When land reform fails: Leaseholder told to leave the farm he saved
Petros Sithole has spent a decade working hard to rebuild a farm near Malelane left destitute by land reform beneficiaries, but now stands to lose it all. After stepping in at government’s request, he has been told to leave as the same beneficiaries have returned to the farm. By Lindi Botha.
At the age of 61, Petros Sithole is far from retiring. “If you’re a farmer, you never retire,” he says. “I’ve still got many more years ahead of me to farm. My only wish is that I’ll have the land to do so.”
Sithole got the opportunity to farm relatively late in life, having spent many years as an extension officer for the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. A land reform farm needed a caretaker, and he proved to be a worthier candidate than the government could have imagined.
THE ROLE OF CARETAKER
Richtershoek farm, outside Malelane, had been bought by the Mpumalanga Department of Rural Development and Land Reform for R27,5 million in 2006 and given to the 72 farmworkers who worked the land. Unfortunately, it had gone the same way as many other land reform farms: instead of farming, the workers had plundered the farm of all that they could and left the property dilapidated and unproductive.
The department approached Sithole to be the caretaker to prevent further degradation.
“But I couldn’t just come and sit here on the farm and act like a security guard. I wanted to do more. So the department agreed to lease the farm to me and I started farming.”
Restoring the farm was no easy feat and Sithole relates with sadness the state of the property when he took over.
“All the farm implements, equipment and machinery had been broken down, stripped or stolen. There were no electricity or water connections. There was nothing left to harvest of the sugar cane, mangoes, lemons, grapefruit and vegetables that were on the farm when it was bought. Only tall grass was left.”
Although many water rights licences were being issued at the time, the farmworkers had not applied for any at Richtershoek.
“When I took over, there was only 400ha of irrigation water available, for which I then applied. This is a 1 300ha farm in a prime area, but only 400ha can be cultivated due to the lack of water.”
Over the past 10 years, Sithole has slowly revitalised the farm, cultivating a variety of crops. He has planted 1,4ha to brinjals, 8ha to green peppers and 35ha to butternut, and sells the produce to a buyer in KwaZulu-Natal, who collects from the farm.
He has also planted 7ha of seed maize for a seed company and 12ha of seed cane, which is sold to farmers in the area. Some 70ha of sugar cane is planted for RCL Foods. He has a further 25ha under cotton and 0,5ha planted to soya bean.
He also runs 89 Kalahari goats that are sold for traditional ceremonies in the area.
He purposely chose a wide variety of crops to test what would work on the land. “Because I was uncertain about how long I’d be farming here, I grew cash crops, which don’t take too long to deliver a harvestable yield.”
The Mpumalanga rural development department initially gave Sithole a R14 million recapitalisation grant to assist with restoration. The farm now has three centre pivots and 400ha is fully irrigated. Electricity has been restored and the tractor has been repaired. The farm has also been fenced to prevent cattle from the local community grazing the vegetable lands. Sithole hires equipment for spraying, fertilising and harvesting.
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In addition, he has spent much of his profits from farming on assisting a group of 700 smallscale cotton farmers in the nearby Khombaso township to farm cotton more sustainably. As part of this, he has managed to include the group in the Cotton South Africa transformation programme.
He has also been instrumental in bringing investors together to build a cotton gin in Hectorspruit next year. This will reduce transport costs and help make cotton farming in the area substantially more profitable. In turn, farmers should then
be able to invest more in their lands and ensure economic upliftment on a greater level.
Sithole’s ability to see the bigger picture is driving his work in Khombaso. In addition to the cotton gin, he hopes to create a sustainable co-operative that will provide dryland farmers with an opportunity to get into the value chain. He explains that his years as an extension officer gave him a solid foundation to farm and assist others.
“It has been easier for me to start farming so late in life because I understand what it takes for a farm to succeed. Many people are easily exploited by contractors or suppliers because they don’t know the ins and outs, what they should expect from service providers, and how things should look if they’re done properly.”
Asked what drives him to take on such projects, Sithole says: “I want to wake up in the morning with fire in my heart to do something I’m passionate about. For me, that’s farming and helping other people to farm.”
Over the past 10 years, Sithole’s lease has remained in place.
“Then in April this year, I received a letter from the department telling me that the lease would no longer be renewed because they intend giving the farm back to the same workers who destroyed it more than 10 years earlier.
“At first, I thought it was a joke, especially as the beneficiaries have done nothing in the interim to learn how to run a farm. Government is therefore intending to remove a progressive farmer from the farm he has resuscitated and replace him with a group of people who have already proved they can’t farm. This will only lead to government having to provide further grants and assistance. The farm as it stands now is a going concern that requires no outside funding,” he says. Sithole has requested that government find alternative land where the beneficiaries can first prove they can run a successful enterprise before being given a functional farm, with the risk of ruining it.
“To me, a farm is something with a soul, and I’ll not allow people to destroy such a thing. Even more so this farm, in which I poured my life for the last 10 years to bring it back to life.”
Sithole laments the common notion that land equals wealth.
“Some people believe that if you have land, you can call yourself a farmer and you’ll be rich. But many things need to be in place before you can even start farming and become successful. Passion, knowledge, a hunger to learn about agriculture, and a desire to improve are what will earn you success.
“Farming isn’t about money. People who come to farm for money quickly find that without having a spiritual connection to the land and a passion to farm, they won’t succeed.” Giving up is not in his nature. “I can’t stop myself if I have already started something,” says Sithole. “My greatest wish is to keep farming, and I’ll continue to engage with government in the hope that they will see the light.” • Email Petros Sithole at sitholepet[email protected]
FROM TOP:• Vegetables have been planted under drip irrigation.
• He installed three centre pivots on the farm after the previous pivots were stripped by the beneficiaries.
• Richtershoek Farm went to ruins after it was transferred to farmworkers as part of a land reform deal. Petros Sithole has transformed it into a commercially viable operation once more.