Black farmers fall in the furrows

Monday is harvest day at Tebogo Hlangwane’s cucumber farm. Her hoarse voice is barely audible because of a fierce bout of flu. But she’s back at the farm bright and early to supervise the harvesting — and to meet government officials doing their rounds.

The farm of large tunnels is on two hectares of tribal trust land in Thapane in the Nwamitwa district of Tzaneen in Limpopo. Hlangwane started farming here in 2009. Today she employs three permanent workers, with four casuals during the peak harvesting season between April and September.

In a good week the farm produces an average of 125 boxes of cucumber, which she sells to fresh produce markets in Limpopo and Gauteng. She wants to expand by at least another eight hectares, create more jobs and increase her turnover. But she needs a serious capital injection.

Hers is the problem faced by many black commercial farmers countrywide. She does not own the land she has been farming on. Without a title deed she cannot provide the surety that would secure her loans from financial institutions.

“It is not true that blacks cannot farm [commercially]. If government can help support us, then we can grow and compete with white farmers. We have the skills,” she says, walking among the neat rows of cucumbers.

She studied business management after matric but couldn’t finish because she did not have enough money. So she toiled for three years as a labourer on white-owned farms around Tzaneen, earning R750 a month.

“I did not want to spend the rest of my life working for a white man on his farm. I wanted my own [farm],” she says.

In 2009, she approached the traditional authority to request land for farming. The Nwamitwa Agriculture Service Centre helped her to set up her farm. Government gave her irrigation equipment and nets to build tunnels where she grows her crop.

She has not looked back but is restricted by being limited to two hectares.

Vuyo Mahlati, president of the African Farmers Association of South Africa (Afasa), says: “The narrative that blacks can’t farm commercially is problematic. There are many black commercial farmers. They are self-made people. You find them on communal land, you find them in freehold land.”

The recent public hearings into proposed changes to section 25 of the Constitution identified insecure land ownership as one of the key issues holding back the growth of black commercial farmers. Many of them supported the motion to grant the state the power to expropriate land without compensation, arguing that nationalising the land would help to redress the imbalance with white farmers.

They also sought to dispel the racial stereotype that blacks don’t have the necessary skills for the tough world of commercial farming and that each hectare of land given to them was as good as ruined.

Farmer Solly Letsoalo told the hearings in Lenyenye near Tzaneen: “Black farmers have no money to farm. Banks don’t want to loan black farmers money because [they don’t have] title deeds.”

White commercial farmers voiced their opposition to expropriation without compensation and to having the state as the custodian of the land, arguing that this would lead to land values dropping.This would financially ruin many of them because they would no longer be able to use their properties as collateral for loans.

Despite the popular view among black farmers that getting title deeds would change their fortunes, farmer Oupa Mathebula warned this may not necessarily be the case. Mathebula runs a 265-hectare farm up in the lush green hills of Deerpark near Tzaneen. He acquired the farm because of the government’s proactive land acquisition strategy. He chairs the Farmers Business Co-operative (Fabco), which represents 341 black farmers in the Tzaneen area.

[Oupa Mathebula is a land reform beneficiary and he can’t get a loan from the bank. He wants the state to nationalise all land, rather than giving people title deeds. (Lucas Ledwaba)]

A trained agricultural economist, he employs 22 people full-time and farms cucumber, tomato, mango, cattle and goats. He is also experimenting with cassava and has high hopes that this will bear positive results. His main crop is cucumber, which he sells every week during the harvest season to the fresh produce markets in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Mathebula says that,of the 341 Fabco members, only 15% to25% “are hanging in there” andthe rest are struggling. Five of them in a 3km radius of his farm have sold their land back to white farmers.

“They were all land reform projects. You can’t blame them. I know what they are going through,” he says. “If you have debts and you are given an offer [to sell], what would you do?”

The farmers that remain use only a quarter of their land because they don’t have the money to expand their farming activities.

Mathebula argues that, although it would be good for the state to give black farmers title deeds, it would be pointless without financial support.

“If you are given a farm worth R2-million, you will need another R2-million to farm,” he says.

Many black farmers fail to meet industry standards because of this lack of capital, says Mathebula, which forces them to operate on very tight or nonexistent budgets, using outdated equipment and machinery.

This year Mathebulais celebrating a record cucumber harvest. Each of his tunnels produced 19 boxes of cucumber, far more than the average yield. But he warns that farmers have to contend with high overheads, such as the cost of diesel,wages, water, fertiliser, electricity and packaging.

Mathebula says Parliament should go ahead with the amendment of section 25 of the Constitution to allow the state to nationalise the land. He argues that this would create fairness because nobody’s land would be worth more than any other’s.

“If we all don’t own the land the systems will change slightly,” said Mathebula, pointing out that banks don’t want to do business with individuals like himself who are land-reform beneficiaries.

Eastern Cape farmer Aggrey Mahanjana, who is the managing director of the National Emergent Red Meat Producers Organisation (Nerpo), which represents 2.8-million livestock farmers, says black farmers who failed did so because they did not get support after they were given land and not because they did not have skills or the ability to farm successfully.

He says that Nerpo has been trying to convince government to ensure that it offered post-settlement support to black farmers.

“Government takes too long to respond,” says Mahanjana.

Nerpo supported the expropriation of land without compensation but only in certain situations,such as where landowners were unable to produce proof of ownership of farms in the former homelands, which were transferred to white farmers during the political transition of the early 1990s.

Mahlati says that Afasa had conducted hearings among its members in 2016 and 2017, establishing that land and water shortages were the biggest problems they faced.

The government’s land restitution and reform programmes are plagued by corruption and long delays in providing post-settlement support, she says.

In its submission to the parliamentary review committee on proposed changes to section 25, Nerpo proposed that the state implement a 50/50 financing blended model for commercial agricultural purposes when compensating for expropriated land, in which the state pays 50% of the compensation value and the recipient pays the balance with loans or their own finances.

It also proposed that land reform beneficiaries be given two options for commercial agricultural land; either to acquire land through the 50/50 scheme or be given a long-term lease of between 30 and 99 years.

Mathebula hopes to save enough to invest in machinery that would modernise his farm. He also wants to upgrade his antiquated crop spraying equipment. He says that if he owned the land he farms he would have received a loan to do this.

Some of the difficulties faced by farmers like Mathebula and Hlangwana may become history if government delivers on the promises made by Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Maite Nkoana-Mashabane in her budget speech earlier this year.

She said the department planned to acquire 98100 hectares with the proactive land acquisition strategy and would pilot 18 farms to support the accelerated land development and redistribution initiative. — Mukurukuru Media

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Lucas Ledwaba
Lucas Ledwaba
Journalist and author of Broke & Broken - The Shameful Legacy of Gold Mining in South Africa.

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