Award-winning farmer Petros Sithole spent 11 years of his retirement rebuilding a rundown farm in Mpumalanga. But now he stands to lose everything due to an alleged administrative blunder in the land reform disposal plan of the Richtershoek farm by provincial authorities.
Sithole, who was named Cotton SA’s Small-holder Farmer of the year in 2019, was made the custodian of the 165-hectare farm, after retiring from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) where he worked as an extension officer for more than 20-years.
The cotton farmer saw his retirement as an opportunity to cultivate the soil of the vandalized farm he was given when he was identified as a land reform beneficiary by the provincial Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR) in Mpumalanga.
But, due to an alleged administrative blunder at the hands of the provincial officials he is being forced off the land. The department says it intends to lease the land spanning 165-hectares to the Gijimani Bomake Cooperative – a group of 72 farm workers who have been identified as the legitimate stakeholders and who will lease the land over a period of 30 years.
The Gijimani Bomake Cooperative was recently formed. It consists of agri workers who were left unemployed when the Richtershoek farm near Malelane, 66 km from Nelspruit, was bought for land reform in 2006. According to the department, there was a commitment that no workers would lose employment due to the transaction.
In 2009, when the 64-year-old Sithole first arrived on Richtershoek he says his predecessors had squandered the land, leaving it destitute and the facilities dilapidated.
“When I was brought there, there was nothing. They told me the farm was built in 2006 and that they had people who were working on the farm. But they vandalised everything until there was nothing, no water, no electricity. There was nothing,” he says.
A decade later and his vision for the land had started to take form. His intricate knowledge of farming had prepared him for the challenge of rehabilitating the farm that was once unproductive, transforming it into a thriving business “I started afresh and made it to be what it is,” he says.
His efforts did not go unrecognized. The farmer has gained esteem within the agricultural fraternity. This esteem however did not shield him from being asked by government to surrender the farm. Sithole says that he has been a victim of poor government administration which has resulted in conflict between himself and the Gijimani Bomake Cooperative.
In an email seen by Food for Mzansi, the Cooperative asserts that they are the rightful occupants of the Richtershoek farm. “I received a letter through email that the department is not intending to renew my lease, because that farm must be given to the farm workers of the previous owner,” Sithole says.
Over the past nine years, Sithole says his lease agreement with the department had been renewable every two years. He knew the arrangement with the department would not be permanent due to land claimants from another community who stood to inherit the farm as beneficiaries of land expropriation, but was unaware of the Gijimani Bomake Cooperative’s stake.
“There were two claimants who could possibly have a claim to the land and that is why my lease was not extended. I don’t understand how these officials are operating, since 2009 when I started leasing there I was never told about these workers,” he says.
Sithole relates with sadness that the experience of fighting for his land has been harrowing.
“In this business, there is no butho (humanity) sometimes. Some of my fellow Africans have stolen from me and have gone out of their way to make it a point to sabotage my business operations. Sometimes people don’t want to see you progress.”
The Gijimani Cooperative has since begun their operations on the land, farming 25 hectares of sugarcane. The cooperative is comprised of 72 workers who had farmed the land in 2006 after the then department of Land Affairs identified them as land reform beneficiaries.
Elijah Nkuna is the chairperson of the cooperative and says they were left confused by Sithole’s occupation on a farm that they were initially meant to benefit from. “That land was bought by government for us as the employees of the farm,” he says.
“We resisted Petros’ occupation of the farm asking why they put him there when we were next in line for the land. We fought and there was no answer, I even wrote a letter to the National Department and they responded in Parliament,” Nkuna says.
He says provincial government has since attempted to cover their tracks in the mishap. Nkuna now claims that a government official Sithole is familiar with had placed him there. “The department said no, they made a mistake. There are many South Africans who have applied for land, then now you have to fall in line. Petros did not want to fall in the queue for land,” Nkuna adds.
Portfolio committee steps in
Zithini Dlamini, Deputy Director at the provincial Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, responded to questions from Food For Mzansi. She says the initial disposal plan of the then department of Land Affairs was to give a lease contract to the 72 farm workers who were employed by the owner of the farm and were retrenched in 2006 when it was sold. “There were 400 workers working on the farm from the neighbouring villages, only 72 qualified because they had South African identity documents,” Dlamini explained.
Dlamini adds that “the plan of disposal of the property was that the initial 185-hectares would be divided into 6 portions and 6 groups of the individuals from the 72 workers would be given a portion to manage, administer, sow, work and reap the benefits.”
Dlamini further states that the cooperative had raised concerns over Sithole’s stake to the Richtershoek farm. She says the issue has been taken to the chairperson of the Parliamentary committee on Rural Development and Land Reform. “This state of affairs resulted in many of the farm workers [being] out of employment, something which the department had assured would never happen.”
“As a result, the Mpumalanga Provincial office was instructed by the Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee to redress this injustice and restore the lease back to the farm workers,” she says.
Meanwhile, Sithole’s fate hangs in the balance. The halt in production have had a negative impact on his livelihood and future plans. “Where do they think I must go?” a concerned Sithole laments.
Dlamini emphasises that Sithole received financial backing from the department to build his farming enterprise and that they are currently in the process of identifying new land in the area for him to farm. However, this has proven to be no easy feat, as securing land to farm for displaced South Africans is challenging. Dlamini further assured Sithole that the department would continue to assist him as a beneficiary of land reform.
“The department continues to assist Mr Sithole as much as possible even in cotton farming. The recent small-holder farmer award he received as reported by your publication (Food For Mzansi) would not have been possible had it not been for the huge role that the department played in providing inputs and implements to farm in the area,” says Dlamini.
Cotton SA CEO Hennie Bruwer says he was left disappointed by government’s disregard of Sithole’s efforts within the cotton industry.
“Cotton SA is appalled by the way government has handled this very sensitive matter in which one of our industry’s model black farmers have been side-lined.”
Bruwer adds that Sithole not only utilised the Richtershoek land productively but contributed towards creating many jobs for the people in his community. “We are left with so many unanswered questions,” he says.
“How do we find ourselves in a place where government takes away land from a person who worked and built it up over many years of hard work and sweat? What guarantees are there that the land will be utilised in the productive manner as was the case over many years? This is of great concern to us and the way in which this matter is been dealt with by government does not hold in any good for similar cases in future.”