Mfana Sithole (61) was just the right man to turn around the fortunes of a rundown farm in Mpumalanga.
Richtershoek Farm, situated outside Malelane, could have lain fallow and unproductive just like most land reform projects, but Sithole leased it from the Mpumalanga department of rural development and land reform in 2009, three years after 72 farm workers had failed to run it and left it plundered.
The department wanted a caretaker, but Sithole opted to lease the R27.5 million farm instead so that he could turn it into a jewel.
“All the farm’s implements, equipment and machinery were either broken down or stolen. There was no electricity and there were no water connections and no water rights,” Sithole said.
Over the past nine years, Sithole’s lease was renewable every two years – because the same farm was under claim by another community.
During that time, Sithole managed to turn the farm into a success story, after using a R14 million recapitalisation grant that the department offered him.
These days, the farm boasts 71 hectares of sugar cane; 12ha of seed cane; 40ha of vegetables, including brinjals, sweet peppers and butternut; 15ha of seed maize for a seed company; along with goats and pigs.
But Sithole can no longer bask in the glory of his good work because the department wants him out of the property and will not renew his lease agreement.
The department’s reason is that it wants to return the farm to the former farm workers who failed to run it in 2006. This will force the department to pump more money into the place when the workers take over.
“At first I thought this was a joke,” said Sithole.
“Most of these workers abandoned the farm, stole everything and left.
“Secondly, there is nothing proving that they have undergone any agricultural training after the first disaster.”
Returning the farm to the workers may mean that the department, particularly in Mpumalanga, is changing tack in dealing with land reform projects.
The department officials previously let farm workers and other beneficiaries lose their land and become landless again.
It appears that, in most of these cases, corrupt officials did not want to see successful and self-sustaining land reform projects – because it meant they would no longer have to advance excuses for the payment of more grants to benefit themselves.
“I think their motive for removing me, despite my success, is that a successful project does not benefit some of their officials because it does not need government funding,” Sithole said.
Ryton Estates, which is situated 50km outside Mbombela, is one example that saw land beneficiaries being left landless again while government pumped more money into a farming project.
The department combined the settlement/land acquisition grant of 210 farm workers, which totalled R3.4 million.
The grant was used to buy the workers a 19.34% stake at Ryton Estates 18 years ago.
But the farm workers were eventually fired and evicted from the citrus, subtropical and deciduous fruit business after they demanded the payment of their dividends.
The department then bought the farm from Ryton Estates for R75 million and leased it, but left the beneficiaries landless again and without jobs.
Department spokesperson Zithini Dlamini said the Richtershoek farm workers found a strategic partner and want to try their luck once again.
The department, she said, would give them money and support.
“At the time they could not run the farm productively owing to financial constraints. However, at the moment they have indicated that they will be sourcing a strategic partner and will work together with them to keep it productive,” Dlamini said.
The claimants, she said, would be given other land because the former farm workers were coming back.
Sithole is, however, adamant that the department should rather explore other means, such as finding alternative land for the farm workers to give them a chance to prove themselves.
“Why do they remove a successful black farmer from a farm which he has resuscitated, and replace him with an entity that has not proved itself?” he asked.
Sithole said he had approached the Mpumalanga Public Protector’s office to intervene.
He is currently in the process of registering his complaint.