Hlony Radebe (right) credits mentor Friedl von Maltitz for his farming success.
Hlony Radebe (right) credits mentor Friedl von Maltitz for his farming success.

“Brotherhood is not based on the colour of your skin,” says Bishop Hlony Radebe, a black Free State farmer, about his mentorship relationship with Friedl von Maltitz, the white farmer he credits for his agricultural success.

The 33-year-old Radebe farms with livestock in Fouriesburg, a stone’s throw away from the Lesotho border post. He met Von Maltitz, who farms 49km away in Ficksburg, after they were introduced by Dr Jack Armour, the Operations Manager of Free State Agriculture.

Radebe’s bond with Von Maltitz (45) captured the hearts of Food For Mzansi readers after he publicly thanked him on Twitter for his selfless contribution. “He’s been there for me and he wasn’t doing it to get attention. It means a lot to me to have Friedl as mentor. He has so much experience and knowledge to build the business.”

Von Maltitz believes that his relationship with Radebe proves that when like-minded people with common interests come together, skin colour is completely insignificant. “Our friendship is more the norm than the exception in South Africa, despite politicians only emphasising racial divisions.”

For Radebe, life as a farmer started almost a year ago, when he bought two heifers from a friend, Hannes Nolte in Meyerton, Gauteng. Today Radebe, who lives in Gauteng, leased land to raise his cattle while beginning to learn all there is to know about the industry.

Bishop Hlony Radebe is not only a farmer. He is the presiding bishop of In Him Ministries at the Somali Park informal settlement in Vosloorus, Gauteng.

“It has been a great journey because I have learnt a lot. I visit the farm at least twice a month to check on the guys helping me, to see what needs to be done,” says Radebe, who is also the founder and presiding bishop of In Him Ministries at the Somali Park informal settlement in Vosloorus, Gauteng.

In 2013, the part-time skills development facilitator received a Community Mobiliser Award from well-known anti-crime activist Yusuf Abramjee, the former head of Crime Line, who raises awareness and fights crime in different communities.

Radebe’s journey as a newcomer to farming has not always been easy, although he has learnt to rely on the support of Von Maltitz, as well as his family and friends. He has since lost his two heifers, who died after jumping a fence into a soya field and then ate too much soya. He hopes to expand his farming operation by including crops.

Radebe, who’s dreamt about farming since childhood, says he never imagined it being such hard work. He plans to farm full-time as soon as he is able to do so, and adds that “being a farmer is very challenging, but fun at the same time”.

About farming and what he draws from the Bible about this new journey, Radebe extracts Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, do it from the heart for the Lord and not for people.” This verse describes his relationship with Von Maltitz, he says. “From Friedl I’ve learnt about the commercial side of livestock farming, breeding and how to vaccinate animals.” 

Radebe is adamant that government should only allocate farms to black farmers who have the necessary skills and experience.

Radebe on his farm in Fouriesburg, Free State.

“I believe the Communal Property Associations (CPA’s) system has failed because people are not vetted to check whether they have the necessary skills to run a farm. I believe that a farm should have a clear leader, otherwise power struggles creeps in and messes everything up. Group farming often fails purely because of power hungry and lazy people, whilst successful farms all have one boss.”

Raised by his single mother, Anna Radebe, along with his big brother, Kanyane, and sister, Mafelu, he reminisces about his growing-up years on a farm in Fouriesburg. “My grandfather worked on Heartsease Farm for Michael Scheeper. As grandchildren, we had to live with him because my mom worked as a domestic worker in town and was living with her employer.”

Whilst Radebe grew up without his father, he still has many pleasant childhood memories on Scheeper’s farm.

“Horse riding and swimming was always fun. We used to steal Vaseline. After swimming in the dam, we would apply it to our dry skin to not get caught,” Radebe confesses, chuckling. Besides farming, the budding entrepreneur loves traveling through his work in ministry and he also enjoys playing golf, a hobby he says he is still perfecting.

Von Maltitz says he was extremely humbled by Radebe’s initial tweet. He’s been farming since 1999 and says he never considered himself much of a mentor, but more as a fellow farmer giving advice to an eager and enthusiastic man. “Hlony is always very eager to learn as much as he can about cattle farming. His enthusiasm made it easy and enjoyable to share my experience and knowledge.”

Interestingly, the Von Maltitz family has been farming for almost 150 years. According to the BBC, they have been farming side-by-side with the families of four black labourers who accompanied Friederich Wilhelm von Maltitz when he first staked out the land for a farm in the Eastern Free State in 1879.

“The stories that have been told in my family from my great-grandfather’s time are stories of close relationships and shared hardships between everyone living on the farm. The first story I remember is one of Ntate Jors waking my great-grandfather up each morning at 04:00 so that the day can begin, together with coffee in the kitchen and their combined planning for the day,” remembers Von Maltitz.

Friedl Von Maltitz
Friedl Von Maltitz

When his grandfather later inherited the farm, he spent time between Durban and the farm in Ficksburg, and often left the farm in the hands of the workers. Von Maltitz says, “Another story I am very fond of, is when Ntate Fly (my grandfather’s right-hand man) discovered that one of the other farmers in the area took rose bushes from the garden. Ntate Fly saddled up his horse and rode many kilometres to reclaim the rose bushes and replanted them, very upset about what happened.”

Later in his life, Von Maltitz’s mother, Lila, farmed on Saxon Park which also led to special relationships with agri-workers. “Just like us, a lot of our workers have been on the farm for generations. Therefore I regard them as family. We are dependent on each other and both my and their futures are intrinsically linked to this soil.”

The Von Maltitz family’s special relationship with agri-workers spans over a century. “The reason I think it works, is true respect for each other which comes from trusting each other’s motives, working hard together and giving every man and woman unique responsibilities, which creates pride and a sense of belonging. People who do not fit in with this shared culture end up leaving by themselves. On Saxon Park this has always been the way we treat each other.”

How to find a mentor

Von Maltitz has great advice for other new farmers struggling to find a mentor. “New farmers find it virtually impossible to get any assistance from government – whether they are just starting their farming journey or whether they have already started, but need effective and practical help.”

According to him, new farmers’ single, biggest challenge is renting or buying land. They struggle to access finance because they often do not hold title deeds. “Approach the local farmers’ union or a representative from organised agriculture to put you in contact with a local farmer who can give you practical advice and the support needed.”

Von Maltitz adds that it is not uncommon for experienced commercial farmers to mentor new farmers. “Politicians too often use racial division to serve their political agendas instead of encouraging unity and co-operation in the agricultural sector and in the country, both of which we are in desperate need of.”