonard made a remarkable entrance into full scale dairy farming,” Every says.

“There is a very false but widely held belief that black people are not commercial farmers. Leonard showed that this belief is just not on.”

Each year Amadlelo takes on between 10 and 15 black interns. Some of those are sent to the Fort Hare Dairy Trust. Like Mavhungu, the students are put through a rigorous hands-on farming course.

The difference now is that Mavhungu is their mentor. If the students are successful in the internship, they are posted to working farms in the Eastern Cape.

Abulele Mtambeka, 25, a student from the Nelson Mandela Bay University, says he has learned just about everything about farming while on his internship at the Fort Hare Dairy Trust.

“We are taught everything to do with dairy farming, from driving tractors to milking cows, from installing irrigation systems to growing pastures,” he says.

“It’s tough, but farming isn’t easy.”

Mtambeka, who is from the Nouga area outside of Port Elizabeth, recalls how a now-defunct irrigation scheme in his area once used to provide ample food and work for the local population.

“It stopped functioning in 1994,” he says.

“I saw what it did to the community. I would love to help get that project going again.”

Lusanda Winnifred Jombile, 20, of Tshwane University, is another student working on the farm.

“Leonard pushes us hard,” she says. “But that’s what I want. Leonard drives and motivates us. It’s good to have him here.”

The success of the Fort Hare Dairy Trust cuts a stark contrast to a government owned ostrich farm in Hammanskraal in Pretoria, which earlier this year was found stripped of furniture, without running water and with its livestock limping in their pens.

The government bought that farm in 2007 and rented it out to a group of small-scale farmers. By last August the farm was deserted. For the first time the agriculture ministry applied a “use it or lose it” policy and claimed back the land last month for use by new farmers.

Professor Ben Cousins, director of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape, says a crucial element of land reform is to assist new owners to become productive users of their land.

This is particularly important for poverty reduction and to allay fears that land reform will undermine production for local or export markets.

“Post-settlement support involves credit, farming inputs, water for irrigation, marketing arrangements, information and training,” Cousins says.

“Training is crucial because of the loss of agricultural skills that took place in the apartheid era.”

Cousins says it is vital that the government deals with land transformation in an effective way.

“Land carries a powerful political charge, as is the case in neighbouring Zimbabwe, which had a similar history to South Africa’s.”

Cousins says by 2008 a total of 5,8 million hectares or just 5% of commercial farmland had been transferred to black people through a combination of restitution and redistribution. This is well short of the target of 30% that the government wants to achieve by 2014.

“If land questions remain unresolved, the possibility clearly exists for populist politicians to focus strongly on these issues in order to build a support base, leading to unrealistic policies that promise much but fail to deliver real benefits,” he says.

“This in turn could lead to discontent and unrest.”

Every believes that projects such as the Fort Hare Dairy Trust will have to become commonplace if land reform is to succeed.

One of the motivations Amadlelo uses for its interns is to reward farmers with cattle as they pass through different stages.

“Eventually Leonard will have enough cows to start his own full-scale dairy farm,” Every says.

“It is a long process but there is guaranteed success. That is the nature of farming. It takes time to be a top operator.”—Sapa

Client Media Releases