What does it really feel like being a black person and to own land? Not just a small portion, but large amounts of it stretching miles and miles?
“If I say I have a peace of mind, it is an understatement,” says Bongani Dlamini (50). “It is beautiful to live in a peaceful area. I am one of the blessed South Africans and I am aware of how difficult it is to own a piece of land. I always thank my ancestors.”
This conversation takes place inside Dlamini’s Ford Ranger on his 600 hectares farm at Sihanahana in Msulakaligwa local municipality. It’s not far from the town of Amsterdam nestled in the mountains of the eastern side of Mpumalanga, in Mkhondo.
The father of ten has done a couple of things in life before venturing into farming. His life spans from Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress during apartheid, to being a taxi driver in Johannesburg. He’s also tried pursuing professions like foundation phase education, however, “I noticed that the takalani were too short and I was super tall as a teacher. The kids were shorter than the height of my knees and I noticed that I have to change careers,” he says, laughing.
His farm, Kasthuli Agricultural Services, takes its name from the previous owner who was known as Sthuli by the locals. He says if he had completely changed the name, it may have brought confusion to those who already knew the farm.
Dlamini is a livestock and timber farmer. In the forestry part of the farm he specialises in gum and wattle, which is used to make charcoal. In the livestock component he has goats and more than 110 cattle, mainly Beefmaster and Brahman breed.
It’s early in the morning and the winter is chilly. As we are approaching the stream that crosses through his farm, some of the cattle follow the bakkie. He says the cows can smell that he’s carrying food as the open cargo of the van. “I don’t have water here, the stream that crosses over is the only source of water that I have on the farm,” he says.
Apart from timber and livestock, he tells me that he used to produce maize but switched to haystack rolls. “I dismally failed at maize because I don’t have the required skills, despite that at home I grew up planting maize. But on this scale it is different,” Dlamini tells me. “Also, what annoyed me is that people would come to steal the maize; you’d see people moving with stacks of sacks full of maize, this may lead you to have a cold heart and end up hurting people. So, I decided to switch to focus on haystacks rolls.”
On his farm, Dlamini has employed eleven permanent staff and regularly hires casual workers, especially when it’s harvest season and when pruning or cleaning the forests. He says he’s transferred 60 hectares to the labour tenants who live on the farm for the purpose of building houses and recreational activities, including a forest for firewood.
He got the farm in 2010 from the department of rural development and land reform. He kickstarted his farming journey by trying his hand at poultry. However, this ambition abruptly came to a halt after an abattoir spoiled over 500 of his chickens.
“They slaughtered my chickens and did not put them in the chiller, instead they put them in the freezer infected by a bacterium. When you cook it, it would smell and produce a white, thick foam as if it is rotten. I then realised that we need an abattoir as black chicken growers so that our businesses cannot be sabotaged,” he says.
Unfazed by encumbrances, he ventured into another ambition. He teamed up with other small farming cooperatives to form a secondary cooperative, through which they received a tender to produce vegetables for over 30 schools at Mkhondo. This project blossomed and he says he was certain that there was no more going back.
However, sabotage at the highest-level struck them to collapse. They learnt that their contract had been terminated when they had already invested more than half a million. They only found out that the contract had ceased after their bakkies tried delivering the produce to schools, only to discover that someone else had taken over the contract. “This ended up causing searing tensions amongst the cooperatives’ members,” he recalls.
Farming requires patience
Nevertheless, he rose above his second severe downfall, which nearly interred his farming ambitions. He dusted himself and started all over again, but this time he went solo. Although now the journey is smoother, the profession still demands meticulous wit. He says it takes a long time to realise proceeds.
“The biggest challenge is that you need to have money to invest before you can get an income as return. You need to be patient. I came here in 2010 but I stayed for an entire five years spending, maintaining and investing in the farm. Especially if you want to plant, you really need to know your story because the inputs needed are expensive. But once you get it right, you will be heading in the right direction,” he tells me. “The land controls you, when to do what, if you are late you will not realise your income.”
While talking about indefatigability, we are now approaching another herd of cattle and we stop to look at them. Delighted, he gets out of vehicle and whistles and speaks to the cattle. “Where are you bafowethu, I am this side. Come! Come! Hey folks where are your dishes for eating?” The cattle come in numbers to their dad; he laughs, saying he loves them so much that sometimes he’d come just to look at them.
The cows grow impatient and want to take food for themselves from the bakkie. “Come on folks, not now. Wait a little bit, I will give you your food in your dishes, do you hear me?” Dlamini admonishes.
Access to land is crucial
As we move away from the cows, he talks about how much he wishes the government could hasten the implementation of land redistribution and restitution. Access to land is paramount in order to be able to participate in the economy, he says. “In big cities life is life so long as you have an income. When I look at the political landscape in South Africa, the future does not look like we will have less than five percent unemployment rate. Instead, more and more people are getting retrenched.”
He says if people were to be given enough land it’d play a big role in reducing poverty and increasing access to healthy, clean and organic food. “I don’t buy vegetables; I only buy those that aren’t growing well here. I have over 50 chickens, if you want chicken or eggs you just take it in the yard,” he says, adding: “I have about 25 calves; I can take three cows and milk them if I want milk. In the soil, you spend very little and you can make your own stable food.”
Youth must consider agriculture as an alternative route
Dlamini wants the youth to see the enormous value of agriculture. He’s currently busy training the youth to consider agriculture as alternative route for employment and participation in the economy. In 2018 he applied to AgriSETA for a learnership programme, which he received. The institution creates and promotes opportunities for agri-enterprises and is responsible for the skills development of the agricultural workforce. After being granted the learnership programme, he trained 100 youths across Mpumalanga. Of the 100 beneficiaries, Dlamini only managed to help those from Amsterdam – as they’re closer to him – to have access to land for growing vegetables.
“I went all out to get land for them and the National Youth Development Agency funded them to have an irrigation system,” he says, adding that he also brought in the Small Enterprise Development Agency (Seda), an agency of the department of small business development which provides non-financial support to small enterprises and cooperatives. “By the time the youths had finished their workshops, their minds were opened and alert to the opportunities available in agriculture.”
He says: “I decided to upskill the youth because I’ve noticed that they lean towards a microwave approach, meaning they want to benefit now. I am teaching them to wait for the soil to give them food. For example, in a hectare you can fit 20 000 pieces of cabbages and each is R10, this means that you could have about R200 000 in three months. I am trying to illustrate that they can live through farming and be able to receive a decent income or stipend.”