When land re­form fails: Lease­holder told to leave the farm he saved

Farmer's Weekly (South Africa) - - Contents -

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.”

RESTORATION

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.

in­stead of work­ing the land, the BENEFI CIARIES

STRI PPED THE

FAR M AND LEFT

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.”

Lease re­newal

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.

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