On a farm in Rietfontein a fruitful partnership aims to rewrite the story of failed land reform.
“Four years ago there was nothing but untamed African bush here,” says Pieter Vorster (47) and points proudly to a neat row of citrus trees on the farm Rietfontein.
The farm, just outside Ohrigstad in Limpopo, is worked by his family’s business, the Mahela Group, but it does not belong to Vorster.
The farm was expropriated in the 1990s and subsequently became the property of the Rietfontein Homeless People Trust.
However, to put the land to use, Mahela paid to have the orchards planted.
The partnership between Mahela and the trust took months to negotiate before they finally signed in 2015.
Through it they hope to show how land reform can work if people pull together.
When the trees begin bearing fruit – and for many years in the future – the Vorsters and the Rietfontein community will share the profit.
Before the partnership, citrus farming in Rietfontein was nonexistent. The old orchards were overgrown.
In 2015 Mahela leased 56 hectares from Rietfontein for 10 years. The agreement was that Mahela would establish a working citrus farm on the land.
Since then it has concluded a second agreement – for 25 years – with the trust to work another 55ha.
The community gets its rental money a year in advance.
As soon as production reaches a certain mark, a profit-sharing agreement that operates on a sliding scale kicks in.
The more productive the farm, the greater the community’s share of the profit.
Since then, a lot of work has been done. After a massive earth-moving operation, there are now orchards with young trees and an earthen dam for irrigation.
Vorster said he had no doubt Rietfontein would deliver good yields.
Mahela also has three farms of its own, Mountain Haven, Majombo and Smutsfield, right next to Rietfontein.
During the past season, it harvested 15.9 tons of naartjies per hectare from trees that are two and a half years old.
And the big harvests still lie ahead. Naartjie trees reach optimal production levels only after about 10 years.
“The land here is like chocolate for soft citrus,” said Vorster.
But it costs a lot of money to establish an orchard; R101 000 a hectare from the pump’s intake nozzle in the river to where the trees are planted.
“Go and do the math. On Rietfontein we already have 56ha under naartjies,” said Vorster. “Just the plastic we used for the dam on Rietfontein costs about R400 000.”
Everything on Rietfontein is of the same high quality Mahela uses on its own farms. The cultivar of naartjies being planted is one of the most expensive available to farmers.
“We planted tangos. You pay three times for them: first for the licence per hectare, then for production royalties and also a marketing tariff,” said Vorster.
This agreement was based on mutual trust and faith in the future. “If we are chased off this land tomorrow, then we lose and the community loses, but the assets remain theirs.”
But there are no such talks, says Daniel Kgodi (71), chairperson of the trust.
The community is highly satisfied. He brushes the leaves of a young naartjie tree as he looks out over his people’s valley.
“Not long ago there was nothing here. Mahela’s people changed big things for us.”
About 30 of the trust’s beneficiaries work on the farm full time. And as soon as Mahela completes building its packing warehouse in 2020, there will be more work for pickers and packers.
In the meantime there is the rental money, where previously there was none. And the promise those citrus trees will bear lots of fruit for all.