Communal farming under threat

The Kukung family has farmed on communal land in Kgabalatsane village for more than six decades. Patrick and Benny Kukung explain to Peter Mashala how the village’s communal farming system has deteriorated.

Communal farming under threat
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Most smallholder and emerging farmers in South Africa farm on communal land. But according to Patrick Kukung and his son, Benny, of Kgabalatsane village outside Brits in North West, this could soon be a thing of the past if government does not intervene – and fast. Benny says that his father bought his first cattle in 1977 to start farming in Kgabalatsane.

“I was about seven years old,” he recalls. “My father’s parents had been farming cattle and crops long before then. But I doubt that in the next 10 years there’ll be any land left for us to farm.”

This, he explains, is due to factors such as land degradation, the spread of human settlement onto farmland, and conflict between farmers and other community members. “In Kgabalatsane, crop production, especially maize, has stopped completely. The lands are no longer in production and human settlement has already encroached on the land.”

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Patrick began farming full-time in the early 1990s after retiring from his job in maintenance at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. “I started off with eight Bonsmara-type cattle, but later switched to Afrikaners,” he says. He then crossed these with Brahmans, introduced by a friend who had been a commercial farmer. “Because of the environment, mainly bushveld, Brahmans have coped very well – the calves grow faster and are ready for market early,” he explains.

The cattle have also proved their toughness in the drought afflicting North West in recent years, breeding despite the conditions. At one stage, according to Benny, his cattle “were eating almost anything, from tree leaves to fallen marula fruit”.
“We don’t feed them but only provide protein licks. Every morning they walk from the kraal to their grazing area and back, a distance of about 6km. Brahman move efficiently, so they can do this easily without stress,” he explains.

Breeding on communal land
Because of the uncontrolled use of the communal land, there is no specific breeding season – the cows run with the bulls year-round. However, most cows calve between November and January. Patrick says that this ‘system’ does not allow him to control certain aspects of breeding. “Our cattle meet up with others.” Recently, several of his cows had calving problems as they had bred with bulls that did not have good calving ease traits, resulting in difficult calving. ”When this happens, I have to help the cow to calve. We use warm water and soap for lubrication, and have had almost 100% success,” he says.

The calves are sometimes very weak, he concedes. “For about three or four days, I bottle- feed the calf with its mother’s milk until it’s strong enough to find its mother’s teats.”

Marketing to the community
Weaners are marketed to various buyers, from feedlotters to breeders. In addition, there is a ready market for meat in the community. “There are always people who want to slaughter for different reasons, such as weddings, funerals and other rituals,” explains Patrick. Locals are highly specific about what they require for weddings or funerals. They want big animals, irrespective of age, Patrick says. This steady demand places a value on older animals, making culling easier and more profitable.

Benny outlines the difficulties caused by the population growth in the area. “We’re experiencing a shortage of land because of informal settlements in Kgabalatsane. The village is growing at an alarming rate and spreading into areas traditionally used as grazing land,” he says. This is because Kgabalatsane is close to the Ga-Rankuwa industrial area. Faced with high transport costs, people are moving closer to where they work. “This could spell disaster for communal farming in the village, and the end of communal cattle farming here,” he says.

Another problem is that most farmers in the vicinity are elderly and cannot afford to buy their own farms. “Even if alternative communal land is found further from the village, at their age they wouldn’t be able to move away. We’ve been trying to address this through the local tribal authorities, but without success,” he says. Patrick adds that since the new government administration took over 20 years ago, much has deteriorated. Infrastructure that used to be maintained by government, such as fences, windmills and dipping points, has been neglected or no longer exists.

“Currently, we’re in a ‘residents against farmers’ situation,” he explains. “Dams have been closed because community members say children drown in them. Motorists complain about cattle causing accidents when crossing the road. But it’s been happening for decades.”

No government support
“Government wants people to go back to farming, but does very little to support them. The land issue is very serious, but the way things are now would discourage anyone from farming. There are just too many challenges. People would rather get jobs in cities than have to deal with all this nonsense,” Patrick says. Patrick and Benny hardly ever see their extension officer these days, but they claim that in the Bophuthatswana era, extension services were first-class.

“We had people who were dedicated to their work and were always available when they were needed. “Nowadays, creating relationships with other commercial farmers and industry experts is the only way we can survive,” says Patrick.
In recent years, North West has experienced severe drought that has killed many cattle. Patrick has lost seven animals and says government has done nothing to assist him.

Benny concurs: “We’re not saying government should take care of our cattle, but it should at least meet us halfway.” Since last winter, Patrick and Benny have been forced to spend more than R90 000 on cattle feed.

Phone Benny Kukung at 083 953 3385.