Lekota – a farmer for farmers

Mosiuoa Lekota grew up on a farm in the Free State and owns commercial farmland. As he and his political partners are on the brink of launching the ANC breakaway party, Congress of the People, Suzanne Venter caught up with him to discuss his views about South African agriculture.
Issue date : 056 December 2008

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Mosiuoa Lekota grew up on a farm in the Free State and owns commercial farmland. As he and his political partners are on the brink of launching the ANC breakaway party, Congress of the People, Suzanne Venter caught up with him to discuss his views about South African agriculture.

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in the Free State in the Senekal and Ventersburg area and grew up there as a farm boy. I was brought up by my father’s oldest brother, who had to take care of me because my parents went to Johannesburg to find work. They finally settled in Kroonstad, where I also went in 1959.

We’ve heard you are a farmer in addition to your career in politics.
Yes, I recently bought a small piece of land where we have some cattle and I own a share in a little wine-producing farm in the lovely Jacobsdal area in the Free State. A lot of the Landzicht wines come from that area. Only 30% of grapes used for blended wines has to come from the Western Cape, so winemakers from the Western Cape buy bulk wine from the Free State and Northern Cape. A lot of the blends you drink actually come from the Free State.

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When you were the premier of Free State, you had a good relationship with commercial farmers and still do. How did this come about?
I understand how farm life works, the problems farmers face and I’m therefore able to communicate with them and offer support. Communication is important. I can speak seven languages, including Afrikaans. When I speak to people in their mother tongue, even if I make a few mistakes, they are much more relaxed. And of course, I’ve always been passionate about non-racialism and have spoken at length about it, trying to make people understand the collective problems apartheid created and that we all have to work through things, black and white. I also have many farmer friends, some of them grew up with me and I used to call them “klein basie”, but times have moved on and we are looking to the future and getting along very well.

Do you think the agriculture minister has a proper understanding of the industry?
I can’t comment on that, I don’t know how much she understands.

Then do you think the capacity of state departments has been affected by the aggressive racialisation of them?
No, I think that it’s more a question of whether or not we were successful in appointing competent people or people imaginative enough and with the right attitude to deal with the problems at hand.

Do you think government has made mistakes in the policies pertaining to farmers?
Some of the legislation that was introduced might have caused some problems, but I think on the whole, the legislation was fine. The problem was with the people who were supposed to implement it. And of course there have been many issues around the value of land. In most cases, land had been developed by the current owners and was more valuable, so selling price becomes an issue. And government needs the land and will try to get a good price, as low as possible. But the farmer needs to buy other land; will he be able to afford another of equal price and value? But don’t forget that some farmers will take chances and try to get more money than their land is worth. So the problem lies in implementation and management of legislation and this leads to aggressive and unreasonable attitudes.

Is the state getting land reform right?
I think we were doing very well, but in recent years there have been more problems. Under some ministers we did very well, and under some others, not.
What should be done to get land reform right?
Our new party, Congress of the People (Cope), haven’t drawn up policies on these matters yet, so I can only give my own opinion. But, I think it is vital that farmers participate and put forward ideas of how they think the new party should deal with agricultural issues. The people who voted and supported us should also agree on the way forward.

How do you intend on involving the agricultural community in policy-making?
I will be talking to farmers in the following weeks, in the run-up to the launch of the party on 16 December. I am going to the Free State and the Western Cape soon and am hoping that the farmers will assist us in finding solutions that we can start working on after our launch. I think farmers are an asset to our nation and we need them as partners to take this country forward, especially in terms of job creation and food security. We need them to help secure the stability of the country.

What if farmers refuse to participate in land reform?
In the last 15 years farmers have, in general, accepted land reform and said that it has to be done to correct the imbalances of the past. Some of them have agreed to give the present policies a chance; others think that things should be done differently. Based on my intimate knowledge of the farming community, I am not expecting any opposition.

What needs to be done to get farming back on its feet, especially in light of SA becoming a nett importer of food?
More land should be made available to small farmers, including subsistence farmers. We need to deal with a dual problem – land reform and shortage of food. If we make more land available, even for subsistence farming, at least people will be able to produce food for themselves and, as their farming practices improve, surpluses will become available to take to market and add to the available food supply. But we would have to link a certain level of national awareness and consciousness to this and say to the people that, first and foremost, they must support local products before buying imported ones. They should only buy imported goods if they can’t find what they are looking for here.

And what’s the plan if you make land available to unskilled people?
There have been many complaints that the mechanisation of commercial farming has been replacing labour on farms. Many people in the informal settlements are displaced workers from commercial farms, who don’t have skills to work and survive in towns and cities. If you take them back to the land and give them basic seeds to grow, it will be of benefit. And there’s plenty unused land in state hands that can be used for this purpose – either communally or by dividing it into plots. It would be ideal to do this in collaboration with local farmers who have the expertise to guide and teach these people to develop their own farming skills. This brings me back to my earlier point that it’s vital for us that farmers get involved in improving agriculture in South Africa.

Who should receive land?
It should go to people who are interested in farming and willing to work. And it shouldn’t be exclusively available to black people. The aim should be to introduce a culture of cooperation and high work ethic, of training each other – if we can get that right, we can produce magic.

Many farmers say the second maize belt lies in the northern former Transkei, but people can’t get title deeds to the land which means they can’t use it as collateral and develop it. What is your opinion on this?
That land is communally owned and it’s important to encourage an arrangement to get the most out of this land, but you can’t do that without the collaboration of the chiefs. They will not want policies interfering with their traditional position. So you need a meeting between the democratically elected leaders and the chiefs to ensure that the land under their policy and control is applied productively, without eroding their authority. The best way to do this is to establish a system of landownership or control based on ideas of the chiefs and the communities they govern.

Is there truth in the agriculture minister’s accusations that farmers don’t treat their workers well?
People often single out one incident, but I feel that you can’t take just one case and say that all commercial farmers are like that. We have passed laws on minimum wages and most farmers are paying that. If you haven’t lived on a farm you wouldn’t understand the dynamic between farmer and worker. Commercial farms can’t be run like factories in town, because they are dependent on nature and have to plan accordingly, they can’t manage nature, and the farmers and their workers understand that. Yes, they sometimes do work very hard, but then they get time again to relax when waiting for harvesting time or for rain – and another intense period of work. This is an experience that will never be understood by people who grew up in an urban environment.

Would you consider forming a coalition with Helen Zille and the DA?
We can’t preclude it at this point. I used to play soccer and rugby and if you play a team sport, you don’t want strong players in other teams – you want as many good players as possible on your side. You weaken yourself if you are afraid of having strong players on your team. You constantly need to challenge yourself to get stronger. So we are definitely willing to work with the DA and we can’t rule out a coalition. Should we, for instance, find after the elections that it would be of benefit for both of us to defeat the ANC, then it would be stupid not to consider it. Ultimately the constitution of the country shouldn’t be affected by this. |fw