To an outsider, it may look like a typical day at the busy nursery of an award-winning Western Cape farming couple. Behind Eugene and Alan Simons’ smile, however, lies many sleepless nights about a plague they can’t seem to get rid of. A plague called crime. Duncan Masiwa reports.
It’s just gone 07:00 on Thursday, 18 March 2021. Eugene Simons, owner of Algina Wholesale Plant Nursery in Firgrove, outside Somerset West, is hopeful for a great day. It is the last day before a long weekend, after all.
Turns out, the new day also brought a rude awakening. When Simons and her husband, Alan, arrive at the nursery on their Rustenhof farm, they discover another break-in. Another farm crime. This time around, the thieves got away with seedlings and equipment worth more than her monthly wage bill.
Simons cultivates more than five million seedlings every year. She has been living on the edge for the past seven years. And in the last six weeks alone, she’s been a victim of crime six times. Quite frankly, she’s had her fair share of criminals targeting her farm.
7 years of crime hell
In 2014, Algina had 14 break-ins in one month which led to two of her four tunnel structures being demolished. Crime set her farming enterprise back to such an extent that she still has not been able to fix the severely wrecked structures.
Simons tell Food For Mzansi she feels frustrated, undervalued and isolated. “I don’t know what to do anymore. We are a small nursery. We can’t afford these knocks anymore.”
The break-ins all follow the same pattern. The police are notified, the crimes are reported, and yet, to date, there has only ever been one arrest. She fears that history may be repeating itself, and every break-in threatens the existence of her business.
History repeating itself
Since the beginning of February 2021, Simons’ nursery has been targeted by criminals. The first incident saw a large chunk of the nursery’s net being cut after robbers hurdled over the main gate taking as much as their hands could carry.
Not even two weeks later, they returned for more. This time, they gained entry to the premises by cutting the wire mesh fencing.
In the other incidents, perpetrators took off with crates lined with plants and seedlings. The most recent break-in, not even a seven days later, saw Simons’ tunnel structures being cut open on various sides.
The break-ins cost Algina’s Wholesale Plant Nursery a hefty price. Simons has easily lost up to R50 000.
She says, “I sell my seedlings at R1.50 per plug. Can you imagine how many seedlings I have to sell to recover the R50 000 that I lost in less than six weeks?”
‘They know my name, but it means nothing…’
The worst is that the money would have been used to create more jobs.
“But if it continues like this, there’s no way we can employ more people. We’ll have to let go of some,” she says, clearly despondent.
Already, their insurer considers the business a high risk and has started to refuse pay-outs.
Simons feels that in terms of rural safety, they are not getting the necessary support from the police and the Western Cape department of agriculture.
“I was named top female entrepreneur at the 2015 Western Cape DAFF Awards. I’m on their records. They know my name, but I feel that title means nothing. There’s no real support from them. There’s no follow up.”
She goes on to say, “We haven’t had any real assistance from the police (either). We’ve given them names and information, but nothing happens. What’s worse, for every case that we’ve opened, we are appointed a different investigating officer.”
A test of faith
Simons’ husband, Alan, tell Food For Mzansi that thieves are becoming scrupulous. “It’s like they know our every move. I could be taking a leak in the bush somewhere and they would know about it.”
He reckons it is rather problematic to refer to break-ins as “petty crimes”.
“After all the break-ins we have reported, why is this area not considered a crime hotspot. R50 000 later, do they (the police) still consider it a petty crime? At the end of the day, it is the smallholder farmers that suffer. This is people’s livelihoods that we are talking about,” he exclaims.
Alan believes that the police should be prioritising rural safety for small-scale farmers too. And knowing that the thieves are from surrounding communities worries him the most.
This is the same community in which Algina’s Wholesale Plant Nursery plays an instrumental role in, among others, school gardens and providing employment.
“I’m at the point where I want to stop all of that. Why must we give (back) to the community if this is what they are doing to us?” he asks.
The constant crime is threatening to steal their joy and passion for farming.
“Our business motto says we must have faith like a mustard seed, but even that is hard these days. Our faith is being tested with all these burglaries,” Alan says.