Ongeluksnek getting the landless productive again

In the late 1970s, Ongeluksnek Valley near Matatiele in the Eastern Cape slipped into productive obscurity, after its commercial farmers faced compensated removal by the nationalist government to increase the size of the former Transkei. Mike Burgess visited Ongeluksnek recently, to see how former resident Vivian Haviside and emerging farmers have joined forces to restore the area to its former productive glory, despite serious challenges.

The Ongeluksnek Valley is part of the historical Griqualand East. Following the exodus of commercial farmers in the 1970s because of compensated removals executed by the nationalist government, its farmland had become unproductive. “Nothing had happened in the area for 30 years, but because it was highly productive, I thought, instead of moaning, let’s make a difference,” says Vivian Haviside, director and project manager of the Matatiele-based S’Dumo Trust, a facilitation and project management consultancy.

In 2007 it was decided to produce maize on some of the 2 000ha of arable land there. Vivian contacted a respected agribusiness which was keen to get involved in mechanised projects in the former Transkei and an agreement was signed. But producing crops on land that had been fallow for so long, posed a serious challenge and required major work to ensure sufficient drainage. In the end, however, 1 700ha of maize under dryland production was planted, achieving a yield of well over 5t/ha in the 2007/08 season.

Tackling teething problems
Ultimately, the project wasn’t profitable for the local farmers, mainly due to teething problems such as the significant cost of preparing the land, a serious weed problem springing from the 30-year dormant soil, the alleged supply of inferior seed and disagreements with investors about marketing.

Although disappointed the farmers and Vivian had learned valuable lessons and decided to launch another attempt for the 2008/09 season. Vivian set about looking for funding, which was frustrating as many investors were scared off by the uncertainty of a pending land claim (see box: Area history and the land claim).

A brighter future with Asgisa
Vivian made contact with the government-owned Eastern Cape branch of the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (Asgisa). Since its inception in 2007, Asgisa Eastern Cape has investigated the possibility of commercial-scale cropping in the former Transkei, based on modern farming principles to ensure rural food security and economic upliftment.

Asgisa funded a dryland maize production pilot project for the 2008/09 season on nearly 800ha of the best arable land of the Ongeluksnek farms, with aim of substantially increasing production. Vivian came to an arrangement with the company that he’d manage the initiative, involving agronomists, suppliers, contractors and other specialists, as he saw fit.

He argues the popular tender process creates a lack of conformity amongst contributors and results in poor management and service delivery. “I like to take responsibility for everything I do, so I put the parties together and we have carte blanche in purchasing the material, equipment and chemicals, etc,” he says.

A leg up for emerging farmers
As for involving local emerging farmers, Vivian believes to make any real difference in their lives they need to be able to produce effectively as soon as possible, without lengthy training periods. “Most of the farmers are elderly. Government wants them to be educated, but I say it’s too late,” he argues. “Let’s fast-track them to be competitive in the agricultural marketplace, let’s get the land cultivated. Let’s put money in their pockets so they can send their kids to agricultural schools.”

To maximise their profits, the 20-odd participating farmers have been organised into the Ongeluksnek Farmers Trust. They have a separate bank account and are VAT-registered. “We’re trying to run their agricultural efforts like a proper business. It’s all about how much real profit these guys make,” Vivian explains.

Profits will be pooled and divided according to the size of each farmer’s land, determined by GPS coordinates. “The 2008/09 season is looking very promising, despite a late start to planting because of abnormally dry weather,” Vivian says. But he’s taken no chances and has chosen a high-yielding, genetically modified Monsanto/DeKalb white maize stack gene variety (Roundup Ready), planted at 30 000 seeds per ha. He feels this should eclipse the average yield of 5t/ha.

The Ongeluksnek farmers are pleased at the sight of maize growing in the area. “For 30 years we’ve had no finance,” says Malefane Ramotsamai, secretary and spokesperson of the Ongeluksnek Farmers Trust. “I’m very excited by what’s happening and what Vivian’s doing to secure funding for us.”

Contact S’Dumo Trust on 083 557 2214.

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‘I’ll go down fighting!’  -a contorted history and the land claim
The Ongeluksnek Valley was originally settled by Griquas from Philippolis in the Orange Free State during the 1860s. By the late 1800s, white farmers had acquired land in the area. Almost 100 years later, in the late 1970s, many commercial farming families left under protest – including the Havisides – to make way for Transkei farmers. They settled on over 30 farms, averaging about 400ha each, on a leasehold basis. But these new farmers, without individual tenure, finance, support and necessary agricultural expertise, saw the valley become a unproductive shadow of its former self.

Emerging farmers try to buy
Twenty years later, in 2001, these farmers, now organised into the Ongeluksnek Farmers Association, approached the Department of Land Affairs (DLA) requesting ownership of the land. By late 2003, the DLA decided to offer the Ongeluksnek farms for sale to the farmers. They then made contact with Vivian Haviside, a fifth-generation member of a former Ongeluksnek farming family and director of the Matatiele-based S’Dumo Trust, a facilitation and project management consultancy business, to help them accessing funds and facilitate the purchase of the farms. This also began a partnership to bring back major maize production to the area.

Land claim disrupts sale
However, disputes with the DLA relating to the price of Ongeluksnek farms were only the beginning of the problems facing Vivian and the farmers. A land claim surfaced in 2003. The claim was apparently submitted in 1998 by Chief Khomotsoana Gregory Lebenya of the Bakoena tribe on behalf of the Bakoena Community. It confusingly states that the Ongeluksnek farms were acquired without compensation for the community by the Department of Agriculture in 1936, when white farmers had already settled in the area.

Vivian believes the claim to be fictitious, but also blames the DLA for poor management, in not knowing about the existence of the claim before advertising the sale of the farms in late 2003. “The then-land affairs minister Thoko Didiza advertised the farms, creating an expectation of sales and yet the DLA, despite being under her jurisdiction, didn’t know there was a land claim over the area,” he says.

“It’s standard procedure that before any transaction can be made, a clearance must be obtained regarding whether there’s a land claim on a property or not. Also, by law, there needs to be a process of communication with all the affected parties. This was never done.” However, according to Zama Memela, director of operations management at the Eastern Cape Department of Land Affairs, the claim is legitimate.

“It was a mistake on the part of the person (a DLA official) dealing with the claims to advertise the farms,” he admits. “But the land claim is at the level of negotiation.” Meanwhile, the farmers of Ongeluksnek say they’re not moving any time soon and have already hired legal representation.  “There are graves of my ancestors on my farm, so I’ll never leave. I’ll go down fighting!” says Malefane Ramotsamai, secretary and spokesperson of the Ongeluksnek Farmers Trust.

More about Asgisa Eastern Cape

In May 2007, the Eastern Cape government launched the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (Asgisa) Eastern Cape (Pty) Ltd. Asgisa Eastern Cape oversees various projects, contributing to national government’s aim of halving unemployment and poverty by 2014.

It already has agriculture and agroprocessing plans underway to ensure major cultivation of crops under irrigation and dryland conditions. The 2008/09 season has already seen the planting of 6 400ha of maize in the Mhlontlo, Matatiele, Mbashe, King Sabatha Dalindyebo and Ingquza local municipalities in the former Transkei.

Contact Asgisa Eastern Cape on (043) 735 1673.