Reviving Ongeluksnek’s farms

Coerced by apartheid legislation in the late 1970s, white commercial farmers left the highly productive Ongeluksnek region near Matatiele in the Eastern Cape to make way for a larger Transkei – a forced removal that heralded the collapse of commercial agriculture in the area.

Coerced by apartheid legislation in the late 1970s, white commercial farmers left the highly productive Ongeluksnek region near Matatiele in the Eastern Cape to make way for a larger Transkei – a forced removal that heralded the collapse of commercial agriculture in the area. But today, after almost 30 years of inactivity, 3 000ha maize is being harvested in the area thanks to government funding and the desire of former Ongeluksnek resident Vivian Haviside to revive the region’s agriculture. Mike Burgess reports.

The Ongeluksnek area near Matatiele in the Eastern Cape was once highly productive. Then, seeking to expand the Transkei homeland, apartheid legislation sent white farmers packing, and commercial agriculture in the area collapsed.Now, 30 years later, maize is once again being grown here, thanks to founder and director of S’Dumo Trust, Vivian Haviside, employed by the rural development agency AsgiSA Eastern Cape, to project manage and facilitate the establishment and harvesting of maize in the area.
“This is where we lived,” says Vivian pointing to the dilapidated remains of his childhood home on Molife Farm.

Along the bumpy dirt road, many other derelict buildings bear testify to Ongeluksnek’s productive past. And if Vivian has anything to say about it, the region will soon be back to producing maize yields of more than 8t/ha. A large expanse of maize alongside the road proves he’s well on his way to reaching his goal. It’s part of the 3 000ha to be harvested on land belonging to 18 independent farmers, placed on former commercial farms by the Transkei government, and 11 communities.

“I soon realised the importance of marketing the idea of commercial maize production to small-scale and communal farmers clinging to traditional subsistence production methods, pensions and grants,” explains Vivian. He started overseeing the maize planting here in the 2007/8 season in partnership with a respected agri-business, and continued with AsgiSA EC in 2008/9. “I’ve pushed hard to create a new awareness and bring the culture of commercial agriculture to these communities,” he says.

Winning over communal farmers
It’s been tough going planting maize on small communal lands of 0,5ha to 2ha. At first, farmers baulked because they couldn’t understand how they’d identify their crops within the larger mass of maize that Vivian proposed to establish. “I had to convince them that we’d turn all those postage stamp lands into one big land, and the 20 owners of the small lands would have 20 shares in the big one,” Vivian says. “But many still wanted stakes to mark land ploughed by their fathers.

I assured them we had it all on satellite. Then I had to explain how we take photos with a naledi, the word for ‘star’ in Sotho, because I couldn’t explain what a satellite was.”Fortunately, communal farmers slowly began to buy into Vivian’s ideas, especially when green blocks of quality maize began to rise in Ongeluksnek. Winning over local farmers to his dryland cropping initiatives in the past three seasons excites Vivian the most. It shows that there’s real potential here.

A special childhood

Vivian’s return to Matatiele was by chance, after applying for a job as a town planner in 1980. That same year he married his childhood sweetheart, Barbra, a daughter of former Ongeluksnek farmers Johnny and Jean Pedlar from the farm Locarno.Soon the couple found themselves revisiting childhood haunts in Ongeluksnek and reminiscing about their unique African childhood in an area of stunning natural beauty, defined by a large alluvial plain and higher lying areas running up to the jagged peaks of the

Drakensberg.Vivian recalls how, along with a farmworker called Lhlonono, he and his best “townie” friend Snyman Maartens used to head out for the mountains on horseback, where they’d hunt and fish for days. From their elevated position they could see toy-like tractors and vehicles moving slowly on commercial farms in the Ongeluksnek valley below. They idolised Lhlonono, recalls Vivian.

“He was like my second dad, that old chap. He was fit and strong and his field and survival skills were unbelievable.“We used to spend up to a week in the Drakensberg catching trout or shooting vaal rhebuck and mountain reedbuck, then slaughtering them and hanging them in caves to keep them cool, and roasting the liver on the coals.”Spurred by childhood memories, Vivian and Barbra felt the need to make some kind of positive contribution to their former home. Barbra wrote a history of the families of the area, while Vivian decided to resurrect its agriculture. Now his hard work is beginning to pay off and local communities are reaping the rewards.

Benefits for all

It’s the region’s inhabitants who benefit the most from the cropping initiative.“AsgiSA helps us to eat by planting this maize in these old lands so that we become fat, in a way that we receive and they receive,” says pensioner and community leader Madaliwonga Nzeleni from Likhetlane village, who came to watch the harvesting carried out by teams of Free State contractors.

He says that besides the 10% return from the crops the community receives – the other 90% is re-invested – there’s a range of added benefits. One of these is R100/day jobs, eagerly undertaken by locals. They document estimates of the maize being filled into Interlinks bound for SASKO in Estcourt in KwaZulu-Natal. They also keep track of livestock’s ability to use the maize residue after harvesting.

During the rest of the year, the emphasis is on keeping livestock out of the many unfenced lands, says Vivian. This is a major challenge in the former homelands where fencing can disappear as quickly as it goes up. This year, herders have been appointed to make sure livestock doesn’t enter maize lands before harvesting.

“They’ve made a huge difference,” says Vivian. “We have eight herders in the area and they’re paid R100/day.” He points to a man ushering sheep from a nearby land of maize. “There’s one of our herders,” he says. “All it takes is a little awareness, a little understanding. Previously he’d be doing nothing and the sheep would be walking in the land.”

A unique relationship
Vivian spends much time speaking to bystanders in fluent Sotho, explaining developments in the project and the responsibility communities have to become involved in the cropping initiative. It’s clear his unique access to the people of the region has contributed to the project’s initial success, and will help in ensuring its sustainability. After all, as Vivian says, growing maize commercially in the area can’t and won’t work unless the communities buy into the idea and support it completely.

Contact Vivian Haviside on 083 557 2214.    

The need to better manage the maize value chain

AsgiSA EC’s dryland cropping projects in the former Transkei are still running at a loss, admits CEO Simphiwe Somdyala. The reasons for this include theft, damage by stock, and high input costs since the lands haven’t been planted for 20 years. However, controllable factors must also be addressed to reverse this trend.

For example, Vivian says a serious constraint on productivity in the Ongeluksnek area, and in the former Transkei in general, is the extremely low pH of the soils, despite good fertility.The problem is compounded by a phosphate deficiency, adds AsgiSA agronomist, Luvo Qongqo. “Because of high rainfall, most of the soils in the Transkei are acidic, so we need to do liming because it will immediately push up our yield,” Luvo says.

He says budgetary constraints meant that this critical soil preparation wasn’t done before planting took place in the past two seasons.Colin Stephenson from Profert Fertilisers says funds are invariably released too late. “AsgiSA EC never does anything on time, because it is busy with budgets and politics.”

This is a trend AsgiSA EC is determined to put an end to, notes Luvo. “This year we want to plant early,” he says. “We’ve seen the bad effect of planting late in some projects.”But Simphiwe says the future sustainability of AsgiSA EC’s dryland cropping projects depends on better market leverage.

To get this, it needs to store maize more effectively before sale to clients. “We need silos,” he says. “AsgiSA EC can’t keep saying it will fund these projects when communities aren’t benefiting in the long term. We’re making losses because the SAFEX maize price is very low and we have no storage capacity.”