The 73-year-old Samson Mahlaba was but a child when he first started working as a labourer on a Free State farm. He never went to school, and he grew up with his brothers after his parents passed away when he was just six.
Yet, despite the cards he was dealt in life, he always dreamt about the day that he would simply be called “farmer”. To him, that would be the highest honour after his lifelong commitment to the land.
“I don’t know how I caught this farming thing, or why it chose me,” he says. “But I accepted it and embraced it. All my life there was this little voice in my head. Night and day, it would whisper in my ear.”
Sometimes the whispers were louder than the roars, and thanks to his longstanding relationship with farmer Coenraad Fick, his dream came true when he retired five years ago.
Mahlaba now has a long-standing lease agreement for Hoekieplaas, outside Reitz, where he farms with cattle, mielies and soybeans.
“There are two roads that lead you to my farm,” says Mahlaba about the peculiar name of his 300-hectare farmland. Literally translated, Hoekieplaas means “corner farm”. “One road is on your left side, while the other is on the right. At the end of these roads they meet, they converge. On a map you can see that they form a corner.”
Mahlaba, who farms with his twin grandsons, Karabo and Kamohelo, has mastered the art of patience.
“They don’t lie when they say ‘money makes the world go round’. If there is no money, things unfold slowly. Things don’t just happen with the snap of your fingers. That is why I say I took a long road to get here, and I am content now.”
The elderly dreamer has always worked for Fick en Seuns Boerdery, now owned by his mentor who is a fourth-generation farmer. “Yes, we have come a long way,” recalls Fick. “Samson started (officially) working for my late father in 1969. I was 9. He was on the books until last year, bringing it to 53 years with Fick and Seuns.”
Mahlaba jokes that Fick was a naughty bugger in his childhood. “Yes, he had his moments. He still went to school with a cart and a horse.”
Looking back, Mahlaba remembers a time when black farmers were few and far between, and owning land nearly impossible.
There were many moments when he considered following in the footsteps of his peers who have relocated to Gauteng in search of better opportunities.
Some mocked him for not doing it, but he was at peace with the farm life. “That is why I am here today. I envisioned myself as a farmer. It was not easy to make my dream come true. It was not easy to build my farming passion.”
Active VKB mentorship
Today, he is the mastermind behind a commercial farming enterprise. He sells his livestock at auctions and his vegetables at a local cooperative. Through the active mentorship by Fick as part of VKB’s programme for developing agriculture, Mahlaba’s business is rapidly growing.
“We are here to provide food despite all the bad in the country. We have a job to do,” he says. Fick adds, “Samson is one of our success (stories) and we will continue on this road regardless of political influences.”
Fick says, just like his late father, he has always been inspired by Mahlaba’s drive. “There is a lot of mutual trust between Samson and I. We respect each other. He is a man of many talents and integrity; an honest man.”
Mahlaba sings Fick’s praises too.
“They are my family. I grew up on that farm. I worked for Coenraad’s father, Kosie. We respect and understand each other very well, as well as his wife, mother and all his brothers.”
At 73, Mahlaba still dreams of expanding and perhaps even acquiring more land. He wants to build a commercial enterprise that his grandsons can be proud of.
“A young fellow once said to me, ‘I will never farm.’ He said he doesn’t know how farmers stay mentally stable or find the will to carry on.”
The answer is simple, believes Mahlaba.
The key to success lies in perseverance. “That makes it possible to push through all the challenges and failures. Understand this, you plant money to get money. And sometimes you are not even sure if it will produce a yield.
“You don’t know what will happen. As farmers we are servants of the weather. When it rains, all will be well, but when there are no rains you will face hardships.”