Sowing on good ground

2009-05-26 00:00

MOST people agree that a key to successful land reform and food security is skilled black farmers. So why is a successful agricultural school like Zakhe Agricultural College in Baynesfield struggling to get the support it deserves?

College director Richard Dladla is blunt about the problems facing agriculture in South Africa: “We are pushing ourselves into a corner with land reform. Resources are idling ... If we do not train students, we will have a crisis like that in Zimbabwe.”

These and other comments echo a much-quoted Centre for Development and enterprise report which claims that at least 50% of South Africa’s land reform projects have failed.

A former part-time gardener who went on to earn an agricultural degree from Fort Hare, Dladla was a driving force in 2002 behind the development of Zakhe, previously a state-funded agricultural training institute, into a private agricultural high school for boys.

Set on 200 hectares of land leased on favourable terms from the Baynesfield Estate near Richmond, the aim of the school was to produce disciplined young farmers with sufficient practical expertise to hit the ground running.

This year, the school celebrated another 100% matric pass rate.

Modelled on Weston Agricultural College, the school embraces a strong Christian ethic and takes discpline seriously. (Five boys were expelled last year after being found guilty of misconduct, says Dladla.)

There is also a strong emphasis on practical training, which Dladla believes is the only way to produce the kind of hands-on farmers South Africa needs.

“At university, as at most higher learning institutions these days, I became an observer,” says Dladla of his degree studies. “I can’t remember milking a cow. Those graduates don’t even venture into farming ... Here, the boys are one with their gumboots, they love farming in the true sense of the word.”

In 2002, 22 founder pupils were enrolled into Grade 8. In 2007, the number of pupils peaked at 160, but dropped this year to 100 as more families find it increasingly difficult to afford the fees – modest by private school standards (Zakhe’s annual fees for full boarders are R25 000), but increasingly beyond the reach of many feeling the effects of the economic downturn.

Dladla says the school has reluctantly considered giving up its independent status in order to receive more state funding. “We’ve managed for seven years on our own and with help from funders such as Omnia [fertiliser company], but with the economic situation, there are problems.”

Last year, Zakhe was forced to retrench employees and two of the teaching staff, seconded to the school by the department of education, have now been recalled. The Tiso Foundation stepped in with a grant of R500 000, saving the school from further cutbacks.

Dladla says the focus now is on income generation, centred around Zakhe’s training institute and farm, both of which are run as units with their own managers. It is hoped that a new four-year contract with the Richmond Municipality focused on food security will help boost Zakhe’s fortunes.

“We need to change the attitude in this country towards commercialisation of small units,” says the straight-talking Dladla. “Subsistence agriculture does not work. If you don’t run your garden like a business, you end up simply eating the money.”

The school’s food security projects are assisted by a partnership between Zakhe and engineers at Johns Hopkins University in the United States which allows for an exchange of technical expertise and labour.

Dladla also hopes that in in addition to the handful of bursaries sponsored by the Baynesfield Estate, Awesome SA and Mondi Zimela Technical Services, more of the school’s pupils will be sponsored by commercial farmers.

“We are encouraged to see white farmers coming on board to support the initiative,” says Dladla.

Recognising the need to bring skilled black farmers into the system, Curries Post dairy farmer Judy Stuart has successfully negotiated the placement on commercial farms of some of the school’s graduates. In 2007 Stuart also organised for the school’s first head boy Sifiso Ntshiza to spend a year working in Germany. Ntshiza, now 22, is managing a commercial dairy farm in the Kamberg (see box).

Stuart, who also fundraises for the school, says in the workplace Zakhe boys are showing leadership qualities. “They are proving to be honest, reliable and hardworking ... I would not hesitate to recommend [the school] to any person who wants to send a son to a good private school.”

Read about an aspiring farmer's promising future.

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.