In what represents one of the biggest land restitution failures in the country, more than 90% of the farms purchased by government for labour tenants in Mooi River have since collapsed.Out of the 57 farms bought by government as part of the land restitution programme 10 years ago, only three are still operating.The farms, most of which are in the Middelrus farmstead in Mooi River, were handed over to farm labour tenants by the Rural Development and Land Reform Department, which bought the properties for millions of rands from the previous commercial farmers.When The Witness visited the farms last week, labour tenants who are beneficiaries of the department’s land restitution project in the area, lined up along the dirt roads, selling items ranging from firewood to wild mushrooms.Thami Ndlovu, a former farm worker, said department officials had promised the labour tenants “heaven on earth” when the programme of acquiring the properties from commercial farmers began more than a decade ago.“They told us the land now belonged to us and all the profits from the farm produce will now accrue to us.“However, that did not happen and all the funding and other support programmes they had promised us never materialised. As hunger began to set in, some of the beneficiaries leased their farms to white farmers in order to get some income,” he said.Local land activist, Gcino Shabalala, said the beneficiaries have since been told that funds for supporting the labour tenants have been released by the department. “When we followed up the matter, we discovered that the money was being deposited into the bank accounts of certain individuals and not to the accounts of the co-operatives which the land tenants were advised to form by department officials.“There is evidence showing that the money meant to support the emerging farmers was shared between the department’s officials and certain beneficiaries who have connections in high places,” he said.Most of the beneficiaries, who ran the farms through co-operatives, now survive on social grants as they were no longer deriving an income from the projects.While the department recently purchased tractors for the beneficiaries, the labour tenants say most of the tractors were being used for transport purposes and not farming.Thabisile Buthelezi, who was an administrative clerk at the failed Inkululeko farming project that was created after the department had bought the Oakwood Farm, said the farm labourers were not given any proper training when the farm was given to them.“Most of the people had no basic knowledge of running a business. There were too many disputes as everyone wanted to be the manager.“The project collapsed within a few years and as we speak all the beneficiaries are now seated at home, with no income whatsoever. Some of the people who were part of the new owners now work as farm labourers in nearby commercial farms,” she said.Tractors which the government had given to the new farms now lie idle.“Some broke down while the few that are still running are being used for transporting people and loading things such as firewood as most of the people here can’t afford to buy electricity,” Buthelezi said.Apart from failing to ensure that the beneficiaries were given proper training, Shabalala said the beneficiaries running the few projects which are still producing had been left to fend for themselves. “What we struggle to understand is that the department continues to pump in millions of rands into projects that have collapsed and no longer exist while denying resources to the few that are still producing,” he said.Nathi Nene, an administrative clerk at the Gugulethu Trust which runs what used to be the Waterfall Farm, said while beneficiaries were doing everything to ensure the farm continues to produce, the project will not last long if government does not step in.“Last year, the department approved a R4,9 million grant but up to today, we have not received a cent. We are deeply concerned about the future of the project,” he said.Commercial farmers, who have been supporting emerging farmers within amongst other things, skills development, also expressed concern about the manner in which the projects were being handled. Graham Armstrong, manager of the Upper Midlands Agricultural Transformation Initiative (uMATI) said the projects in Middelrus should have been managed better.“The results can be much better if there can be accountability and proper audits from government departments. Once funds have been released for a project there needs to be tight monitoring to ensure that the money is used for the right purpose,” he said.Rural Development and Land Reform national spokesperson, Phuthi Mabelebele, denied that the projects have collapsed. “The most crucial part from the department’s side is to ensure that the land is restituted and once that has been done, a number of processes then unfold.“Depending on what the beneficiaries intend to do with the land, they are required to put together a business plan and submit it to the relevant government departments such as the agriculture department, for funding. All these things don’t happen overnight, particularly if you take into account the fact that the projects involve a number of individuals. It’s work in progress,” she said.The Rural Development and Land Reform Department, Mabelebele said, dealt with beneficiaries’ complaints on a case to case basis. “It would be difficult to say what exactly is holding back progress in these particularlar projects as the reasons may vary from one project to the other,” she said.However, sociologist Mzingaye Brilliant Xaba, who conducted a study on the department’s failed Macleantown land restitution project outside East London in the Eastern Cape, said government’s priority appears to be on land acquisition as opposed to productivity. “Unfortunately ... politicians and other stakeholders have largely focused on the land acquisition or restitution phases of the process, to the exclusion of land reform implementation and what happens afterwards,” he said.