“Don’t even talk about logic in this part of the world”.
So declared pioneer farmer Mike Amm as we walked
towards his small holding high in the mountains outside Tzaneen. He was one of seven farmers who sold their farms in this beautiful valley to the Department of Land Affairs (DLA) for land restitution purposes.
Over the past two years, he has observed with dismay how the farms he and his family spent their lifetimes building up, have crumbled and decayed to the point where they have been placed under judicial management.
The word “management” is something of a misnomer, as nothing is happening on these farms. One of Amm’s farms, Murlebrook, was a prime producer of avocados, mangoes, paw paws, bananas, citrus fruits and macadamia nuts.
Amm shows us his large file on the debacle he has chronicled on the demise of his family farm. The file contains the history of the farm and how it was claimed. He wants to get the message out to what he feels is an uncaring
Nothing would have pleased this farmer more than to have helped keep Murlebrook alive, even if he didn’t own the farm any more. But his endeavours were ignored. Indeed, he and his fellow farmers in the area were told in no uncertain terms that the new owners would “go it alone”.
A report in the local Letaba Herald of February 2001 shows the Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs, Ms. Thoko Didiza, signing the R43 million land agreement for the purchase of the Letsitele Valley farms, while Limpopo MEC for Agriculture and Land Administration, Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi, looks on.
Three thousand people attended the taxpayer-funded shindig which followed the signing. The celebrations were about the restitution of 1 400 ha of land in the valley (the seven commercial farms) to the Mamathola tribe.
The newspaper report declares that “in terms of the government’s Land Restitution Act, the Mamathola had successfully claimed the land on the grounds that the 13 farms involved had formerly belonged to their ancestors but were taken over by white settlers. (Yes, “settlers” was the word used for white South African citizens whose ancestors came to
In her address at this “historic occasion”, Ms. Didiza urged the 1,500-strong tribe to administer these highly productive farms on a sound business basis to sustain their economic viability and prosperous future.
“We do not want to see these farms becoming derelict, and you roaming the streets of Tzaneen as beggars” she said. As the new owners, she continued, the tribe had to work efficiently “to disprove the perception of white critics that black people are lazy and incapable of managing farms”.
The Limpopo MEC for Agriculture Dr. Motsoaledi then stated it was critical that “whites must adapt to the wind of change or die. No one will kill them but if they cannot adapt they will just cease to live,” he remarked. He then went on to say the government had established an
A deserted packing shed after the handover: the Amm farm, Letsitele.
A dejected “Murlebrook” entrance – the Amm farm after the handover.
Speaking on behalf of the departing white owners, Mrs. Maggie Baleta said it was a disappointing experience for them to leave farms on which some of them had lived and worked for 43 years. She said these farms generated a turnover in excess of R15 million a year and that “the tribe would need good planning and dedication to ensure that they remained economically viable for all”.
She said the farmers were willing to help the tribe manage the resettlement of farms and to work together for the economic development of the area.
In reply, the claimants’ committee chairman Mr. Chiko Letsoalo expressed confidence in their ability to run the farms on their own without assistance from previous white owners.
“We are surprised about stories that we or the government would enter into partnership with the current owners so as not to lose the benefit of their expertise. We have already sent people to agricultural colleges to learn more about farming. We will run these farms through our own expertise”, he declared.
He said the tribe would “restructure” the farming operations. His tribe were given R4,5 million as operating capital.
The arrogance of this group of people is, in hindsight, only exceeded by their ignorance and incompetence. Their “going it alone” has resulted in the complete collapse of these farms, while Ms. Didiza, to all intents and purposes, has remained silent about her colossal failure in this regard.
Let us examine this land claim so that
This valley is situated 30 km south of Tzaneen, in
His wife Monica and her father Noel Tooley were born there. The valley has always been one of the prime agricultural areas of the South African lowveld.
It has produced impressive quantities of fruit and vegetables - citrus, bananas, mangoes, avocados, papaya, litchis, macadamia nuts, tomatoes and a wide array of other vegetables.
The export of many of these products has earned
Vast sums of money were spent on the efficient use of water in the form of pumping plants, pipelines, lined canals, drip irrigation and the sophisticated computerised application of this precious resource. In the 1970’s, an Irrigation Board was formed to control the fair and efficient use of irrigation water.
At the headwaters of the
This community worked on neighbouring farms and existed on “slash and burn” subsistence agriculture. It is well known that this type of land use is extremely degrading to the environment. The land had become almost completely denuded through over-grazing and other destructive forms of land use. After even light rainfalls, the
During the 1940’s, the government under the United Party’s Jan Smuts was alerted to this deteriorating situation and was requested to take action. For years debate raged in Parliament regarding this issue. And all the while the situation worsened.
Around 1956, the government decided to move the community from Mamathola’s location to two farms in the Trichardtsdal area. The farms “
It should be emphasized that the Mamathola community were not moved for political, but for conservation reasons. The community was more than adequately compensated in terms of land area, buildings, social infrastructure, roads, and so forth.
Mamathola 635 was then handed over to the Department of Forestry to rehabilitate the land. This step proved to be timeous and within a few years the land at the headwaters of the
28 October 1949
History in the form of a letter written to friends in
We quote from the 1949 letter:
“We went as far as the jeep could go. The road was quite good to begin with, but the scenery was desolate as it was all through the native location where they have ruined the land by constant ploughing and planting of corn (called ‘mealies’ in South Africa) on the slopes until now nothing will grow at all, not even grass. It’s just barren red earth with patches of whitish soil here and there. After about 2 – 3 miles of this we came to the Forestry boundary and what a change! On one side of the line this bare earth, on the other thick grass and forests. The line itself is only about six feet across and yet it looks like a different country. The farmers around here are trying to get the Native Commissioner to move the people from this part so that the land may be given to the Forestry Department for reclamation. Wherever the locations are, the land is ruined as the people will not cultivate it properly.”
Concerned that the original erosion situation might return to the Letsitele headwaters after the farms were handed over, Amm wrote to the
The letter continued: “The case must be strongly made that the land should be retained in a sustainable and conservation-friendly manner to ensure protection of the upper catchment of this vital river. Options for sustainable conservation-based eco-tourism ventures must be considered for the region in question”.
Given the parlous condition of the Letaba headwaters before the Mamathola tribe was moved, the worry clearly exists that with their takeover of the farms, these original conditions may return, with disastrous results all round.
The Early Nineties
Things changed in the early nineties, according to local people. The unbanning of Nelson Mandela and the cries for land for the landless led to the 1994 and subsequent land legislation after the ANC came to power. The people were promised land and were given the opportunity to claim land from which they felt they had been forcibly removed.
Certain parameters were laid down as to what would constitute a valid claim. For example, if compensation had been paid then a claim against that same land would be invalid. (In the Mamathola land claim case, this was totally ignored, but we will come to that later).
Never in their wildest dreams did farmers in the area we interviewed realize that productive farms would collapse so spectacularly, and that the government would seemingly ignore what farmers believed were logical requests to leave
This thought is echoed throughout
Why indeed! As Amm declared, logic doesn’t come into it, and this is the dark side of land reform. It is actually not reform. In many cases, it is destruction, and the perils in store for
But let us return to the Letsitele handover.
In May 2000, a group of valley farmers received a letter from the Land Claims Commission stating that a claim on their portions of the farm Mamathola 609 had been gazetted, and that they were to appear at a meeting in Tzaneen to discuss the issue.
At the meeting the farm owners declared the claim was invalid because there had been no forced removal from Mamathola 609 which lay several kilometers from Mamathola’s location (or 635).
But the chairman of the meeting, Mr. Phogiso Molapo, retorted that the farmers’ argument would carry little weight because the community would claim their cattle would have grazed over the whole area of the
Further, the land claim forms were full of inaccuracies. The claimants admitted that they had been compensated, but said the new land was “too small”. (They received 7 000 ha to replace 1 500 ha). They said the new farm “was far from their graves” but there were no graves on the original piece of property. They also said they had to build new houses, churches, schools, etc. but these were in fact built for them when they moved, with taxpayers’ money. They also declared they received little compensation for their orange plants, but they were paid one pound a tree. According to people who knew the situation at that time, these trees had been in any case stolen from farmers in the area!
The farmers asked what were the conditions to obtain compensation. They adopted a non-confrontational approach as a matter of necessity. They felt they would get nowhere by any other means. They were offered three options regarding valuation of the properties, and they commissioned a local private valuer. Most of the owners were satisfied with the values apportioned. These values were presented to the Lands Claims Commissioner (LCC).
A few months later, a valuer sent by the LCC arrived to value the farms. His values were considerably higher than those of the private valuer. Yet these higher amounts were the values the LCC accepted! Deeds of sale were signed and the farmers were paid out. Some were given time to harvest their crops, while others moved out immediately.
At no time did the incoming “owners” ask to see the Amm farm’s books, nor did they check any inventories. As they had declared they would “go it alone”, they asked no advice of the farmers. The government produced a business plan showing the potential income from the farms as R100 million a year, but this plan was clearly not utilized.
The Amm family left with a heavy heart. Mike and Monica had lived on the farm Murlebrook for 43 years, raised five children and built what they called “a bit of paradise” from nothing. Amm says his type of farming is highly technical and requires 24-hour attention. The Banareng ba ga Letsoalo committee (the name under which the land claims were made) was elected to run the farm on behalf of the tribes. Not one person on this committee had agricultural knowledge or background.
What Happened Next
The Banareng ba ga Letsoalo land claim was ostensibly for 1 500 people to return to their original land. As it later turned out, none of these people returned at all. The committee was appointed to represent them, and this committee would “run” the farm on behalf of the tribe. The committee, as it also turned out, didn’t run the farm at all – they had meetings, of course, but most had businesses elsewhere. One was a panel beater from Hammanskraal (he was the treasurer). Another was a teacher, one was a clerk and the other unemployed. The chairman worked in a bookshop and still works for a publisher. He occupied the 4-bedroomed farmhouse. Nobody from the committee was born in the area. Most are believed to come from
This committee awarded themselves over R12 000 a month each, and went through the operating capital of R4,5 million like a hot knife through butter. They called themselves the “management team” but nothing was managed. The labour continued to work the farm until the pumps broke, or a machine broke down. These were not repaired. Then there was no money for spraying, and soon salary payments were in arrears.
This ultimately resulted in the farm workers marching five kilometres to the farm office where they toyi-toyi’d and presented a memorandum of grievances. This was February 2003, just 24 months after the newspaper report where DLA Minister Didiza told the world the beneficiaries of the handover would “go it alone”, and that the project would prove to the world that black farmers were not lazy and that they were indeed capable of running a farm.
Labour grievances included the late payment of salaries, the incompetence of management, no production bonuses, and threats and undermining of workers’ representatives. The manager of the farm committee Ismael Letsoalo said he couldn’t pay salaries because he hadn’t received the “additional funds” he’d requested from the Limpopo Regional Land Claims Commission.
What was found on the farms
Our researcher and a local farmer requested permission from the judicial manager of the farm to visit Murlebrook. (His role as judicial manager was defined by someone local as “making sure nothing is stolen”.) On their way to the farm, the team was telephonically contacted and told the local Land Claims Commissioner wanted a written application to visit the farm, and that there was no guarantee permission would be granted. As they were on their way anyway, the team continued. On arrival, they simply walked in. The judicial “manager” did not appear while the team inspected the farm, taking photos and talking to a few people who were sitting around at the entrance.
The team found avocado trees dying of thirst. While the farm dam was full, the pipes from the dam were broken - there was apparently no money to fix them. The trees’ leaves had curled up and were sunburnt. It was too late to save those beautiful trees. The mango trees’ spring blossoms were out, but these trees were not watered either. The papayas hung from dry trunks, while grass and weeds grew between the expertly laid out plantation rows.
Said our researcher: “It was criminal to see such waste, such desolation. Three state-of-the-art packing sheds were empty, loose crates lying about. There was not a soul to be seen. Electricity had been cut off so the cool rooms didn’t work. We left and moved to the next farm. Nobody stopped us as we drove across a stream (yes, this was a farm where a river ran through it!), but the stream was polluted with plastic bags, pieces of rusting equipment, rubble. Desolation had set in here too. The farmhouse looked forlorn and a cultivated garden had disappeared into weeds and sparse long grass.
We came to a packing shed. A black gentleman was at the gate and we asked for the farmer, the owner. Oh, you mean Mr. Mtetwa (not his real name!). He’s not here. He doesn’t live here. He lives in town. Then what happens here, we asked. Well, we’ve still got some bananas, the watchman declared. But they’re small. They’re for the bakkie (Afrikaans for a pick-up vehicle) trade.
We’d learnt what to look for in neglected banana plantations, the un-pruned, uncared-for trees. They are left to sprout many smaller shoots which grow from the trunk, and smaller bananas result. The bunches were not covered with plastic to protect them from the burning sun.
We couldn’t help noticing the difference between these pigmy fruits and the large bananas which
These beautiful plantations roll on and on for kilometers right throughout the sub-tropical and lowveld areas of South Africa, and one wonders at the mentality of a government whose policies would destroy this immaculate farming and replace it with subsistence “bakkie trade” production.
As we drove through this once beautiful farm, we came upon neglected macadamia groves. Thousands and thousands of macadamia nuts lay under the trees, unharvested. These are the most expensive nuts on the market:
The trees had not been pruned and the ground underneath had not been cleared. Further on, a citrus orchard’s trees gasped for water in the searing heat. These “ghost farms” are appearing all over
Why the Wheels Came Off
Arrogance and ignorance are a lethal concoction. When people don’t know what they don’t know, the results are catastrophic. Soon after the 2001 takeover of the Letsitele farms, the general secretary of the farm’s committee admitted that “one of the big problems in taking over these farms was that the previous owners tended to be managers as well, and that left a management gap that we are still trying to fill.” However, he continued, “we have sent people to agricultural college to learn more about farming and we are confident in our ability to run these farms on our own”.
Did Minister Didiza know about this paucity of knowledge, experience and management before she handed over taxpayer-funded farms? If she didn’t, why didn’t she find out? Why didn’t she at least check up on the progress of the management committee? After all, this was funded with public money. And what about the production loss to the country?
Two years later, this same secretary complained that the government didn’t assist them with a business plan and a training program. (But a business plan had been set up, although not utilized.) He complained that the government should have sent them Agricultural Extension Officers (AEO). From the time of the handover, only three “managers” of the original committee were left, the whole R4,5 million operating capital had disappeared, the labourers only received R310,00 per month (what about the minimum wages which the government insists all commercial farmers should pay their staff?), while the last of the mangoes were so diseased they had to be thrown away. The farm’s previous owner’s fertilizer and spray programs were highly effective, but no spraying had taken place because of mismanagement.
The farming equipment which had been handed over in pristine condition was virtually unusable, but the R12 000 a month salaries were still taken until the farm operation was placed under judicial management!
The Indigenous Nursery
An arboretum of more than 200 indigenous trees – each individually marked – was painstakingly created by Monica Amm on the family farm. Called the
The Amms called a meeting in June 2001 at which members of the new farm management committee and people from the
The nursery could produce indigenous trees and medicinal plants, for which a ready market already existed. There was adequate irrigation to maintain the nursery. (The Amms and their family are the only South African members of the International Dendrology Association, while Mike Amm is a well-known and accomplished amateur botanist.)
Everyone was positive and promised to report back. Today the arboretum is dry and neglected, and nobody maintains the nursery which has virtually disappeared. The electric fencing doesn’t work. Needless to say, there was no comeback from the provincial government departments. It is a tragedy that even today, overseas tourists still come to look for the famous arboretum, which is no more.
An application by the State Attorney for the farms to be placed under judicial management was made in January 2003, purportedly on behalf of the Department of Land Affairs, and a commission of enquiry was to be established to find out what happened to the R4,5 million operating capital granted to the farms’ management committee. It was reported that the Scorpions would become involved and investigate the misappropriation of funds and mismanagement.
These farms were among the best in the world. Mike Amm’s farm alone contained 100 000 trees. A dam he built was the biggest in the district. The farms contained sophisticated irrigation equipment, and the thousands of trees were nurtured to world standards. The rainfall average in the area is 1 000 mm per annum. (Consider that the average rainfall in most of
The climate is sub-tropical and frost free with average summer temperatures of 290C and 230C during winter. The soil in the area is predominantly a sandy loam type, very fertile and with excellent drainage capacity. According to a professional valuer, “the
(Less than 12% of
The Amms left a beautiful house they built themselves, a manager’s house, a separate flat, staff quarters, a reservoir, boreholes, irrigation systems, three packing sheds and sophisticated farm equipment. They watched their years of work eroded because of a fallacious land claim, and because the SA government did not even stick to its own rules when granting this claim. More importantly, there had been no follow up programs to ensure that all went well.
It is not as if the government wasn’t warned. The Letaba Herald ran an article in September 2000 expressing grave misgivings about the handover of the valley farms to DLA recipients. The paper said that there were signs that the government’s land reform policy could become a “sword of Damocles” over the country’s agricultural economy. People in the area had seen the disastrous destruction of the Zebediela and other citrus estates after they were given to inexperienced recipients. Millions of rands were lost not only in the price paid to the exiting farmers, but in the huge deficits in export sales, and in the taxes which could have been generated from these productive farms. Now the same thing was about to occur in Letsitele.
The paper continued: “Inexperienced, inadequately funded people who move onto currently white-owned farms could eventually find themselves in a morass of debt, unemployment and the inability to even produce food for themselves at a sustainable rate.” Unfortunately, these premonitions and fears were not repeated in the national press.
The Herald noted that the valley’s “3 000 ha or so of intensive citrus, mango, avocado, banana and papaya orchards bring in tens of millions of rands in foreign currency every year and support a labour force of between 2 000 and 3 000 black workers, plus their families. Now its continued existence as a world-recognized agricultural gem is being threatened by separate, even conflicting, Land Restitution Act claims on white-owned farms in the valley. It’s a recipe for shambles. There are only going to be losers, not winners.”
Mike Amm was quoted at length. He told the paper that at a recent meeting with the provincial Land Claims Commission, the farmers informed the Commission that the land claims had virtually stopped all development on the valley farms, that retrenchments were already under way and further jobs would be lost, and that banks and other financial institutions were reluctant to support valley farmers who had land claims against them, as they could not offer acceptable security.
Asked what would be the most likely scenario if the farms were handed over as going concerns to the claimants, Amm referred to the history of two once-productive farms in the valley which had been bought by the old homeland Lebowa government for tribal occupation.
One became derelict and was then leased to a white farmer who lived well off it for 20 years and employed 400 people. In 1999, his lease expired and he left, leaving his farm improvements intact.
Just one year later, the farm has sank back to its original dilapidated state. Squatters moved in, fences torn down and irrigation piping was stolen. The mangoes became sick and the trees planted for windbreaks were chopped down for firewood. Four hundred people lost their jobs.
The other was the well-known Rolf Flowers operation which had a capital-intensive infrastructure and employed hundreds of people on its 100 ha. It was purchased from Rolf Flowers by the government in the early nineties (it bordered on one of the traditional lands) and today stands forlorn, with its buildings vandalized and its equipment ransacked.
Everything which could be stolen has already been taken, and nothing is going on. There seems little concern by the powers that be about the waste of taxpayers’ money for this purchase. The only move the government has apparently made is to employ security guards to protect what remains from further vandalization.
But saddest of all was the story of a black businessman who, up to late 1998, had had a thriving trading store at Giyani. He knew little about fruit farming but decided to buy a citrus and mango farm, with a turnover of about R2 million a year. This farm was next to Amm’s farm in the valley. He was given a R2,4 million Land Bank loan, plus a R100 000 production loan, and friendly advice and practical help from his neighbours.
Then he, like his neighbours, was hit by floods and he lost much of his mango crop, while his fences were damaged. He certainly had bad luck but so did everybody. This farmer was in deep trouble. He couldn’t meet his land Bank payments and he couldn’t afford to spray his mangoes which were then in full flower. He couldn’t harvest his fruit because he had little money to pay his labour or buy diesel for his tractors. What fruit he had was stolen at night. His phone was cut off and he had no more air time on his cell phone.
This is what farming is all about, and it is clear that little of the downside of agriculture is relayed to prospective land reform beneficiaries. If it were, would they take on farming at all? (Notable is the fact that during the floods in the area, white farmers had to repair roads and bridges at their own expense).
Valley farmers believe that the same situation and conditions apply throughout the country. And they are right. Said one farmer we spoke to: “Every single person, black or white, in the Letaba district is dependent in one way or another on agriculture. It should not be allowed to go into decline. In the broader sense, the rich, productive valley could be lost to the South African economy. There will be no winners, only losers!”
How prescient he was. But nobody was listening, least of all the arrogant and the ignorant for whose sins the whole of
Now that the government has given itself powers to expropriate property throughout
When a government sets out to force through a policy on ideological grounds, without pause to assess what has happened to previous land transfers, then it is criminally responsible for whatever disasters await us in the future. It is clearly not only up to Mike Amm to shout from the rooftops. South Africans of all shades must do something now. When it’s too late, it’s too late. A broken house can be rebuilt in a week. A destroyed farm takes years to recover, and it needs dedication, love, hard work and skill. These qualities are already in short supply within a community which sees its life’s work and its productive farms collapsing before its very eyes.