Making their land work for them

2017-01-22 06:10
Ravele Community Property Association farm supervisor and beneficiary Tendani Netshivhumbe.

Ravele Community Property Association farm supervisor and beneficiary Tendani Netshivhumbe.

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What Bethuel Ravele, a short, garrulous man, tries to explain in the middle of lush and drizzly Levubu sounds like an oddity among land restitution projects in South Africa. In fact, it is.

While much prime agricultural land lies untilled across the country and once-prosperous farms lie in ruin, dead along with the jobs they once sustained, the Ravele Community Property Association’s (CPA’s) land is lush and fertile.

For the 344 families who are members of the association, there are no tales of skills shortages and ruin that often follow the transfer of land from white commercial farmers to the communities from which it was taken.

Although some of the problems bedevilling similar associations appear now and then, theirs is a story of hope.

Since government transferred 16 farms of macadamia, avocado and banana worth R42 million in the subtropical Limpopo area to the CPA in 2005, the business has survived liquidation and has turned its fortunes around.

The CPA made R9.7 million in profit last year and has put away R11 million in investments since 2014.

Their profit margins have been rising. In 2014, the CPA made R3.5 million, improving to R5.1 million in 2015.

And in the past financial year, they have exported 279 334 tons of macadamia and 52 722 tons of avocados to Europe, China, Canada and the US. Its 1.2 million tons of bananas were sold locally.

This picture defies the downward trend of productivity of many other land reform projects, one example of which is the R61 million Zebediela Citrus Estate in the south of the province, which in its prime exported 83 000 tons of oranges.

Infighting among beneficiaries now threatens to kill the business.

ALL FOR ONE: Ravele Community Property Association farm workers harvest bunches of bananas. Most of the farm workers are beneficiaries. This, according to popular belief, is the reason they work so hard to succeed. (PHOTO: Leon Sadiki)

In Mpumalanga, a R5 million, 65-hectare macadamia farm transferred to the youth-owned Insimu Yami Co-operative in Schagen in 2012 is now in ruin, facing repossession because of its escalating debt.

This week, the national Department of Rural Development and Land Reform could not provide figures for the number of successful and collapsing projects in the country.

Ravele, the CPA’s deputy secretary and administrator, and secretary of the farms’ operating company Mauluma Farming Enterprise 1938 (Pty) Ltd, says they have a simple secret.

“Our formula is discipline,” he says.

“We follow the basic principles of running a business and nothing else. The board meets quarterly and holds annual general meetings to report to the beneficiaries and present financial statements as required. Our attitude as owners of the land is correct.”

The most important decision, Ravele said, was to hire an experienced farm manager, Danie Basson, who had decades of experience managing farms in Soekmekaar, Malalane, Tzaneen and Levubu.

Basson was, ironically, employed by their strategic partner, South African Farm Management Pty Ltd, with which the CPA had a sour relationship and terminated their contract after finding itself being liquidated because of a R5 million loan taken behind their back.

“We decided to recruit Basson because the breakdown was not his fault and he had vast experience. This turned out to be the best decision because he soon turned things around,” Ravele said.

When the CPA cancelled its contract with South African Farm Management, they lost R390 000 which the company paid the CPA as lease on their land, and their operating account was frozen because of the liquidation.

“We had little money saved from the rental, and coupled with local sales of bananas, we barely survived.

"Basson turned things around for us in three years and we were able to pay the debt at the bank in four years.

"He used his experience to set up management structures and production targets, and we’ve been renewing his five-year contract because of the success he brought us,” said Ravele.

Levubu is not called South Africa’s subtropical paradise for nothing.

“With this rainfall and deep red soil, if you can’t farm here you can’t farm anywhere in the country,” Ravele said.

The Ravele CPA is currently dealing with its own problems of a concerned group of beneficiaries which claims that the Ravele Tribal Authority runs the business as a family affair where only royal family members get jobs.

The concerned group’s grievances are before the High Court in Polokwane, says Nicholas Magada, spokesperson for the Limpopo department of rural development and land reform.

Despite the problems, the business is growing.

Ravele proudly shows off the CPA’s brand new tractors, spraying tanks and other machinery they bought for R4.3 million last year. Workers are busy harvesting bananas or tending trees in the nursery.

Before, they used old machinery and borrowed some from Basson.

“It was painful. Our spraying machines were old and broke down, and we could not afford protective clothing for the workers.

"We were at a risk because trees don’t have to be neglected. Basson lent us his machinery to harvest and transport our products,” Ravele said.

Later on in a boardroom, he unfolds an architectural plan for a R3 million hall the CPA wants to build in Ndzhelele village, 35km north of Louis Trichardt, where the beneficiaries live.

The proceeds of the business, he said, were being ploughed back directly to the 344 beneficiary families.

At the moment, the CPA funds the education of 40 beneficiary children in various universities across the country.

“The Makhado local municipality has a bursary budget of R450 000 per annum for needy students. Ours is R410 000. The difference is just too little,” he says.

The CPA also paid teachers for their overtime work while teaching Grade 12 pupils on Saturdays, and for a full-time administrator for the Ravele Traditional Authority.

The CPA employs 167 workers full-time and their annual salary bill is R7 million. Most of the workers are beneficiaries of the project.

“None of the workers earn less than the prescribed minimum wage by the department of labour.

We also pay a profit share that is equal to one month’s salary every financial year end following the turnaround,” Ravele said.

Worker and beneficiary Tendani Netshivhumbe said the fact that it was their business encouraged them to work hard.

“We have jobs, and our children can eat and go to school. Besides, we are the owners and have to be disciplined so as not to rob ourselves of this opportunity,” Netshivhumbe said.

“There are certain things we wish away like those who try to disrupt the progress, but we’ve to stand firm to protect our interest.”

Fellow worker and beneficiary Denis Ravele agreed: “This business is going far. This is because we’re working hard and want to protect our property, which is our children’s future.”

Despite the problems, Magada says that the Ravele CPA gives them hope.

“The concerns are being looked into, but that is a model land reform project in the province at the moment,” he said.


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