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Redefining the boer: The faces of South Africa’s farming future

Meet the emerging farmers who dream of feeding South Africa. Can we afford for them to fail?

Government's agriculture policy recently shifted to focus on empowering and supporting small-scale farmers, recognising their importance in the rural economy.

Not only do they underpin rural food security, but they also have the potential to create jobs and micro economies, capable of lifting the poorest of the poor out of poverty.

EWN visited a series of small-scale farmers in Gauteng and Limpopo and discovered a litany of woes and unhappiness with government's interventions.

Livingstone Mashele's attire is the first thing that strikes you. The khaki shorts, John Deere shirt and leather veldskoens are the stereotypical uniform of the white African farmer.

But if he is aware of the irony, there is no trace of this in his demeanour. Instead, he wears a solemn frown that speaks of bigger worries than whether outsiders may find his choice of clothing paradoxical. It's an expression etched on the faces of the whole group around him.

A grave feeling accompanies the stifling heat. The circle of men, standing with arms folded under a tree providing respite from the scorching Limpopo sun, take turns to speak.

"We're in a ticking time bomb," exclaims an exasperated emerging farmer, voicing a concern that shutting the doors to foreign ownership of agricultural land will see government coffers run completely dry, ultimately hurting the very black farmers they aim to support.

Livingstone Mashele poses for a portrait on Maitjene trust farmland in Ofcolaco near Tzaneen.

The farm we are on is at the centre of a project heralded by a local paper as "one of the few success stories which emerged from land claims in Limpopo".

It started in 2009 when the Maitjene community took over 23 properties in the Greater Tzaneen area, a region with rich soils and a solid agricultural heritage. So why is the project succeeding while other restitution and redistribution cases in the region are failing? The answer may lie in the radically original route the Maitjene Community Development Trust chose to take in Ofcolaco.

Instead of booting out the previous owner, the trust decided to work with Kobus de Beer who now leases land - including his homestead - from the trust and provides a mentorship role. Over the last six years the successful commercial business has continued to flourish, while valuable skills are transferred to emerging farmers. Simultaneously, smaller projects, which carry manageable risks, are run on the property. Crucially, existing avenues to market are being utilised through the Beerseun Boerdery.

But as the afternoon sun beats down, there seems to be little to celebrate.

"You got the Porsche, but you didn't get the key," says De Beer, referring to other struggling emerging farmers in the area.

One such story is that of Oupa Shaai, a farmer from nearby Trichardtsdal, who is not part of the Maitjene trust. Awarded a R9 million farm during the first wave of claims, he has run into major financial trouble in the last two years.

"It hurts me… because I like farming," he says.

The 208 hectare farm which used to employ 25 people now has only five workers left. And the new owners are struggling to secure the production capital they need to rescue the farm.

Without a cash injection there is not much hope, De Beer explains. All the right elements are present - farmers have land, are willing to learn, but struggling to get seeds.

"They'll go forward, but they need that kick," he says.

Justice and Sina Mabena have been farming for two years on their plot in Gauteng. He says he has ploughed half a million rand of his own money into the venture.

Some 300 kilometres southwest of here Justice Mabena is dreaming. The 50-year-old former vegetable hawker has looked at his calculations and realised he could be onto something.

Mabena is a serial entrepreneur, who went from roadside vegetable vendor to owning a successful butchery.

He bought the land on which he and his family live, but never really considered farming on it until someone suggested he grow tomatoes.

The property is now a small oasis of tomatoes, peppers and habanero chillies.

He shakes his head when he is asked if he likes the spicy peppers - it was purely a business decision.

"I've got a passion for it," he says, referring to the crates of tomatoes in his garage.

Mabena does not have infrastructure such as a warehouse or packing room.

But, he is a man with an eye for the main chance and a plan.

What he needs is a small amount of help from government to take his endeavour to the next logical level.

He says government's extension workers have been somewhat helpful and while he could qualify for a production loan, his most urgent need is assistance with infrastructure.

Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) officials have undertaken to help him acquire tunnels for his tomatoes and assist in drilling a borehole. But so far there has been no action.

"Agricultural people keep promising things, but it's not happening. It's heavy," he says.

Mabena has sunk a half a million rand into his farm - everything he has worked for his whole life is tied up in the land.

"We need very serious support," he says gravely. Major fluctuations in profit, as well as a lack of water and infrastructure, are slowly defeating this businessman's entrepreneurial spirit.

The astronomical cost of sustaining the acidic soil, the broken promises from DAFF - these were things that he was not prepared for.

For a man who professes that he 'does not believe in failing' to consider selling the house to unlock his capital, must be a heavy decision.

More than 50 farmers are allocated 1.5 hectares each on the 79 hectares of communal land in Masoma.

Back in Limpopo the sound of sprinklers provides a positive staccato soundtrack for small-scale communal farmers in Masoma.

Here, at least, water is available thanks to the nearby Tours Dam and gleaming oranges adorn the trees in a small grove - a seemingly idyllic scene.

But the fruits weigh heavily on the minds of the farmers here. The tribal land in former Lebowa is not contested through land claims. Yet, the helping hand offered by the department of agriculture has also come under criticism.

This is the first citrus harvest on the property, but as yet farmers have no idea where they will sell the fruit and whether they will find a market.

Oranges are a notoriously tricky crop to grow, which needs complex fertilisation and prone to pests requiring costly chemical treatments. The farmers here say they simply do not possess the knowledge required and were not given appropriate assistance.

The departmental representative present sheepishly concedes the experimental crop was a mistake, inappropriate for the community here.

This is not the first time the advice of a government expert has been inappropriate.

Initially, the women were told to plant maize. They did so, and brought in a successful harvest.

The problem is that maize is a crop that is only economically viable when grown on a large scale.

With a relatively small farm, that is completely unmechanised, this would have been an impossibility.

As a result, some of the farmers were forced to watch their sacks of maize languish at a local co-op, unsold, for two years.

The heavy branches of the orange trees speak of valuable time and money already invested in a venture which was destined to fail.

The farmers say it is their dream to feed everyone, not just themselves. But the door to the 'other world' remains firmly shut.

In Masoma all the farmers till the fields by hand as they do not have access to a tractor.

The Limpopo farmers and others speak of similar stumbling blocks - absent production capital, bureaucratic red tape to access state funds and difficulties accessing the market.

Compounding many of these issues is the shift since 2006 to leasehold as a means of redistributing land.

The policy has seen emerging farmers awarded five-year leases instead of full ownership. During their 5-year tenure, farmers are expected to pour capital into the land, yet they have no guarantee that they will be allowed to stay on.

Given that farming is generally a time intensive process, which often takes years to turn a profit, this is an untenable situation.

The uncertainty created by this is not only having a negative effect on the farms themselves, but on the morale and livelihood of the farmers as well as directly impacting their prospects of success.

A frustrated Limpopo leasehold farmer called Solly Letsoalo, who is on his third farm, describes being booted off land twice.

Not owning the land, he says, makes it impossible to gain access to bank loans as these institutions require the owner to sign the necessary papers.

When funding is somehow secured, they are expected to take the enormous risk of ploughing it into a farm which may be taken from them at any time.

It is a significant problem which Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) researcher Professor Ruth Hall has encountered in other parts of the country too.

"The fact that people have insecure tenure means that service providers, whether from the private sector or even the state itself… will not provide support because of the uncertainty created," she explains.

Hall says although the policy framework was recently amended to issue 30-year leases (after which farmers would become eligible for a further 20-year lease when the state would decide, based on the farmer's progress, whether or not they would be awarded ownership), the logic is still flawed.

"It's just an astonishing set of assumptions that underpin this approach - that people will be proving themselves to the state for 50 years, after which they might become the owners (at which point it's presumably too late); but also the idea that the state would have the capacity to really both monitor and support leasees on state land for a period of 50 years."

In principle, Hall argues, leasehold may not a bad thing if it was well implemented, but adds "we don't have a good national picture of the state of these leases."

PLAAS field research in parts of the Eastern Cape has shown there is a "widespread problem of leases not being renewed and that in this context of uncertainty created by the leases, the department of agriculture will not provide support."

In a cruel irony, farmers operating in in this context of temporary ownership reap few of the rewards of land ownership, while bearing the heavy burden as they face an uncertain future in which they may not be on the farm the following year.

Another major pitfall appears to be the lack of co-ordination between different government departments.

While the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform's focus is on the actual redistribution of land, DAFF is tasked with providing support. Yet some issues are falling between the cracks.

Letsoalo explains some farmers were doomed when they were given land without a water source. Government bought these properties, he claims, without considering the issue of water rights, leaving incumbent farmers high and dry.

This catastrophic turn of events stems from a disjointed approach that Hall is well aware of.

"Effectively, these processes of redistributing land and redistributing water have not been aligned in any way and the institutions responsible are not working in tandem. And so yes, it means that in some cases people may be getting land without water, which makes farming impossible," she says.

Various government plans have been launched over the years to ensure the necessary funds and support get to the farmers.

But even so problems prevail.

The Recapitalisation and Development Programme (RADP) promised to award grants and replace previous, inefficient forms of grants. But Hall says when its record recently came under scrutiny during February 2015 Parliamentary hearings, the provisional results were not good.

"The data presented by the department showed that of projects established since 2010, more than half are not getting any recapitalisation money - in other words, half of them are simply not getting farming support; so you get the land on a leasehold basis with no support."

Part of the state's recent attempts to stem the tide of failing farms is to force emerging farmers to team up with strategic partners - a new prerequisite in order to secure funding from the government.

"It's only if you are prepared to have a commercial partner and to develop a business plan that the state approves of that it will consider providing this funding," Hall says.

But even if the money finally comes, the time spent waiting for it can have snowballing consequences, requiring triple the amount of money originally requested.

"They don't understand that a farm suffers biological depreciation in one month of not being serviced," Letsoalo says.

"They don't care."

He says he has taken his grievances about bureaucracy, inefficiency and lack of expertise to various officials in provincial and national government, to no avail.

"I've never met an official who is an agricultural expert," he says, bemoaning the representatives who do not seem to understand the critical needs of emerging farmers.

In the meantime, he appears painfully aware of the perception held by the outside world.

"Most people are just generalising [saying that] blacks are failing…" he says.

As to how they have managed to stay afloat thus far, he simply replies: "It's a miracle."

The Fetsa Tlala scheme, launched with great fanfare in 2013, allocated R2 billion to increase food production in communal areas as well as redistributed land in order to improve household food security and create jobs for the poor.

However, farmers appear to have seen little evidence of its existence.

Mashele says despite promises to the contrary "on the ground… the support is not there."

The 'extension officers' tasked with visiting farmers to dispense advice and act as a conduit to government support seem to be largely failing the people they are meant to help. The top-down approach is cited as a major flaw.

Mabena and others like him are isolated, marooned on a piece of land in which all his money is tied up.

But South Africa ignores these stories at its own peril, risking not only long-term national food security, but also the livelihoods of millions of its people, according to Kenneth Carden of the Southern Africa Food Lab.

"We do know from the latest census that we have 2.8 million households involved in agriculture, either through subsistence or small-scale commercial farming. We also know from the 2012 General Households Survey that South Africa has a major hunger problem, caused by households' inability to access food, particularly in rural areas (ironically where the majority of food is grown)."

Carden adds that the South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (2013) revealed that around a quarter of citizens experience hunger (26% of households were food insecure, a further 28.3% were at risk of hunger and only 45.6% were food secure).

Kobus de Beer poses for a portrait with his youngest son, Wilke, on their leased land in Ofcolaco, Limpopo.

The unique relationship between Beerseun and Maitjene provides a glimpse of what is possible when individuals have the willpower to forge mutually beneficial relationships among themselves. But it would not have been possible without shrewd planning and the capital to underpin it.

Maitjene portfolio manager Hendrik Neethling says the golden rule they taught emerging farmers of the trust is to ensure they have a market even before planting a crop, thus steering well clear of the major challenge faced by the Masoma farmers with their maize and oranges.

As promising as the story is, it still exists in a country where the term 'commercial farmer' remains a synonym for 'white'.

The answer clearly cannot be to halt land reform, but at the same time South Africa may be risking future food security for the sake of agricultural reform.

Scott Drimie, director of the Southern Africa Food Lab, believes there must be a middle ground.

"If one thinks about countries like Brazil there are examples of how one can carry out land reform that is both about the state, but also the market; that protects production in order to think about food security, but at the same time tries to think about equity and social justice. It's about thinking about it very clearly and about really bringing the stakeholders, the actors, into a process and trying to deal with it."

But until we are honest about the real reasons emerging farmers are failing, and address them from the ground up, the future of farming in South Africa seems anything but rosy.

Kobus de Beer's young son Wilke emerges from the house, the sun lighting up the boy's blonde hair and fair skin. His face is masked by green and red paint representing his favourite cartoon hero. Unaware of the morose conversation, the intricate politics between Shangaan, Pedi and Afrikaner to make Maitjene work, he shyly nods in response to the question - yes, he hopes to follow in father's footsteps one day and also become a farmer.

EWN has made several requests for comment from the Department of Agriculture.

At the time of publication, the relevant spokesperson had neither responded to, nor acknowledged the requests.

All images by Aletta Gardner/EWN

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