Becoming a better farmer
11:10 (GMT+2), Wed, 02 November 2011
Philemone Mahlangu of Potwane village near Makapanstad dreams of one day owning a farm so that he and his sons can run a successful cattle operation. In the meantime, he does his best, under difficult circumstances, to farm on communal land. Peter Mashala spoke to him.
Philemone Mahlangu bought his first four cows in 1980 while employed at the Balantine Hardware store in Pretoria, a company where he spent more than 20 years as a clerk. Owning cattle was simply standard practice for people living in rural areas.
“In the old days, a man was judged according to the number of cattle he owned,” Philemone says jokingly. Then, cattle were still very cheap. I spent about R400 on a single cow.”
Philimon was born in 1963 in Potwane village near Hammanskraal, north of Pretoria. “My siblings and I were raised by a single mother,” says Philemone, himself a single father of four.
Being the eldest boy, he was put in charge of his grandfather’s herd, a job which lasted until he completed his schooling and started at the hardware store. He then used his savings to buy cattle, which he ran with his grandfather’s herd.
Philemone married Selah in 1982 and four years later the couple moved out of his mother’s house to a stand in the same village where he had grown up. By then, he already had a herd of about 90 cattle.
While working in Pretoria, Philemone employed the traditional method of farming: he kept his cattle in a kraal in the evening and hired a herdman to run them onto the communal fields during the day. In 1995, he finally quit his job to concentrate on his cattle.
Managing three kraals
Philemone explains that it is extremely challenging to farm profitably and professionally on communal land, citing obvious problems such as excessive, unmanaged grazing, lack of infrastructure and disagreements between farmers.
Another difficulty is that people do not feel individually responsible for maintaining the land. If a fence is broken, for example, no one fixes it. “It takes time to address the simple problems on communal land,” he says.
Philemone adds that veld fires are also a challenge. “People just burn the veld without considering the consequences,” he says. In order to cope, Philemone has separated his 140 cattle into three herds. The largest is on a leased 8,5ha plot near Mmatlhwaele village less than 10km from Potwane.
“I’ve built a kraal and hired a herdsman to run the cattle to the grazing lands outside the plot and bring them back in the evening,” he explains, adding that he and other farmers in Mmatlhwaele graze the cattle on vacant state land.
About 30 of his cattle are kept in Ramorula, near Pienaar’s River, a 1 000ha area that Philemone and his family share with about 25 other families as a result of a successful land claim in 2004. Because many of the claimants have not yet decided what to do with their farms, they have agreed to allow communal grazing in the area.
Any member is permitted to run up to 30 cattle, and the community contributes towards the salaries of three common herdsmen. Philemone points out that this arrangement does not differ much from the traditional communal land system, as there is still no grazing management or infrastructure.
But an even greater problem, according to him, is the difficulty of buying bulls as a community. Members have had many meetings in which they have agreed in principle to buy the animals, but nothing further has ever transpired.
The third part of Philemone’s herd remains at his house in Potwane. Here, the cattle are kept in the kraal overnight and run to the communal grazing land during the day.
Contact Philemone Mahlangu on 079 708 1771.
One of Philemone’s prized bulls.
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Peter Mashala, Makapanstad, cattle, kraals, managing, Philemone Mahlangu, Potwane Village, Gauteng, communual land, breeding, challenge, community, feedlot, emerging farmer, fodder, uncontrolled breeding