Growing up in one of the most violent and dangerous places in Mzansi, a young Ruben Richards never imagined where life would take him.
He would hold four degrees from three different countries and become an ordained cleric. He would become deputy director-general of the now disbanded Scorpions, and executive secretary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). He would serve as peace negotiator for the United Nations and a professor at Wits University’s Graduate School of Public and Development Management.
But he would also be a farmer.
Decades after his childhood years on the Cape Flats, he now co-owns a 400-hectare farm that exports citrus to more than 40 countries across the globe.
A rocky start
It was anything but promising when he received his matric results in the late 1960s. “My academic performance was terrible,” he recalls. “I didn’t have matric exemption – what we call the bachelor’s pass today. So I couldn’t get into university.”
Richards was forced to get a job as a clothing factory worker the following year.
For the next ten years he worked in factories: first in clothing and then as an apprentice fitter and turner in the marine and general engineering sector. But in 1977, at the age of 28, he was accepted for a bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies at the University of Cape Town.
“Getting accepted at UCT at that age was intimidating. I had insecurities about my age, but I eventually caught up.”
In the next decade he also completed his master’s degree in the United States, a degree in Semitic languages in Switzerland and a doctorate, majoring in Old Testament studies, for which he came back to UCT. And his subsequent work took him to the upper echelons of social influence and leadership in Mzansi.
He only encountered agriculture in 2015 when he started doing mediation work with the gangs of the Cape Flats. “We ran safe houses for women, and these safe houses were located on various farms for safety.
“My wife, who is a psychologist, told me that for the work that we do, a farm would be a good place. So, we were actively looking for a farm or a farming space where we could work from.”
Richards ventures into farming
In his pursuit to find a farm, Richards encountered Tobias Basson, the managing director of Namakwaland Sitrus. He was farming with citrus in the Cederberg Valley in 2019. They decided to form a partnership and farm together.
“I have been here on the farm for the past two years now. My partner has been here all his life – that’s all he knows – and he has got the depth of experience to run the business,” says Richards.
“I serve as the chairman of the board and I am the majority shareholder, so governance strategy and finance would be a focus area for me. I assist with the operations when my partner visits our other farm in Uganda, but we have a big team of experts who assist on our team.”
Their citrus and vegetable farm in the Cederberg Valley is about 400 hectares in size and employs close to 260 people. Richards says they produce about 3 500 tonnes of citrus per season.
“We have our own pack house. We grow, we pack, we process and export. Through our exporting partners we reach about 40 to 50 countries around the world, including China, Russia and the Middle East, America and Europe.”
An ever-present urge to make a difference
It may come as no surprise that Richards continues to serve. Part of the men’s vegetable farm is converted into a space that benefits the victims of gender-based violence.
“Our mission is to create an opportunity for women to own and manage their own commercial farms and it is our commitment as men to facilitate that process. Those discussions are currently underway. We have partnered with an organisation called the 1000 Women Trust. That’s where our heart is; our heart is for restoration.”
He says the biggest pandemic after Covid-19 in our country is gender-based violence, and this is their contribution to remedy that terrible pattern that envelops the country.
And last year, during lockdown, Richards and Basson also mobilised a donation of 7 million oranges to the poor and vulnerable through the Project Orange initiative – thanks to a bountiful harvest and their work not being interrupted by lockdown regulations.
A call to govern his community
Richards most recently made headlines with a brand-new chapter in his already illustrious leadership career.
In August this year, Richards decided to run for mayor because he was fed up with the incompetence of the municipality in Cederberg. “We are dependent on a municipality for services like clean water.
“As a farmer, you cannot afford to have polluted water running through your irrigation system, especially not when you are producing juicy fruit like an orange.”
In true Dr Ruben Richards fashion, he decided to tackle the difficult task of reform, and created the Cederberg First Residents Organisation.
He ended up being mayor.
They came out of the elections with 28% of the votes, tailing the ANC (with 35%) and beating the DA (20%). Richard’s mayoral position was part of a coalition agreement with the DA and Freedom Front Plus. “So we are the new kids on the block but within eight weeks we gave everyone a run for their money,” he laughs.
He’ll continue to farm and he’ll continue to serve like he intended to when he first stepped into politics. “We wanted to make sure that everybody receives the services that they are due.”
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