The old house on the Forbes Athole farm outside Amsterdam in Mpumalanga is an impressive block with Cape Dutch-style gables and white walls. It is surrounded by a relatively small lawn and an electric fence that has outlived its usefulness.
Inside its cavernous lounge and dining-room area, walls are covered with heads of game hunted mostly by the grandfather of its current owner, Colin Forbes, who is driven, these days, by his plan for what he prefers to call “rural development”. Forbes is a fourth-generation farmer — as well as a physician — whose great-grandfather was originally offered the farm as payment by the Transvaal Republic after working as a guide on a railway construction project in the 1850s.
He has been forthcoming about his model, aspects of which are already in evidence on his 5 627-hectare mixed-practice farm, which includes maize, soya beans, potatoes, cattle and gum and wattle plantations. He has been courting media attention and, with less success so far, land reform and agricultural government departments.
In a nutshell his plan is this: he has offered to sell a 550-hectare portion of his farm to the government for R4.4-million. This area, adjacent to the R65 road that connects Ermelo to Swaziland via Amsterdam, amounts to about 10% of the farm’s area. Of this, 31 hectares are covered in maize fields, yielding roughly eight tonnes of maize a hectare. There are gum and wattle stands amounting to 110 hectares. Surrounding the recently built Nsephe Primary School, which comprises three brick-and-mortar classrooms, are about 40 plots, each covering an area of 0.55 hectares, for residential space.
Mud and wood structures dot this flat terrain, but Forbes hopes to convert those into brick and mortar houses should government bite. He plans to use 75% of the money made from the sale for start-up capital for his workers’ new farming venture and pledges to provide equipment to facilitate the process.
Forbes’s idea is centred on hands-on mentorship. “I would consider it my responsibility to mentor and ensure transfer of management skills to the beneficiaries,” he wrote in an email before we met. “Many of my employees have specific farming skills that exceed my own but currently lack only planning and leadership experience.”
‘The city guy’
Soon after our arrival Forbes took us around his property in his mother’s Mercedes four-wheel drive. He stopped along the R65 to check in on some of his workers, who were manning a massive firebreak. A few days before our arrival, embers from a nearby experimental government farm dropped on to the property, destroying about 300 hectares of maize land and wiping out a substantial portion of his winter feed.
“We had two fires here this week,” he said. “A city guy here would get in the way and we would have sent him home.”
By “city guy” Forbes is referring to department of agriculture forestry and fisheries director general Langa Zitha’s recent comments in Farmers’ Weekly, in which he suggested that his department would take interns and place them on commercial farms to learn for six months. Following that, they would work with smallholder farmers, especially land-reform beneficiaries. Forbes calls the idea of interns mentoring seasoned farm workers nothing short of “fanciful”.
His model is a “one-size-fits-all” solution for land reform, he said, a presumptuous assumption for the complexities of the issue. One-tenth, he claimed, “is viable, will not disrupt cash flow and will avoid mass bankruptcies”.
“A farm is like an extension of your own body,” he said early the next morning on a scenic walk to a cliff face overlooking the new settlement. “Losing 10% of it is like cutting off your own forearm. Other farmers might be able to afford more; I can’t. I have only about 5 000 hectares. But even with that 10%, I can guarantee that the workers will emerge as commercial farmers.”
Like many other white farmers, Forbes is opposed to what he perceives as the government’s haphazard approach to land redistribution, which he sees as “the transfer of hectares for the sake of hectares”. On the one hand, his plan is a response to government’s calls for ideas on rural development and land reform; on the other it is a pre-emptive strike born out of a fear of the unknown. The conviction in Forbes’s tone is tempered by a conspicuous fragility and, as the day progresses, the difficulty of separating his flu symptoms from a pervasive vulnerability only intensifies.
We leave the old farmhouse for a bumpy ride to meet the workers’ committee in the mechanics’ workshop. While I speak to his workers, Forbes retreats to a second farmhouse where he lives with his fiancée and 18-month-old son.
Like most farm employees, Forbes’s workers have limited academic education and are not unionised. The “democratically elected” committee is toothless by many workers’ accounts and cannot negotiate much in the form of occupational rights. There’s also a scepticism about Forbes’s motives.
One narrative suggested that it’s a way of acknowledging the support that some workers showed him during what he calls a “spurious” and “laughable” land claim brought against him a few years ago. Another said the resettlement is just a way of aligning himself with the new regulations that would require him to provide access to water and electricity. Since the changes on the farm some of Forbes’s employees have come to see themselves as an increasingly disenfranchised group. They complained they no longer have the right to cultivate their own crops for sale as they used to and their ownership of livestock has been restricted. (Forbes said the reason for a restriction on workers’ cattle — no more than 225 in total — is to prevent overgrazing.)
Although his model is basically a variation of the willing-buyer willing-seller model, with a 10% cap and a bit of hands-on mentorship thrown in for good measure, some among his peers seem to be waiting to see which way the wind will blow.
Government and farmer relationship
Take Jaap Naudé, who owns a forestry farm 20km outside Amsterdam. In his view government is giving farms to people who do not necessarily have the will to be farmers.
“Right now what you have happening is that the farmer goes, the farm lies abandoned and the workers go elsewhere,” said Naudé. “The new owner brings his cattle, stays in the house and no farming happens.”
Like Forbes, Naudé believes the government should be working closer with farmers and listen to what they have to say about land reform if they want attitudes to change or farms to continue to thrive as agricultural concerns.
“Every farmer must have an idea of what he will do about land reform and get into a conversation with people who will listen to that plan, not their own agendas instead,” he said.
But the department of rural development and land reform claims to have widely consulted farmers through unions. An email sent by the department’s head of communications, Eddie Mohoebi, to the Mail & Guardian in June speaks of meetings between the minister, the department and “key stakeholders” between November 2010 and May 2011. Naudé, who is in a farmer’s union involved in this exchange, should at least be familiar with the term “comprehensive rural development programme” (CRDP), which is government’s restructured land reform approach that aims to achieve equitable distribution of land while emphasising productivity. He isn’t.
“If the CRDP is their plan and they have put it out to unions, I’m sure they would get a positive response from farmers,” he said. “I would help people around me. It is in my interests to ensure that neighbouring farms are in good shape and don’t become fire threats in the winter.”
Whereas Forbes is optimistic about a response from government, Ben Cousins, a researcher at the University of the Western Cape-based Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (Plaas) feels the proposal is flawed in a number of ways and is unlikely to garner support from either government or commercial farmers.
“The notion that 550 hectares, with only 31 hectares of it being arable and a small area under timber, can be ‘commercially viable’ is problematic as this works out to less than a hectare of crop land per beneficiary; 440 hectares of grazing at maximum would support only a small commercial livestock enterprise, with profits shared between 55 beneficiary households and thus likely to be quite small,” Cousins wrote in an email.
Besides, he wrote, the farmers won’t become full-time farm workers — they’ll keep their day jobs on Forbes’s farm and the land allocated will become more of an “agri-village” than a commercial farm, something that will serve only to relieve the farmer of the responsibility of his workers’ housing and services. But Cousins also questioned the part of Forbes’s plan that calls for land to be expropriated from the farmer if his mentoring of the new farmers fails. “What will be the criteria for ‘success’ or ‘failure’?” he asked.
Besides, why is Forbes prepared to lose only one-tenth? “Why not 30%, which is government’s national target for redistribution? This would amount to 1 650 hectares, more likely to constitute a ‘viable commercial farm’, but probably for a much smaller number of beneficiaries. If farmers donated 30% of their land, or offered it at a much reduced price, and government used the funds that would have been required to purchase the land for capitalising the new farming ventures, land reform could begin to work.”
Forbes admitted his plan is not perfect. “I have felt all along that this initiative has its flaws,” he said. “It surely is incumbent on critics of this model, however, to suggest an alternative. Constructive dialogue has yet to be entered into between government, landowners and aspirant black farmers. We who are in a position to make a difference are surely not going to cynically sit back and watch the fireworks unfold with a view to sagely documenting ‘failed land reform in South Africa’.”
Meanwhile, a paper trail of Forbes’s emails shows that he contacted the department of agriculture forestry and fisheries but his correspondence went unanswered. And attempts by the M&G to get an opinion about Forbes’s ideas from the department of rural development and land reform were not successful. The man with the plan — flawed or not — is still awaiting his answer.
Kwanele Sosibo is the Eugene Saldanha Fellow in social justice reporting, supported by CAF Southern Africa