For­mer MK fighter’s farm suc­cess

For­mer MK fighter Er­rol April was awarded a farm by the gov­ern­ment – now his hard work is pay­ing off


HE GES­TURES to the lush green fields be­fore him, his voice brim­ming with pride as he says, “This is all mine.” Amanzi fruit farm is Er­rol April’s pride and joy – the em­bod­i­ment of a long-nur­tured dream he didn’t dare be­lieve would come true.

And yet here it is: 30 000 hectares of pro­duc­tive land sur­rounded by moun­tains in one of the most beau­ti­ful parts of South Africa.

Er­rol (49), a for­mer Umkhonto we Sizwe fighter, was awarded the land near Grey­ton in the Western Cape by the de­part­ment of ru­ral de­vel­op­ment in 2013 and he’s mak­ing a huge suc­cess of it.

It took plenty of hard work and sac­ri­fice to get here, he says, but it was worth it. And he hopes many more South Africans will be given a chance to work the land now that the land ex­pro­pri­a­tion is­sue is one of the gov­ern­ment’s main pri­or­i­ties.

“We must be frank and say, ‘Wrongs were com­mit­ted and this is one of the ways to re­solve them.’ And then we should do it. Long be­fore set­tlers and dis­cov­er­ers came, there were peo­ple who lived here. Less than 10% of the land taken from in­dige­nous peo­ple has been given back.”

He knows it isn’t fea­si­ble for peo­ple who know noth­ing about farm­ing to be given a piece of land and told to get on with it. It needs to be done sen­si­bly and with ded­i­cated men­tor­ship – and he’s liv­ing proof it can work.

THIS pros­per­ous farm is a far cry from where Er­rol grew up in Elsies River, Cape Town, as part of “a very im­pov­er­ished com­mu­nity”. He was a school­boy in the ’70s when he be­came in­volved in the strug­gle against apartheid. “I saw a lot of wrongs. I saw how dif­fi­cult it was for fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties at large. Our

coun­try was in tur­moil. My fam­ily were fol­low­ers of Christ and would just ac­cept and pray about the wrongs. I couldn’t do the same. Pol­i­tics was all around us.”

He joined Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) soon af­ter com­plet­ing high school in 1987 and spent the next three years on mis­sions to dis­rupt the gov­ern­ment.

“Then Nel­son Man­dela was re­leased in 1990 and de­clared MK no more.”

Er­rol joined the SA Na­tional De­fence Force (SANDF) in 1994, work­ing his way up the ranks to be­come chief per­son­nel ser­vice clerk and then sergeant ma­jor.

In 2006, he hung up his mil­i­tary boots for good and moved with his wife, Caro­line, and their two kids, Ryan (now 29) and Melissa (26), to Eng­land, where he spent four years work­ing odd jobs.

“I wanted to ex­pe­ri­ence a First World coun­try and once I did, it was time to come home.”

When he re­turned he de­cided to try to ful­fil a long-held wish to own his own land. Although farm­ing wasn’t in his blood it was some­thing he yearned for and so – with Jabu Dosi, a friend from his MK days – he reg­is­tered with the de­part­ment of ru­ral de­vel­op­ment and land re­form and ap­plied for a farm.

For three years noth­ing hap­pened – then he got a call on 5 Au­gust 2013 that would change his life. His ap­pli­ca­tion had been suc­cess­ful. “I thought it was a hoax,” Er­rol says. “I made a num­ber of calls to es­tab­lish it was the truth.”

In March the fol­low­ing year he and Caro­line packed up their home in Muizen­berg, Cape Town, and made the trek to Amanzi.

Er­rol wasn’t told who the pre­vi­ous own­ers were – all he knows is they farmed ap­ples and pears and were will­ing to sell the farm to the gov­ern­ment for R13 mil­lion as part of a will­ing-buyer, will­ing-seller deal in April 2013.

A farm man­ager had been ap­pointed to keep things run­ning and Amanzi was in the mid­dle of its pro­duc­tion cy­cle when Er­rol and Jabu were awarded the land on a 22-year lease.

“We didn’t see it nec­es­sary to move the guy off un­til the har­vest was fin­ished,” Er­rol ex­plains, which is why they waited un­til March the fol­low­ing year.

Sadly, Jabu fell ill a few months later and had to re­turn to Cape Town, leaving Er­rol on his own to learn the ropes.

But he jumped right in, start­ing with the gov­ern­ment’s com­pul­sory five-year men­tor­ship pro­gramme. With his ea­ger­ness to learn, Er­rol man­aged to com­plete it in just un­der two years.

“The men­tor helps with ad­min­is­tra­tive work and farm work, pro­vides as­sis­tance – all those things,” he says.

Im­pressed by his swift progress, Er­rol’s men­tor wrote to the state to tell them Er­rol was ready to farm on his own and he’d be wast­ing his time go­ing out to Amanzi once a month.

But even with his early com­ple­tion of the pro­gramme, Er­rol feels there’s plenty to learn. “He [the men­tor] doesn’t phys­i­cally come out here but he’s still in the back­ground. I still phone him for ad­vice.”

ER­ROL ac­knowl­edges he was a lit­tle dis­ap­pointed to learn he’d been given a fruit farm. His hopes were on cat­tle. “We thought it would be eas­ier to work with live­stock. We also heard that ap­ples and pears are quite in­tri­cate to farm. But that was just an ex­pec­ta­tion on our part. Yes, we were dis­ap­pointed at first but we’re not sorry. A farm is a farm and who would give us such an op­por­tu­nity com­ing from such a poor back­ground?”

‘Less than 10% of the land taken from in­dige­nous peo­ple has been given back’

It cer­tainly didn’t mean Er­rol would be­come wealthy overnight – quite the op­po­site. He was shocked to re­alise the farm was R2,5 mil­lion in debt when he took it over, but it only made him more de­ter­mined to rise to the chal­lenge.

“We had to pri­ori­tise be­tween what was im­por­tant and what could wait. For the first two years I came home with a salary of R6 000 ev­ery month.”

Even­tu­ally, a mega har­vest in the 2015/ 2016 sea­son helped them break even. “The pre­vi­ous farmer earned R1,9 mil­lion a har­vest. We now earn R6,5 mil­lion on the very same trees,” Er­rol says proudly. “We had to work very hard.”

That hard work is pay­ing off in more ways than one. Last year he won the 2017 novice award from fruit farm­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion Hort­gro – and Er­rol had no idea he’d even been nom­i­nated.

“Some guy from Paarl came to ask if he could take a few pho­tos of the farm. I said, ‘Okay, and then?’ He said, ‘It’s for the gala event. I was asked to take pho­tos of the fi­nal­ists.’ I didn’t even know what he was talk­ing about.”

On a tour of Er­rol’s farm in his muddy bakkie, we see the fruits of his labour.

For­tu­nately Amanzi (which means water) hasn’t been af­fected by the Western Cape drought – the pre­vi­ous owner built two dams that are sup­plied by spring water from the moun­tains.

It’s har­vest time and work­ers move through the or­chards, col­lect­ing juicy pink Brae­burn ap­ples.

Er­rol em­ploys 120 work­ers – per­ma­nent and sea­sonal – and has es­tab­lished a trust for his per­ma­nent em­ploy­ees, us­ing 20% of the farm’s profit.

Farm­ing is an on­go­ing trial, he says, but that’s what life’s all about.

“As we were taught in the mil­i­tary, the chal­lenge is the chal­lenge. The sub­ject mat­ter changes but the chal­lenge stays the same. It’s how we look at it, how we in­ter­pret it, how we an­a­lyse it. And how we give it back.”

Er­rol shows off a Brae­burn ap­ple from his fruit farm, Amanzi, which he was awarded in 2013.

LEFT: Er­rol with a few of his 120 work­ers. RIGHT: It’s har­vest sea­son and the farm is get­ting ready to ex­port ap­ples to Europe.

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