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By Elise-Marie Steenkamp and Carmé Naudé

Successful partnerships between commercial farmers and emerging black farmers were the focus of the recent Landbouweekblad-Witzenberg-PALS (Partners in Agri Land Solutions) land symposium that brought farmers from across South Africa together in the Koue Bokkeveld, outside Ceres.

Despite an onslaught from an army of grain chinch bugs, the 450 delegates, including the Minister of Agriculture, Thoko Didiza, sat for more than ten hours and listened to story after story of success, challenge, good hope, faith, frustration, and sometimes despair.

It was clear that South African farmers of all race and creed share the same common goal and that is that they just want to get on with one thing, namely farming – #for the love of agriculture, as Ivan Meyer, Western Cape Minister of Agriculture, likes to say.

The more cynical would argue that white farmers are riding the transformation wagon out of self-interest, but the land symposium which was also attended by some EFF-members, re-framed what is really happening on gumboots level in South African orchards, namely that black and white farmers are transforming agriculture themselves. When black and white speaker after speaker got on stage and opened their hearts, and shared their journeys, many delegates were seen dabbing away tears. Not that farming (land) is not an emotional issue, or that farming is for the fainthearted. But South Africa’s agricultural sector is crucial to ensure food security. It employs thousands and is an important cog in the economic wheel. It brings much-needed rural stability. The message was clear, we cannot let agriculture fail.

The Ceres land summit was the follow-up of the Bela Bela conference that was organised by Landbouweekblad last year. Chris Burgess, the Landbouweekblad editor, said that at Bela Bela agriculture, for the first time, told its story and instead of a litany of failures it was a story of extraordinary successes, of partnerships, of South Africans finding each other and building a common future.

Vice-chairman of the Witzenberg PALS, Pieter du Toit, said that when they launched the initiative five years ago they dreamed of building a community that all could be proud of. “A community that could rectify the wrongs of the past, while baking a larger bread to keep food on the table.” Du Toit said that for any land initiative to be a success, all the stakeholders, local, provincial, and national, including farmers and communities had to be involved.

The PALS framework, “represents a radical departure from past land reform initiatives and is based on sound business principals, mentorship and training of emerging black farmers to become successful commercial farmers”. It is also based on the National Development Plan (NDP) principles “and lessons learned from previous unsuccessful models”. While the initial focus had been on black land ownership, it currently included “other opportunities for black entrepreneurs in agricultural value chains, such as pack-houses, cold storage, and marketing”.

Struggles with government departments that hamper transformation, were a common thread throughout the day. Several speakers pointed fingers at corruption as an obstacle in land reform and transformation. “Roles within the government should be clearly identified. Which departments are responsible for what, and that should be communicated to the public,” Rossouw Cillié CEO of Laastedrif Farming said. “Confusion around who is responsible for what causes massive delays from the government, which plays a vital part in the progress and development of agriculture in this country. We cannot do everything ourselves, we need the government to step up their game. Food security and socio-economic stability are at stake.”

From a macro-economic perspective, “South Africa did not look good” and President Ramaphosa should declare a national state of economic emergency, said Hendrik du Toit, Investec Group CEO, who jetted in from London for the summit. Du Toit said that as a practitioner of the “dismal science of economics”, it was wonderful to see people who change real things. “What you are doing is amazing. If we could bottle the stories we heard here today, and show them to the world, the investment will come.”

“Our government has been indecisive. Since 2007, we have had a leadership structure that did not lead the country. People were more interested in their back pockets than doing their jobs. That is hopefully over. “The world is a tough place when you are in a developing country that needs help and support. You don’t have a choice but to do it yourselves.”

There was a time, said Du Toit, when there were international involvement and interest in South Africa. The one thing I have noticed is the interest in South Africa is decreasing. Economic success did not come from “rooms of economists giving advice to presidents” but from the bottom up, which is what the PALS were about. Social development and not politics said Du Toit, “should be our obsession”.

Agriculture needs to change the narrative, as the land debate is only driven by fear, said Pieter Prinsloo committee member from the Eastern Cape PALS initiative. “Expropriation without compensation, land reform, and safety and security were worldwide problems, and not unique to South Africa. “We are scared of what is going to happen, instead of being straight and honest about fear and addressing the fear, come to the table and talk about what we fear. “I don’t think the changing of the Constitution was ever intended to dispossess people who are producing off the land. We have identified common ground. We must talk as a collective. My message is, change the narrative,” said Prinsloo.

ZZ2 Managing Director, Tommie van Zyl, said to delegates that “transparency is the name of the game”. “The future is much more important than the past. We need to create a farmers’ brand that every South African can be proud of. To do that, we have to embrace diversity. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Something may succeed in one situation and for one project, but in another situation, it will fail. We have to be open-hearted and open-minded.”

Roelf Meyer from the In Transformation Initiative said that land reform should not feel like an obligation. “South Africans should have a change of heart, to share our country, to implement new ways to ensure the future of our agri-businesses.” According to Meyer farmers are now in a better position than ever before to have access to the government. This statement was validated by the presence of several provincial and government officials. Meyer indicated that the economy was moving in the right direction. “We won’t see changes tomorrow, maybe in three to five years’ time.”

Gielie Geldenhuys and Tommy Mona, partners in Bambisane Farming said all South Africans have a moral obligation to make land reform work, not just commercial farmers. “On our farming entity, the next generation is already involved, that makes us excited, and motivates us to succeed at all costs. Failure is not an option,” Geldenhuys said. Mona called on the government to make transformation initiatives easier for farmers. There is a lot of red tape and ignorance in government departments that do not communicate with one another, this causes frustration in an already difficult process, he said.

Minister Didiza got a chance to react to some of the critics when she brought the day to an end. “I listened to all your stories and saw today that there is a new way of doing things that can bring all South Africans together.” She pointed to Bonnievale farmer, Phillip Jonker, who told the story of how the community came together, conceptualised and built the Jakes Gerwel Technical School in Bonnievale, and said, “Phillip, you made me cry today. What an extraordinary example you are for us all”. Didiza said to the farmers that despite difficult circumstances, “you have all proved the willingness to make things work”.

“We will work with you. Tough times don’t last, tough people, do.”

Caption: Georgie Hewitt and Raymond Koopstad, another successful farming partnership between La Vouere-Verdun, outside Ceres.

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