Another one bites the dust

Some 13 years after the Tafelkop Farmers Association “invaded” an unused irrigation scheme in Groblersdal, they still haven’t acquired the title deeds promised to them by the then minister of agriculture Derek Hanekom, and a once flourishing agricultural project is now in shambles. Peter Mashala visited the farmers to find out what went wrong.

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It’s been 13 years since the Tafelkop
Farmers Association was promised title to the land they invaded on the Hereford irrigation scheme outside Groblersdal in Limpopo. But those titles haven’t been forthcoming and their hopes have dried up, just like the water channel they used to irrigate this once highly productive area.Some of the farmers have packed up and left.

Others have started looking for jobs in town. The fields are black from fires that rage almost every day. Thin, sickly animals scrape the dirt, looking for something to eat. And the infrastructure is continually vandalised. Leading farmer Jerry Sefoloshe says there isn’t even clean water to drink. “The scheme is slowly going back to the way we found it,” he says.

Where the problems all began In 1997, Jerry led the group that became known as the Hereford Farmers from Tafelkop in the former homelands of Lebowa, now in Limpopo, that “took over” the abandoned 220ha Hereford irrigation scheme. The land belonged to the Limpopo public works department, but had originally been part of a white empowerment scheme for Second World War veterans.

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Although bush and weeds had made inroads, the land had great potential – the soil was fertile and there was good irrigation infrastructure. In February 1997, a few weeks after the invasion, the farmers met with the then agriculture and land affairs minister Derek Hanekom and his director general Geoff Budlender to legitimise their tenure.A memorandum of understanding granted the farmers temporary occupation rights. They were given a one-year lease with the option to buy.

The arrangement opened doors for the Tafelkop Farmers Association. They could sign planting contracts with local co-ops and soon were producing everything from cotton and sweet corn to tobacco and baby vegetables, which were exported to the UK, US and Japan through Swallow International.

But after their lease expired, no-one showed interest in renewing them or allowing the farmers to buy the land. Everything started falling apart. Following the export-earnings crash due to the stronger rand, they couldn’t enter domestic markets. Their efforts to secure delivery contracts with companies like NTK, Afgri and Koo were rejected, due to their lack of security of tenure.Then there’s the fact that they’re now part of Limpopo, following the shifting of the borders in 2007.

Before that they were promised title deeds, explains Jerry. “But now the issue of deeds is off the agenda.”In 2008, the farmers called the former land affairs minister Lulama Xingwana to plead their case. They were reassured their problems would be addressed. But a few weeks later the Limpopo public works department issued them with caretakership contracts.“That’s worse than a lease agreement,” says Jerry. “We can be kicked out at any time, with only 30 days notice. And we can forget about getting any loans or finance for production. This is their way of kicking us out once and for all.”

Farmers divided
The Tafelkop Farmers Association’s treasurer Albert Malapane says the ownership issue isn’t the only problem they’ve encountered since they were integrated into Limpopo. Progress toward a satisfactory resolution has also been frustrated by arrogant government officials who stirred up problems between the association members, he claims. “We now have two factions, and two executive committees, one of which the extension officers formed,” he alleges.

“The extension officers know nothing about irrigation farming,” adds Jerry. “Coming from the dry land farming areas in Limpopo, they were frustrated because they had to learn from the farmers they were supposed to be helping. So instead of working with us, they started working against us.” Jerry says the officials made impossible promises to some farmers, such as free services. “Every farmer contributed money that went towards paying for water, electricity and other services we received from the scheme,” he explains. “When our members heard some were being offered free services, they stopped paying their contributions. This put the association into debt and eventually our water supply was cut off.”

And now divisions between the farmers are making saving the scheme that much more difficult. In the 2008/9 Limpopo agriculture department budget, R70,9 million was set aside for three irrigation schemes – Mapela in the Waterberg district, Mbahela in the Vhembe district, and Hereford. But the money didn’t materialise for Hereford, as the department cited infighting within the scheme. “The Limpopo government destroyed everything we’ve worked so hard for,” says Mankge Makua, one of the Hereford farmers.

“They neglected us and left us to rot.”“Look at what we accomplished,” says Jerry. In 2007, the farmers paid for a trip to Zimbabwe to learn more about tobacco production and processing. When they returned they started building tobacco processing plants on the farms.In 2008, they decided to add a dairy to the scheme. Sponsored by Heifer International, delegates from the group went to learn more about zero-grazing dairy cattle in Israel. Heifer International bought cattle for the project, but things have floundered and the animals are dying.

“It’s all been wasted,” says Jerry. “We managed to achieve all these things with the support of the Mpumalanga agriculture department. But the Limpopo department has done nothing but destroy our efforts. “In 2008, the Mpumalanga government helped us by building a state-of-the-art packhouse and offices for the Tafelkop Farmers Association. Built to meet international standards, the packhouse was worth R1 million.

Now it’s slowly falling into ruin.“Then there’s the R7 million dam the Mpumalanga department helped build, but it’s now overgrown with weeds.”Before the area was integrated into Limpopo, the Mpumalanga agriculture department approved a project that would have changed the farmers’ irrigation method to a floppy system. When the Limpopo government took over, the project was stopped, says Jerry. The Limpopo agriculture department didn’t respond to any questions about the issues the Tafelkop farmers have raised.