Free State Agriculture (FSA) is confused. At the recent ANC congress in Polokwane, angry accusations were made of commercial farmers preventing black farmers from farming the “African way”. But what exactly is the “African way” of farming, FSA’s CEO Henk Vermeulen and the chairperson of the union’s Land Reform Committee, Dirk van Rensburg, asked Annelie Coleman? Especially after the committee has repeatedly offered agricultural land to the state for land reform purposes, only to be rebuffed. Today, FSA is getting on with land reform themselves, with an increasing number of black farmers swelling their ranks.
You seem perturbed by the term “African Way” of farming as referred to at the Polokwane conference.
Henk: Yes, I am. I don’t know what the “African way” is and nobody in government can tell me what it is. Is the “African way” the way of poverty, hunger and food insecurity? That is what I see when I look at Africa. I don’t see food security, profitability or sustainability. At Free State Agriculture (FSA) we are committed to land reform for the benefit of emerging as well as commercial farmers, but find it increasingly difficult without being given clear-cut objectives by the authorities. At Polokwane, commercial farmers were blamed for denying black farmers the opportunity to farm in the “African way”, but as I said, is there anybody who can tell me what that is and what it would lead to?
What are your objectives and long-term goals as far as land reform is concerned and why did FSA involve itself with the process?
Henk: Land reform is one of the key areas for our organisation. We had no choice but to get actively involved with all aspects of the process to ensure the long-term survival of our members and their children, within the agricultural sector of South Africa. We didn’t get involved because we fear a Zimbabwe situation, but because we have to prevent it. If we don’t act pro-actively to ensure an orderly and well-planned transfer of land, we might very well find ourselves as a second Zimbabwe.
Dirk: It’s important to recognise the fact that we insisted on involving all relevant roleplayers and that we never acted in isolation when we founded the FSA Land Reform Committee. The roleplayers include government departments, the Land Bank, Nafu, commercial banks and many others. We are committed, but three issues are not negotiable: realistic economic units; sustainability and profitability; and food security. We will never back down on those cornerstones of successful land reform.
Speaking of government departments, what relationship do you have with them? I recall that the FSA offered land for purchase to the Department of Land Affairs, among others.
Henk: Although politicians accuse us of being anti land-reform, we keep a database of land specifically available for the process. These farms are offered to the department on an on-going basis and we have been doing this for some time, but to this day, not one hectare of that land has been bought. Formally, 12 000ha have been offered so far, for which receipts have been signed. Various excuses have been made for the lack of interest, such as an unavailability of surveyors or the lack of money to pay the surveyors.
Dirk: On the other hand we have been blamed for taking land from our members for land reform. Totally untrue! The land that is offered to the department is land that has come onto the market anyway. We have had a discussion with Nafu and they are very impressed with the fact that we keep a database and they are interested in the land we have on offer.
What percentage of land in the Free State already belongs to black farmers?
Dirk: Our research shows that for example, in the Sannaspos area outside Bloemfontein, 59,9% of land belongs to white farmers, 7,6% to Nature Conservation and 32,5% to black farmers. These figures have been ascertained by proper research. It seems as if government doesn’t know what’s going on. For example, they claim that 16 915ha has been bought in the Letsemeng area (Jacobsdal, Koffiefontein, Luckhoff). However, FSA’s research, done in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, shows that the number of hectares is actually 49 428ha.
Henk: We have already approached the MEC for Agriculture about the importance of a proper database. It goes without saying that the discrepancies should be ironed out and the information verified. Unverified information causes unnecessary conflict and it’s often the cause of unsound decisions made by ministers and political figures, and ill-informed public statements.
The so-called Sannaspos problem is quite a contentious issue in the Free State. What is the background to the problem and what is happening there now?
Dirk: Sannaspos is a very good example of how land reform should not be tackled. We made it clear that the principles of realistic economic units, sustainability and food security are not negotiable. Government acquired some 9 000ha in the Sannaspos area, which was duly divided for resettlement. However, none of the key principles were adhered to and some farmers were settled on pieces of land as small as 3ha. It’s just common sense that nobody could make a living on such a small piece of land.
Henk: A year ago, white as well as black farmers approached us for assistance. We engaged with the land affairs and agriculture departments and an official proposal was tabled to revisit the issue – 500ha units were proposed. Alas, I’m sad to say, nothing has happened since. The farms are now looked after by so-called caretakers and are totally neglected. The water pumps are either broken or stolen and the buildings are dilapidated. A very sad scenario.
We now know what the negatives are. Surely there must be some positives?
Henk: We’re proud of the number of black farmers who have joined our organisation and we’re committed to assisting them becoming self-sufficient, fully fledged farmers. These FSA members are all supported by white commercial farmers on a mentorship basis through the local Farmer’s Associations. The apple-growing project in the Eastern Free State near Bethlehem, which is facilitated and managed by Afgri, and the fruit-growing project near Reitz, are examples of what can be done.
Land reform has been one of the key areas for FSA – what does the future hold?
Dirk: We have publicly committed ourselves to sensible land reform since 2005. We were the first province to establish a well-designed structure for land reform where all roleplayers from the highest echelons of government to people at grassroots level are represented. Our Land Reform Committee has worked continuously to create the infrastructure for land reform based on sound business principles. All roleplayers must act for the greater good of the province. Remember, “farming looks easy when your plough is a pencil and your farm a thousand miles away”. Contact Free State Agriculture on (051) 444 4609.