Ineptitude dooms farm college project to dismal failure

The government spent R11-million buying a farm more than a decade ago but plans to convert it into a “much-needed” agricultural college have come to nought.

Instead, the once-flourishing azalea farm, the Carmel Farm Estate, in the Magaliesberg area, west of Johannesburg, is falling apart.

The only signs of any development are to be found in documents and on the websites of the Gauteng department of agriculture and rural development, the West Rand district municipality and Mogale City.

After a Mail & Guardian enquiry, the Gauteng agriculture department said the project had been abandoned because it was too expensive.

Two buildings – a double-storey Victorian-style administrative unit and a thatched house – are all but buried in weeds. Behind them, collapsing buildings face on to an empty swimming pool.

Besides the entrance to the farm, which is enclosed with electric fencing, are rows of greenhouses in various stages of decay. The metal supports have rusted and the sheeting is torn. The farm was the most expensive of 48 farms bought in Gauteng by the national department of rural development in the 2006-2007 financial year.

In March 2012, the Gauteng agriculture MEC at the time, Nandi Mayathula-Khoza, launched the project amid much fanfare. At the time, R3-million was set aside for the building of the college, to be called the West Rand Agricultural Institute.

The institute, touted to be the country’s 13th agricultural college, was expected to “assist in training and capacity building of farmers” in the region. In August 2013, the Gauteng agriculture department and its North West counterpart signed a memorandum of agreement, which would have seen the proposed institute run by the Potchesfstroom College of Agriculture until it was granted full accreditation.

Gauteng had approached the North West government because “the mixed-farming curriculum offered at the Potchefstroom college is known to be among the best in the country”, according to a joint statement.

Then, in 2014, Mogale City’s mayor at the time, Koketso Seerane, announced in his state of the city address that the provincial government had started developing a business plan.

Nothing concrete has happened since, leaving former employees, who were promised jobs at the college, struggling to make ends meet.

In response to the M&G’s questions, the rural development department washed its hands of responsibility for the project and referred queries to Mogale City.

Spokesperson Linda Page said the department had been requested by Mogale City to buy the land. “Mogale City local municipality are the owners of the land,” she said. “All other queries should be directed to the municipality.”

Mogale City mayor Micheal Holenstien said the Gauteng agriculture department would have to explain why the project had stalled.

“The reality is that it is owned by the Gauteng province. These were grand plans, but grand plans that have failed dismally,” he said.

Asked about Mogale City’s involvement in the project, he said: “It was handled by the province but obviously, once it was operational, they would normally run it for about four or five years and then hand it over to the municipality.”

Gauteng spokesperson for the department of agriculture Castro Ngobese said project had to be abandoned after it was realised setting up the college needed R100-million.

Former workers wait for years – for nothing

Among scattered Eucalyptus trees behind the Carmel Farm Estate lives a small community of former farmworkers who face an uncertain future.

Once a thriving azalea nursery, the farm is falling apart.

Housed in crumbling brick cottages and precarious shacks, the former employees wait from day to day to hear whether the jobs they were promised will come.

Their homes have had no electricity since the connection to the main farm failed.

“We have asked the old councillor to install us prepaid electricity but our pleas fell on deaf ears, as you can see. No one listens or cares about us,” says Rich Dumani (83), who retired from the farm in 2002.

“I have lived here since birth – the whole 26 years of my life,” says a former employee, who asked not to be identified. “Me and my siblings were born here.”

After the farm was sold, a farmer leased it from the government but the lease was not renewed in 2013. That’s when their frustrations began, he said.

The tiny community of about 22 families were reassured by the government that houses would be built for them and they would be given jobs when the college was up and running. Four years later, nothing has materialised.

“We have been relying on other piece jobs that pay a pittance since then. Things are really tough, my brother,” he says.

Abraham Busang, 82, said he had worked and lived on the farm for 40 years. He arrived in the country from Botswana in 1960 and he stopped working in 2000 when he retired.

The father of five says two of his children had also worked at the farm.

“It’s the only home I know. I have no idea where I would go if I was removed from here. I’ll die here.”

Forty-nine-year-old Josia Sweni lives alone in a rusted corrugated iron and mud shack, which he says is bad for his health.

Sweni, who was employed on the farm a few months before it closed, lost his right eye in car accident a few years earlier.

“This doesn’t make things any easier for me in finding work,” he says, pointing to his blinded eye.

“It has been really tough. I also have to rely on an unsustainable piece job that I get paid R125 for every shift. It’s a struggle because I never know when this guy [a farmer] will need my services. I can go for a week without being called.”

Steve Minnie, a spokesperson for the family who sold the farm to government, says: “There’s a lot of emotion attached to it. It is the most heartbreaking thing I have even seen.

“It was a very lucrative farm and I grew up there. And I didn’t grow up poor. It was all thanks to that property. It was my grandfather’s and then my dad’s. I worked there for many years.”

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