Home Changemakers Inspiration Former Umkhonto we Sizwe soldier finds solace in the soil

Former Umkhonto we Sizwe soldier finds solace in the soil

Mpumalanga farmer Bongani Dlamini learned many valuable lessons from past mistakes, and he now passes that wisdom on to the next generation. He tells Food For Mzansi, "I am trying to illustrate that they can live through farming and be able to receive a decent income or stipend”

Bongani Dlamini is sitting at an elevated edge next to a vegetable farm in Amsterdam town. The farming cooperative belongs to the group of young people that he’s trained and helped to get access to land for practising agriculture. Photo: Magnificent Mndebele

What does it really feel like being a black person and to own land? Not just a small portion, but vast tracts of land stretching kilometres and kilometres away?

“If I say I have a peace of mind, it is an understatement,” the 50-year-old Bongani Dlamini tells Food For Mzansi. “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.”

Dlamini is in a pensive mood as we sit in his Ford Ranger on his 600-hectares farm at Sihanahana, a village in the Msukaligwa Local Municipality in Mpumalanga. It’s not far from the town of Amsterdam nestled in the mountains in Mkhondo on the eastern side of the province.

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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.

“I decided to up-skill the youth. I noticed they HAVE a microwave approach, meaning they want to benefit IMMEDIATELY.”

His farm, Kasthuli Agricultural Services, takes its name from the previous owner who was known as Sthuli by the locals. Dlamini says if he had completely changed the name, it may have confused those who already knew the farm.

Bongani Dlamini at the entrance of his Mpumalanga farm. Photo: Magnificent Mndebele/Food For Mzansi

Dlamini is a livestock and timber farmer. In the forestry section 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 cattle.

It’s a rather chilly morning. As we are approaching the stream that crosses through his farm, some of the cattle follow Dlamini’s bakkie. He says the cows can smell that he’s carrying feed. “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 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,” he says.

“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.”

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On his farm, Dlamini employs 11 permanent staff and regularly hires temporary workers, especially when it’s harvesting 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.

Conquering encumbrances

Dlamini received the farm in 2010 from the department of rural development and land reform in Mpumalanga. He kickstarted his farming journey by first 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.”

Bongani Dlamini whistles and speaks to the herd of cattle. “Where are you bafowethu, I am this side. Come! Come! Hey folks where are your dishes for eating?” Photo: Magnificent Mndebele/Food For Mzansi

Unfazed by encumbrances, he moved into another venture. 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 point of return.

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 rand. They only found out that the contract had ceased after they 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.”

“I don’t buy vegetables (FROM STORES). If you want chicken or eggs, you just take it FROM the yard. I can take three cows and milk them if I want milk.”

Farming requires patience

Nevertheless, he rose above his second severe downfall, which nearly killed his farming ambitions. Dlamini dusted himself off and started all over again, but this time he went solo. The journey was smoother, but the profession still demanded great attention to detail.

“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 says. “The land controls you, when to do what, if you are late you will not realise your income.”

Dlamini is suddenly overcome by fatigue. We approach another herd of cattle and stop to look at them. Delighted and re-energised, he gets out of his bakkie and whistles and speaks to them. “Where are you bafowethu, I am this side. Come! Come! Hey folks, where are your dishes for eating?”

Indeed, the cattle come in large 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 start eating directly 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?”

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Bongani Dlamini inspects his farm early in the morning, just as the sun rises. Photo: Magnificent Mndebele/Food For Mzansi

Access to land is crucial

As we move away from the cows, he talks about how he wishes 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 great unemployment. More and more people are getting retrenched.”

Dlamini says if people were given enough land it would play a big role in reducing poverty and increasing access to healthy, clean and organic food.

“I don’t buy vegetables (from stores). 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 from the yard,” he says. “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 in agriculture

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 was approved for an AgriSETA learnership. He credits AgriSETA for creating and promoting opportunities for agri-enterprises and skills development of the agricultural workforce.

After being granted the learnership, he trained 100 young people across Mpumalanga. Of the 100, 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 partnered with the Small Enterprise Development Agency (Seda). “By the time the youths had finished their workshops, their minds were opened and alert to the opportunities available in agriculture.”

Dlamini says, “I decided to up-skill 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 at R10 each. 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.”

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