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.