Petros Sithole (64), the farmer whose fate currently hangs in the balance after an alleged land reform blunder cost him his land, only started farming relatively late in his life.
He was 40 years old when he retired as an extension officer for the provincial DAFF. That was when the opportunity arose. A land reform farm needed a custodian and Sithole was chosen for this role in 2009.
He had the qualification and the spirit to match. This further prompted him into signing a lease agreement with the department and his very own enterprise, Hungweni Trading was born.
Sithole had initially farmed the Richtershoek farm near Malelane in Mpumalanga for more than a decade, but due to an apparent miscommunication amongst officials within the provincial Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR) he was left landless.
Today Sithole is waiting for word on the future of the successful farming venture he built there.
The department has since communicated to Food For Mzansi that they were still in talks with Sithole regarding the allocation of alternative land. Spokesperson for the department Zithini Dlamini says the department was currently battling to find land for Sithole to farm. “At this stage the discussions are still ongoing,” says Dlamini.
“A meeting was held with all the stakeholders on the 5th of February 2020. The department had initially planned to assist Mr Sithole by allocating a farm to lease in and around the Nkomazi municipality province as per his preference. However, we were unable to acquire a farm in the area as we could not find a suitable land at the price that the department could afford to purchase.”
Sithole hails from the village of Tonga in the Nkomazi district of Mpumalanga. He says he has always known that he wanted to be a farmer and planted cotton on a small scale in his home village as a source of extra income from 1983.
“I just planted cotton; I don’t know how, but my cotton became the best. That time there was a cotton gin in the neighbourhood known as Cortana, and they said it was better than most cotton you find in other places.”
With an extensive life history, Sithole took many career turns. After completing matric in 1975 he did a 5-year stint as a teacher in Mpumalanga and Gauteng. He later entered the corporate world as a personnel assistant up until 1987. His love for the cotton industry and farming however led him to pursue his studies in agriculture.
“Producing cotton was the only job that made me quit the lucrative job I was doing. Farming cotton for the people in my community helped me secure my own enterprise.”
He obtained his diploma in agriculture from the Tompi Seleka School of Agriculture in Limpopo in 1990. Thereafter his 20-year journey with the provincial DAFF began.
“Even when I was still working in Witbank, I would plant cotton at a small scale with five hectares. That is exactly what made me pursue my diploma. I started thinking since there are no mines in my area, jobs were scarce and if I retire where am I going to go? Which is why I quit the private sector and went for that training,” he says.
“I was just continuing my cotton production on a small-scale and would sometimes plant vegetables and sugarcane,” he continues.
When he started leasing the Richtershoek land in 2009, Sithole made great strides in his business, producing in cotton, sugarcane and assorted vegetables.
This new venture led him to realize his dreams of establishing a fully equipped cotton gin in his place of birth in the village of Tonga. “I developed a business plan and now we are busy with the National Empowerment Fund (NEF) where we have bought into the idea of establishing a gin in the neighbourhood. Incidentally it’s just about a kilometre from where other gins stood in 1983,” he explains.
Known for his efforts in securing lucrative deals that help develop his community, Sithole added that they were in the final stages of securing financial aid for building the cotton gin. “We are at an advanced stage, we are finalizing with the NEF to fine tune the legal aspects, and it’s almost time for us to establish our endeavour. With our project, farmers will own at least 51% of shares and the NEF 49%.”
Apart from realizing his dream, helping other farmers to realize their dream gives the experienced farmer a sense of purpose. His company Hungweni Trading is accredited with to train farmers and farmworkers up to a certificate in Plant Production.
Sithole has also invested in property in Tonga. This development he says has been made possible through his farming business. He advises youth looking to make it in the industry to “never be afraid to take the risk!”
The farmer adds that the industry was filled with risks, but all you must do is weather the storms. “When it comes to any crop there will be challenges. Just wake up, go to the farm, do all you can and wait for the good days,” he says.