Sunday, 17 June 2007

Chapter 7: Levubu, Limpopo


This is the finest farmland in the world. We heard this phrase more than once as we moved about Levubu, south of the old Venda homeland in Limpopo Province, South Africa. Perhaps it is not true, but it should be true. The Soutpansberg (salt pan mountains) take their name from a powerful brine spring which surfaces on the western end of the range. Though not a large range – just over 130 kilometres from west to east – it is richly forested. Though the surrounding region receives little rain, the mountains themselves have an annual rainfall of nearly 2 000 mm in places, the best rainfall in South Africa. (The world average for good farming is 850 mm, which is the average rainfall for the commercial farms in the Levubu valley). A section of the Rozvi-Karanga people of Zimbabwe reached the area around the beginning of the 18th century, discovered its fertility and named it Venda (the pleasant place).

These people settled along the summit ridge of the range and are the ancestors of today’s Venda people. The soil was deep and plentiful and there was also a lake, the Fundudzi Lake.(1)
The area attracted European farmers, the first of which was Coenraad Buys who arrived in the region and made contact with the Venda in 1832. He was a wanderer and walked away from a campfire one night, never to be heard of again.

In 1836 Voortrekker leader Louis Trichardt set up his large family and cattle compound in the area, and in 1847 another Voortrekker group led by Hendrik Potgieter established a town in the area called Zoutpansbergdorp. He was followed by another Boer leader Stephanus Schoeman in 1852, who named the town Schoemansdal. In 1867 it was largely destroyed by the Venda chief Makhado. It was not until 1898 that the old Transvaal government established authority again, but the Venda people are still located in the highlands on the eastern side of the Soutpansberg. Schoemansdal was deserted and in 1899, a new town developed around 20km away called Louis Trichardt. It became part of the old Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek van Transvaal (ZAR).(2)

Such is the history of South Africa, the waxing and waning of power between groups. In 2002, the town of Louis Trichardt was renamed Makhado by the present South African government.
The roller-coaster political history of this beautiful part of South Africa does not alter the fact that white commercial farmers have created one of the world’s most productive agricultural gems. The first white farmer settled in the Levubu Valley in 1871.

Under a newly-created government irrigation scheme, commercial farmers were invited to settle in the valley in the 1930s, and approximately 250 commercial farmers now farm there: their properties are conservatively estimated to be worth around R700 million because of the high level of crop output. This is the hub of South Africa’s sub-tropical production which includes bananas, avocados, citrus, guavas, litchis, papayas and macadamia nuts. The macadamia and avocado crops alone earn at least R200 million per year, while the total crop is worth R500 million a year.

State-of-the-art irrigation systems pump water from the Levubu and Lotonyanda Rivers, and water is also supplied by canals from the Albasini Dam and the two rivers. This area and the nearby Letsitele valley are the two highest agricultural money earners in Limpopo province.
In the early eighties, the previous government invested heavily in agricultural and social development in the Venda homeland. The 1986/7 annual report of the Agricultural Corporation of Venda (AgriVen)(3) reveals the wide parameters of development projects: irrigation schemes and dams were a priority, as was agricultural training for the Venda people. Financial and technical assistance was also provided.

The Sub-Tropical Crops Department’s developed an efficient, profitable subtropical fruit industry in the area, and high quality plant material was supplied. Extension services were also provided, with packing facilities constructed for local and overseas markets.
Progress reports on important schemes were included in the annual report - the Barotta Fruit Farm was flourishing - avocados, bananas, guavas and macadamias had been planted and were already well into production. The microjet irrigation system constructed for the fruit farm, and the modern packhouses with ripening and cold rooms, were functioning efficiently.

The Tsianda Fruit Farm, the Matumba Nursery (where fruit and citrus trees were propagated) and the Folovhodwe Nursery with vegetable seedlings and drip irrigation all flourished.
The agronomy schemes were especially ambitious, the purpose being to establish crops most suited to the agricultural conditions of Venda, crops which had commercial potential. Despite drought conditions, tomato, cotton, watermelons, pumpkins and musk melons were harvested, although transport costs were highlighted as a problem. Sisal, grapes, peaches and figs were planted, as was maize and tobacco.

Animal husbandry was a feature of AgriVen’s emphasis on future agricultural sustainability. The Venda Livestock Board was created to promote the marketing of livestock by organizing sales and auctions throughout Venda. Two million rands worth of stock was sold during the period under review, while the Mannamead stock farms were developed, and fencing and water pipelines were installed. Dairies were developed and production remained “at a high level” throughout the year, said the AgriVen report. All fodder used for the dairies was self-produced.
Artificial insemination was practiced with good results and the calving percentage for the year under review averaged out at 82%, an exceptional figure.


Production assistance in the form of credit was created by granting long-term and revolving credit loans. Mechanical services such as tractors and implements were supplied at reasonable rentals to assist Venda farmers to plant, while extension services consisted of a “highly competent team of officers whose task it is to train farmers in modern methods of production”. At the end of 1986, sixteen experienced extension officers were serving the Venda agricultural community.

Food plot schemes (the Vuwani Rural Development Project was one) were instituted, and engineering services were supplied to Venda farmers. Some examples of the latter included sprinkler irrigation systems and road construction at Tshikonelo, Tshaulu and Crystalfontein. Pump stations were constructed on the Levubu and Mutale Rivers. The list of engineering projects is endless – stores and office complexes, portable water systems, houses and tobacco curing sheds, flood irrigation systems for planting rice, plus a central water reticulation system to deliver drinking water to cattle on 4 700 ha at Mannamead.

Micro-irrigation systems for grapes and sisal plantations were created, and a meat market was constructed..Altogether there were hundreds of projects launched, while planning and development of further schemes was undertaken. Existing projects were evaluated, future projects were investigated, while the training and development of farmers entailed the creation of the Nwanedi, the Tshimbupfe, the Dzindi and the Mutale/Malonga projects to assist black farmers to move into a successful commercial farming environment in a controlled manner.
AgriVen marketed the production of Venda farmers – a fresh produce market was constructed, while market surveys were completed to assist black farmers to assess what to plant and where to sell their produce.

An Agricultural Training Centre was opened on 27 August 1986 where the management of farms was taught. Training course seminars were held. What happened to all of these projects?
According to Mr. Nelson Radzilani (not his real name), all of these projects which flourished during the period under AgriVen control virtually collapsed when the ANC government came to power and re-incorporated the homeland into South Africa.

This Venda-born agriculturalist told us some of the projects were privatized, some are being run by white agricultural consultants on yearly contracts, but most of them are no more. Rice, coffee and jojoba beans are no longer grown. A date plantation is moribund, as is a black pepper project. AgriVen’s showpiece Barotta Fruit Farm is now being run by consultants, and is under a land claim. It had all but collapsed. The recovery of macadamia nuts delivered to one of the three processing plants was 10% compared to the average of 22% from commercial farmers. Seven years of mismanagement under the new government precipitated the invitation to the consultants. They do not deny or confirm that irrigation pipes for banana plantations on the farm had not been backwashed since 1997. Down the road the multi-million rand Tshakhuma Store where AgriVen produce used to be stored before delivery to the market stands empty. Houses have been built on the ground and it is now a squatter camp. The Tsianda Fruit Farm is now not making any money. We traveled through the property - it is a beautiful farm, with good dams and a strong river running through it. But its sheds are empty and broken, and there is no farming activity. Tractors need repairing. It is a caretaker-run operation.

Elsewhere, the AgriVen nurseries have been privatized, and the Nwanedi project only produces tomatoes. The sisal plantations are neglected, feedlots and dairies have been closed, and most extension officers have been retrenched. The bottom line, according to Venda agriculturalist Nelson Radzilani - who used to work with AgriVen and now works for the present government - is that the current administration cut the AgriVen budgets and retrenched the experienced employees. .

Levubu’s Commercial Farmers

In contrast to the moribund condition now existing in AgriVen’s aftermath, the area’s commercial farmers flourish in one of the world’s most productive valleys, South Africa’s own Garden of Eden. R250 million worth of foreign exchange is earned every year from the Levubu Valley’s agricultural production, and the area employs 10 000 workers. With five dependants each, more than 50 000 people rely upon the sustainability of the valley. But land claims have targeted 50 000 hectares of this productive farmland, and the insecurity, racial tension and lawlessness which has occurred since these claims were gazetted has added an ominous dimension to the future of the valley.

On September 27 2003, Levubu farmer Piet de Jager (65) was gunned down in front of his house, within earshot of his wife and two grandchildren. As he stumbled towards his front door, wounded and trying to warn his wife, she managed to lock the doors and press the panic button. His is not the first farm murder in the area. While de Jager’s son tried to revive his father with mouth to mouth resuscitation, the police stood around asking him for a statement. He suggested to them they close off farm roads to catch the killers, but they simply walked away.

This killing sent a shock wave through the community. In 2003, seven farmers in the area were murdered, while crime increased 400% in one year. To her credit, the MEC for Safety and Security Ms. Dikaledi Magadzi quickly ordered the removal of the officer commanding the local police station.

But the de Jager killing only exacerbated the tension which has built up over the government’s land reform policy, and the announcement that government land expropriations are on their way. Years and years of peaceful relationships between white and black in the area have been sullied by the new government’s land policy. During a DLA meeting that I attended where I represented some 127 title owners whose farms were claimed, government officials made statements in the presence of many local residents (owners and claimants) that whites stole the land from blacks now claiming, and therefore basically whites had no rights in the first place. Many Vendas themselves are unhappy with developments, and insecurity has set in. Jobs are at stake.

A tale of two worlds: on the left, an overgrazed, eroded “restitution area” in Levubu, and on the right, a commercial farm still in its White owner’s hands. The demarcation line between the properties is clearly marked out by the vegetation.

Given the evidence of what happened to the AgriVen projects under the new administration, Levubu farmers are naturally apprehensive about having their land taken from them. During a church service the day after the de Jager shooting, Reverend Petrus Kriel pleaded with the government to leave commercial farmers alone. “Only 5% of South Africa has good quality agricultural land, and each hectare in Levubu is part of that 5%. If Levubu is simply given away, the whole area will be a squatters camp in five years. The end of Levubu will be the end of subtropical agricultural farming in South Africa”, declared Reverend Kriel.(4)

As it is now, up to 10% of the annual production of macadamia nuts, bananas, pecans, guavas, litchis, papayas and citrus is stolen. “They just arrive in empty bakkies, fill them up with bananas, pineapples or macadamias, and drive off”, declared Reverend Kriel.(5) More than 300 complaints have been laid with the police over the past three years , says Herman de Jager, Piet de Jager’s son. They have fallen on deaf ears.(6) In many cases, the telephone at the police station goes unanswered. More than half of the 80 or so policemen at the station only speak Venda.

“Venda is being stolen blind” says Dr. Henry Numdzivhadi, a Venda historian.(7) He says it is not only the commercial farmers who are plundered. Venda farmers are also fed up and frustrated. An old Venda lady selling food at the side of the road was killed with a stone for R15, recounts Dr. Numdzivhadi. “Nobody knows if her murderers have been brought to justice”. He also complains bitterly about the police who do not follow up on complaints.

Numdzivhadi declared that the “previously strong government structures have disintegrated, resulting in a breakdown in discipline”. One farmer who retired to Levubu says the agricultural ground is valuable in monetary terms, but in reality it is worthless. The land claims Sword of Damocles has rendered it so. A current valuation list shows one particular avocado farm at R60 000 per ha, and a macadamia farm at R83 000 per ha. “But these are figures on paper”, says the retired farmer. (8) Over the past two years, there was no willing buyer, willing seller transaction in the area.

A banking group had to virtually give a farm away, he says, otherwise it would have been plundered. People now rent the farm from the new owner. “Empty farms and houses are simply ransacked”, he declared. This situation has caused a division within the farming community. Some are prepared to go into an agreement with the government and sell their ground, while others say they will never give up under pressure.

No Different

The situation in Levubu is no different than in other areas of South Africa – poor policing, stock and crop theft, personal intimidation, threats to take land. At one meeting between Levubu land claimants and farmers, the latter were told by a claimant that they should just hand over their title deeds to the claimants “and then you can work for us”. Indeed, this seems to be the new trend in claimants’ thinking, most of whom don’t want to farm and cannot farm commercially. Farmers must run the operation while the “owners” rake off a good portion of the profits. In some circles this is called mentoring, or “joint ventures” or the latest idea “lease-back”, where the farm is handed over to claimants and leased back to the original farmer who must now hand over a percentage of his profit to people who have had no input into the farm’s productivity or profitability.

It can be guaranteed that the new “owners” will not recapitalise the farm when it becomes necessary, and nor will the manager or the workers. Thus, the farm will be bled to death.
Assurances have been given by Mr. Mashile Mokono, land claims commissioner in Limpopo that production must not be disturbed due to land transfers.(9)

The Land Claims Commission is at present busy with some of the farmers – those who want to negotiate – to find a way to satisfy everyone. The plan seems to be a more polite version of what was said at the claimants/farmers meeting mentioned above. We’ll take the title deed, and you do the work.

Thus the claimants become a sort of landowners’ class, doing nothing and sharing the profits with the managers and workers. This arrangement will not suit many farmers who want the full profit for all their work, initiative, skill and heartache. And the landowner class will become people on welfare, paid not by the taxpayers but by a hard-working farm manager.

The Future

One must compare AgriVen’s ambitious development and results with what happened when the new South African government took over, incorporated the area into mainstream South Africa, retrenched the experienced AgriVen staff and crimped the budget. Instead of maintaining and building upon something that was already there, they allowed it to crumble and decay. So what are Levubu farmers to think when they look at government land reform policy? And what must South Africa’s taxpayers think when they see the wastage and the decay and the results of land handovers in the rest of South Africa?

Some productive farms in parts of Mpumalanga or North West Province are worth at most R1 500 a ha, but they are nonetheless productive and provide a fair living for their owners who nurture them 24 hours a day. So much more damage is done to South Africa when land worth R100 000 per ha is turned over to people who cannot farm, where no impact study has been completed, and where operating capital soon runs out. Is Levubu to become yet another South African squatter camp?

Despite the assurances from the Department of Land Affairs that this will not happen in Levubu, it has happened all around South Africa. Examples can be quoted where the handing over ceremonies were replete with guarantees that the recipients would cherish what they had been given for virtually nothing. Yet except where there has been outside help, or mentoring, not one instance of a successful land handover can be found in South Africa. Why should Levubu be any different?

The farming of such vast fruit and tea estates is extremely labour-intensive and requires many years of experience of local conditions, plus much marketing and management expertise. Years of professional agricultural training is an absolute requirement for anyone managing such land holdings.(10)

Farming is remorseless. In the early 1970s Bertie le Roux was one of the pioneers in macadamia nut farming. Macadamias put Levubu on the map. South Africa is now the third largest macadamia producer in the world, after Australia and Hawaii.(11)

“Our success is due to hard work, diligence, discipline and a lot of planning and risk taking. When we started with macadamias, many mistakes were made because we had no knowledge of the product or the market”, declares le Roux. These farms are really smallholdings – around 40ha to 50ha. But when each hectare can produce a gross income of between R35 000 and R70 000 a year with bananas or macadamias, then the value of the land is obvious.

Has the government the money to pay market prices for these farms? The government’s total budget for land restitution for 2002 was R701 million, so how can a small farming community occupying only around 30 000 ha lay claim to half of the total nation budget for land redistribution?(12)

A Modern “Betterment” Clause

When the old Department of Land Affairs (DLA) allotted land to white farmers in the early forties in the valley, farming equipment was provided on a loan basis. Conditions were set down on how to farm economically and seeds, fertilizer and pesticides were also provided on a loan basis. Progress was monitored by agricultural extension officers, and the harvest had to be delivered to the DLA. Each farmer received 50% of the income, while 25% was returned to the state in repayment of the loans, and 25% was kept in trust. A probationary period of four years was allowed, and those who failed were replaced. (This is how the current DLA should be interacting with the emerging farmers it places on productive land. In the current situation, all the new owners have to do is maintain the already high standard and if they do not, they are not held to account.)

Rusted equipment in a state of disrepair – near the Tshiombo Irrigation Scheme.

Farmer Stephen Hoffman, vice chairman of the Levubu Valley Farmers’ Association, took us to the Tshiombo Irrigation Scheme, set up by the previous government under its homeland development scheme. The valley is so fertile that mango trees grow up to 30 m high. Irrigation is fed by perennial canals from the Mutale River. We talked to elderly Jansen Mudau who farms cash crops in the valley. One of his mango trees produces 250 kg of mangoes a year. But he is apprehensive of thieves. Hoffman says the valley is completely underutilized. “It is now only producing for subsistence consumption, mostly maize and sweet potato., There is now serious erosion, and farming is only at 5% of its potential”, declares Hoffman. “Proper farming here could earn at least R40 000 per ha per annum. It’s doing only around R5 000 per ha now.”

We visited the nearby DLA machinery depot where ploughing services, fertilizer and diesel had been supplied. There had also been a seedlings nursery. The place was in a dilapidated state, with broken and rusted tractors and ploughs standing around. A complete weather station was now inactive, and in the office, old government forms were swept around by gusts of wind.

Other Good Land

Why do the chiefs want to take the productive farms of Levubu when there is so much other good land, queries Hoffman. “We made a success of farming through hard work. Nobody gave us anything on a plate. All Venda land is tribal land. The tribal chiefs are demanding the commercial farmers’ land. The government doesn’t go to auctions to see what’s for sale. They don’t contact estate agents in the area for the same reason.” The black farmers in the area only farm cash crops. This is where their expertise ends. Hoffman says fruit trees would grow exceptionally well in the area, and the top soil is at least three meters deep.

The Tshiombo Irrigation Scheme was well planned, says Hoffman. But already some irrigation pipes and sluices have been broken. Irrigation thus cannot function properly, even though it is gravity irrigation. Residents in nearby houses must carry water themselves from the canals because they have not installed pipes to their homes. Like farmers throughout South Africa, Hoffman and his compatriots are quite prepared to help emerging farmers succeed on their own land. He cannot agree however with the taking of already productive farms and giving it to people who, from what they see around them, cannot farm in the sophisticated manner needed to produce the export crops now grown in the area.

A report released in December 2001 by the Department of Land Affairs states that 45% of all land in Limpopo belongs to the State.(13) This constitutes a total of well over 5 million hectares. Very little of this land has been transferred to developing farmers. Yet government is very silent on this aspect. I questioned this in December 2001. The Department of Land Affairs advised me in August 2002 that the matter was receiving attention. To date I have heard nothing from the department.

Due to the farming practices in South Africa’s traditional areas – gross over-grazing and over-occupation, poor land management such as slash-and-burn land-clearing – South Africa’s agricultural soil has suffered a great deal of physical degradation over the past thirty years.
Massive soil erosion now affects at least 6,1 million ha of cultivated soil in the once fertile valleys of the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu/Natal regions, for instance.

The Claimants

Bertie le Roux (72) arrived in Levubu with his parents in 1940, at the age of nine. Malaria was rife in the area, and there were hardly any roads. Le Roux says there were very few black people there at the time. They lived up in the mountains to keep away from the malaria in the valley, he said. “We had to get labourers from the Kruger National Park area, most of them Malawians and Mozambicans.” (14)

The land claims chart shown to our researchers indicates that a total number of 33 tribes or groups are claiming 15 farms, including Bertie le Roux’s. Some of the claims overlap.
Anthropologists were instructed by a number of affected landowners to investigate the veracity of the Ravele claim. During the investigations, a letter dated 21 October 1996 was uncovered from a Department of Land Affairs ethnology consultant discussing the Ravele tribe’s land claim on certain farms. The Ravele tribe is one of the 33 land claimants in the area.

The history of the Ravele people (of Venda stock) has not been recorded in any detail, says the consultant’s letter. As is the case of the Letsitele removals, some of the Ravele people were removed for environmental purposes in 1938. The Raveles were resettled on irrigation and dry land allotments. “They therefore were not the victims of the 1936 land act but greatly benefited from the application of its provisions”. In any event, title deeds show that large tracts of Levubu land was privately owned by whites as early as 1871. The Raveles declare in their land claim application that “they have lost their self-determination”. They however overlook the fact “that the measure of self-determination which they enjoyed before the war of 1898 (the Mphephu war) was restored to them in 1938 when they were resettled in terms of the 1936 Land Act.”(15)

It was on the basis of the anthropological study conducted for the land claim farmers that they have decided to fight the claim in court. They say the Ravele’s were give 2 ha for every one ha they were renting (the land did not belong to them). The case is still pending. Many land claims throughout the country have been based on either hearsay or flimsy, untested evidence. The onus has been on the farmer to investigate these claims, in most instances at great expense. In 2001, the former Transvaal Agricultural Union (now TAU-SA) brought an action against the Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs in the Land Claims Court complaining about the lack of adherence to Section 2 of the Restitution of Land Rights Act No. 22 of 1994 which contains the legal requirements for the entitlement to restitution of a right in land.

The founding affidavit complains about the paucity of detail of farm sub-divisions detailed by claimants, how vast tracts of land have been claimed without supporting documents, how the Act has been misinterpreted, and who was actually claiming what in group tribal claims against groups of farmers.(16) In effect, the TAU-SA, representing more than 6 000 farmers, sought a ruling that the state should not expropriate land that is not the subject of a (validated) restitution claim. The TAU-SA also wanted more participation in the investigation of land claims and to be informed of a land claim on a farm before its details were published in the Government Gazette.

Although the TAU-SA lost the case on a technical point (the Land Claims Court said the TAU-SA could not act on behalf of various farmers, that they should institute their own complaints action - this is currently the subject of an appeal), the basic premise contained in the founding affidavit is at the very heart of the slipshod manner in which land claims are made throughout South Africa, and the inaccuracies and even untruths which are contained in many claim forms. (The Botshabelo case is a good example of this. To this day, the LCC in Mpumalanga has been unable to provide the public with the I/D numbers and addresses of the hundreds of claimants of this historical site.)

It is averred that this is why the land expropriation legislation was introduced in 2003 – the government does not have the resources or the expertise to sort out the thousands of land claims, some of which have been made willy nilly by people who have no basis in social history to justify their claims. In other cases, NGOs have stepped in and urged communities to claim without conducting thorough investigations into the veracity of the claims. The Department of Land Affairs financially supports some of these so-called independent organizations, because “land for the landless” is a very attractive clarion cry to gain political support.

Venda communal land is high potential farmland. There is access to perennial streams and the annual rainfall is higher than in Levubu’s commercial farming sector. Surely the government should utilize this land for emerging farmers, and leave alone those who successfully produce food for the whole of South Africa.

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