The South African government’s efforts to redress the wrongs of apartheid by buying farms from willing white owners and giving them to blacks has been a failure, with many of the new owners having little experience to make a success of it. The policy has also stirred racial tensions.
Reporting from Greylingstad, South Africa — Michael Zulu trundles a wheelbarrow along the track to his farm homestead, where chickens peck at the carpet and skinny cats curl sleeping amid the bird droppings.
He’s the farmer now, not just a tractor driver for a white farmer named Engelbrecht, like he used to be.
But he has a shirt full of holes, the roofless ruins of a dairy and a stretch of farmland whose only crop is cow manure, bagged up and stacked against a wall as a substitute for firewood.
There’s no electricity on his farm, just an hour’s drive southeast of Johannesburg. The fences and phone lines have been stolen, along with the dairy’s roof and fittings. He has to fetch dirty pond water for drinking and washing and set out rickety rabbit traps for meat.
To him, it comes down to one wrong turn: He applied to get a farm under South Africa’s land reform program.
“I thought I’d be much better off. But I think it was better with Mr. Engelbrecht. We lived high with Mr. Engelbrecht. We got money from him and we could look after our children.”
The land program had noble intent: redressing the wrongs of apartheid, when blacks were denied access to farmland, and lifting black rural people out of grinding poverty by buying farms from willing white owners and giving them to blacks.
It has done neither.
What went wrong? Ask two neighboring farmers and the answer probably will depend on their race. There’s so much bitterness beneath the competing narratives, it’s difficult to discern what is fact, what is misinformation and what is just an ingrained disinclination to see the other point of view.
There’s no dispute, however, that the government has spent about $4 billion on the effort and that most of the farms have failed, raising the specter of the kind of catastrophic agricultural collapse that Zimbabwe suffered after large white-owned farms were seized and handed to political cronies.
South Africa’s target, to give 30% of commercial farmland to blacks by 2014, has been put back a decade, and will cost an additional $10 billion.
The policy was marred by corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency. But the main problem was that, like Zimbabwe’s program, land was handed out to people who did not know how to farm.
“The government didn’t have a strategy to ensure that the land was productive. If there was a strategy, it was not backed with proper resources,” Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti said recently.
About 90% of the redistributed farms have failed, leaving idle nearly 15 million acres of once productive farmland, about 6% of South Africa’s arable land.
“The whole policy is set up for failure,” said John Kane-Berman of the South African Institute of Race Relations. “This is a very tough country to farm in, and you take people without a great deal of experience and without the dedication and commitment to farming and it’s not surprising that they fail.
“You can speed up the redistribution of land, but you can’t conjure up farmers.”
Johan Van Dyk purrs along the roads in a large SUV. He drifts by Michael Zulu’s farm and another farmhouse where a white family once lived.
“The fellow that used to live there was murdered,” he remarks blandly.
Van Dyk, one of the wealthiest men in Zulu’s district, drives by the farms now run by blacks, gesturing toward the ruined buildings, the missing tin roofs and tumbledown walls.
“That’s a white farmer now,” he says, pointing. “All the roofs are on.”
It’s pretty, rolling country, greened by the summer rains, but resentment and racial stereotypes slither beneath the surface. There’s bitterness on both sides, even violence: white farmers’ dogs poisoned; break-ins, family photos smashed; farmers slain.
Men like Van Dyk, 56, would rather shoot a prowler dead than hit him in the leg. He calls his son a “bad shot” for doing just that to a robber, armed with a knife, who broke into their house recently. Van Dyk carries a switchblade knife. So does his wife.
And their black farmhands and gardeners never cross the threshold of their home.
Van Dyk’s new black neighbors are disturbed by what they call his habit of carrying a gun whenever he turns up, “as if we were enemies.” They believe most white farmers are just waiting for them to fail, so they can swoop in and buy the farms back, cheap.
Eight years ago, Michael Zulu joined a group of about 206 blacks who called themselves the Sizanani farming company. A few were farm workers, the rest township dwellers with no farming background.
With government grants, they bought seven farms, elected a committee and planted crops.
Zulu doesn’t know anything about the Sizanani farm finances, just that the money ran out after a few bad maize crops.
Then he sold the tractor tires and radiator. He sold chickens. He gave up trying to farm his own land, and hired himself out on other farms, herding other people’s cattle or working as a gardener in the nearest town.
“We think we should go to the government again, for more money,” he says.
From his farm on a low hill, Van Dyk looks down, in more ways than one, on his neighbor Nomvula Maya.
Maya, 50, took over a lease on Van Dyk’s chicken farm after he sold it to the government two years ago for about $2.6 million — $850,000 less than an independent valuation.
He was sure that Maya would fail, and she did.
But Maya, an activist with the ruling African National Congress who lives in nearby Balfour, is equally certain Van Dyk is to blame. She suspects sabotage and fraud.
In the apartheid era, Maya left school in the eighth grade to work as a meat packer, in a grocery store and selling sweets on a street corner. She got the chicken farm on April 1, 2009, convinced she was finally going to make some money. Unlike Zulu, under her program she doesn’t own the land, she only leases it.
“I knew a little bit, because I had been running my own chickens here at home. I had 150 or 200 in all,” Maya says.
But the farm had nine massive chicken houses with 300,000 chickens and strict rules set by the contracting chicken factory on temperatures, sanitation, feed and disease control. Her son, Zakhele, gave up his mathematics studies at Witwatersrand University to help.
“It’s this huge operation she needed to take care of,” he says. “I could see she needed my assistance.”
Without title, banks refused to give her loans to buy hatchlings to get started. So with no money, Maya went into partnership for a season with Van Dyk’s son to sow maize, but got no profit.
“Unfortunately, that was a very bad year for us and he had to carry the losses, which were substantial,” Van Dyk senior says.
The Mayas see it differently.
“We realized the financial statements were fake,” Zakhele Maya says, alleging that the cost of fuel and other expenses were inflated.
“We had an extremely bad relationship with him,” he says bitterly, referring to Van Dyk senior. “He was trying to drive us out. Fundamentally, he’s a white right-wing supremacist, in my view, and highly racist. And he doesn’t believe that black people can farm.
“I told him I’d got to Wits [Witswatersrand University] studying mathematics when people said I’d never do it. I said I didn’t think that at this stage of my life farming chickens should be difficult.”
Maya used her husband’s retirement fund to pay the workers and the electricity bill, but soon ran out of cash. Her workers turned to Van Dyk for work.
“The white farmer is always the bad guy,” Van Dyk drawls. “So I wonder. Why do they always come to me?”
Sinking into debt, Maya couldn’t pay the power bill or plow fire breaks around the farm. Catastrophe struck this year: A wildfire burned the chicken houses, leaving her dream in ashes.
The fire poisoned relations even more. In fact, the two stories of the fire are so different that it’s difficult to decide whether someone is lying or it’s just a terrible misunderstanding.
Van Dyk says that when nearby farmers went to help fight the fire, Maya’s son refused them entry. Zakhele Maya says the white farmers came just to watch the place burn down.
“I feel too bad because I have got an opportunity to show myself in the economy, but because of these attitudes, I am just looking like a failure,” Maya says. “I’m a failure.”
Van Dyk says he believes black farmers will succeed only in partnership with experienced farmers, mostly whites.
“And they must learn to farm together,” he says. “If the black farmer doesn’t want to farm anymore, he must be allowed to sell his part to the white farmer. But that farm must not be redistributed again.”
Nomvula Maya says she’s had plenty of partnership proposals from whites, offering to run the property for a share of the profits, while she stays home.
“To me, it’s a bad attitude. It’s an insult to me. You are telling yourself I’m stupid and you are cleverer than me. Some of them are telling me, ‘Maybe you should get rid of the farm and maybe you should get a cattle farm, because it’s difficult, this broiler farm.’ To me, that’s an insult.”
She’s determined to succeed and, like her neighbor Michael Zulu, wants monetary help from the government.
But Zulu’s enthusiasm for the farming life has been worn away by years of living in squalor, without power or water or hope.
“I feel bad,” he says.” My heart’s broken. I want to work. I want to go to a job.”
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