Another failed Free State farm is in the spotlight. This time, it’s the multimillion rand Diyatalawa Agri Village, which was once meant to be a “model” agricultural village. Now the farming infrastructure is seemingly a collection of dilapidated buildings and broken equipment.
Images from the village emerged this week when Free State DA leader Roy Jankielsohn published a press release on the state of the “Operation Hlasela flagship project by former Free State premier Ace Magashule”. In it he says that he learned during an oversight visit that the farm’s government-bought livestock had been sold or eaten, the orchards are abandoned and dead, and the once fully equipped dairy parlour sits empty.
Owned by the Diyatalawa Community Property Association (CPA), the farm covers just over 2 000 hectares of land between Harrismith and Kestell.
According to the provincial department of agriculture and rural development, most of the beneficiaries arrived on the property in 1987 as farmworkers. After the owner had been liquidated in 2000, the village was established in a collaborative effort between different government departments, on an 82-hectare section of the land.
While some people still live in the 50 specially built houses, and the school and crèche are still functional, Jankielsohn believes that hopes of earning a living from farming have all but vanished for the impoverished residents.
This, after between R80 million and R150 million had been spent and the initial support they received from the then department of rural development and land reform included:
- a dairy parlour;
- about 60 dairy cows bought from the Agricultural Research Council (ARC);
- a bull;
- an artificial insemination kit and concentrates;
- 190 beef cattle;
- 100 hectares of planted lucerne;
- a pivoting irrigation system; and
- 400 hectares of planted summer crops.
A divided community
Thembeni Nxangisa, MEC for agriculture and rural development in the province, confirms that no milking or planting is currently done on the farm. He tells Food For Mzansi that it was infighting and group dynamics that have affected the farm negatively and retarded progress.
He says the conflict between beneficiaries became so bad at some stage that beneficiaries asked the department to stop financial support until they could resolve their differences.
“Most of the times conflict arises between people who have a passion for farming and those who don’t but want to benefit when dividends are given out. Consequently, some would not agree on the dividends paid out and others would want more [than the farm actually makes], which affects the farm.”
Even though the farm did yield a harvest in the first year, farming activities have dwindled over the years. The project has suffered from vandalism, theft, high electricity bills, veld fires, drought and frost. An apple orchard, which was established on the farm with government help, was destroyed by veld fires. It was revitalised, again with government help, but again damaged by drought and late frost.
The beneficiaries later decided to sublease 508 hectares to a commercial farmer. They shared the R300 000 that was paid to them among themselves, the MEC says.
Government did intervene
Nxangisa tells Food For Mzansi that initial support included training. “When we award beneficiaries projects (like this one), we normally provide them with training on financial management and farming but not necessarily formal training. You’d know that in terms of their background they’ve been farming. It’s just to professionalise them. We also create a market for them to trade. We also assign extension officers to them, who act as mentors to them.”
After that, the department plays a background role which, the MEC says, allows the beneficiaries to run the farm as they deem fit. “We want them to be self-reliant and be able to make decisions on their own. They take charge of the farm because it’s their project.”
More recently, the department has intervened to help beneficiaries find solutions to their issues.
“Every time they agree on something, but when [officials] leave the farm, [the beneficiaries] revert back to their initial position where they don’t agree with each other.”
Currently the beneficiaries are farming individually and not as a group, as was intended in the beginning, Nxangisa says. He believes it is better this way for subsistence purposes. “However, we know that the farm can make more money and be a commercial farm if these guys put their heads together.”
What’s going to happen now?
Nxangisa says the suggested way forward is that beneficiaries be appointed a strategic partner; a seasoned and successful farmer who can occupy a portion of the farm but also ensure that the farm becomes productive.
When asked why a strategic partner was not assigned in the first place, Nxangisa says, “In the beginning the belief was that, because these guys worked on farms themselves for a very long time, they were conversant with the farming business.”
Although officials now feel that this is the best solution, the decision to do so remains with the CPA.
“We are impressing onto them that there’s been a huge investment into this project and that tax payer money has been spent. They need to find a way to work together and make it work.
“We are trying to bring them together so that they can see the bigger picture: their descendants need to inherit that and it must be a source of income for many generations.”
Money into a bottomless pit
Nxangisa tells Food For Mzansi that, going forward, they plan to do things better. Currently, legislation is not adjusted to the issues with CPA decision making. He says his office will suggest that strategic partners be appointed to CPA beneficiaries up to the point where they can run operate commercially on their own.
“It’s like putting money into a bottomless pit. We can’t afford that. We need to create jobs and bring people out of poverty. We can’t be putting money into a project that is not functioning. We can’t apply a strategy that is not working and do not have returns. It would mean that we are irresponsible.”
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