Tomahawk Farming Operations: The jewel of land reform and restitution

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Tomahawk Farming Operations managing director James Chance and Matsamo CPA oversight committee member Mbuso Thumbathi. Photo: Sizwe sama yende
Tomahawk Farming Operations managing director James Chance and Matsamo CPA oversight committee member Mbuso Thumbathi. Photo: Sizwe sama yende

NEWS


Along the R570 road that leads to the Jeppes Reef border post between Mpumalanga and Eswatini lie fallow lands with banana, citrus and other fruit orchards buried in bushes of invading vegetation.

These were once prosperous white-owned farming enterprises, before the era of land reform and restitution of ancestral land was parceled to the present generation of black people.

The land includes the 1 300ha Inala Estate. Bought for 600 farm labourers at R16 million in the late 1990s for a 25% shareholding, Inala was trumpeted as a model to turn labourers into their own bosses. It even attracted the attention of the Brazilian government, which dispatched a minister on a tour.

Government, through the rural development and land reform department, held another 25% of Inala, and 50% was held by a private company.

Inala’s bananas, sugarcane, mangoes and litchis are now buried in the bush.

Along the same stretch of the road, Tomahawk Estate stands out as a misfit with its lush banana trees beckoning on the other side of an electric fence. Inside are more orchards – mango, litchi, orange, grapefruit, sugarcane and pawpaw plantations.

READ: How the state condemned emerging farmers to poverty

Machines ferry fruit according to their different points of preparedness, while workers are busy in packhouses, packaging for export and local markets in branded boxes. Tomahawk Farming Operations managing director James Chance says;

This could be a jewel for government’s land reform.

Tomahawk, like all the farms surrounding it, is a land restitution project under the ownership of black people. It is a small part of R800 million worth of land that was transferred to the Matsamo Communal Property Association (CPA), which comprises 1 500 families, in 2007.

The CPA has been struggling to source funds to buy a stake in Tomahawk Farming Operations, but the company has nevertheless granted the CPA a 50% shareholding while it is looking for financial injection.

READ: Time to rethink the role of the individual and the state in land reform

Annually, the company sells 700 000 cartons of citrus, 650 000 cartons of bananas, 600 000 cartons of litchis and mangoes each, and 200 000 cartons of pawpaws locally and to Russia, Canada, China and Singapore, as well as other parts of Europe and the Middle East. Tomahawk also sells 47 000 tons of sugarcane annually.

The estate itself grows citrus on 700ha, bananas (310ha), mangoes (200ha), papayas (30ha) litchis (160ha) and sugarcane (616ha). Tomahawk is the biggest single producer of litchis in South Africa.

The company employs 2 000 workers from the surrounding communities. Chance explains:

We were planning to exit the business but we have a long-term agreement to enter into a joint venture with the CPA.

Matsamo CPA member and oversight committee chairperson, Mbuso Thumbathi, says that extra funding will enable the operation to expand, as the company has enough trees to be in production for the next 20 to 30 years. Tomahawk, he says, needs a new packhouse that will cost about R100 million and increase the workforce by 30%.

But evidence of failed land reform projects lies just across the road from Tomahawk. The reasons for the failures are well documented and common throughout the country – greed and squabbling among land beneficiaries – as well as lack of skills and funds.

READ: Land restitution, when capital corrupts

Chance says the unity among the Matsamo CPA’s members has helped the company to focus on its core business of producing fruit.

The CPA has given us the authority to do what we know as trained farmers. Also, there’s no clashing, as we resolve issues around the table.

The CPA employed various models to run the business. It also leased some of its land to experienced agricultural companies and entered into joint ventures, as in the case of Tomahawk, to start its own farming enterprise. However, Thumbathi says Tomahawk is the best working example so far.

“It was the right choice to make, and this is an ideal partnership if the values remain the same. All we want is honesty, transparency and sharing of the profits with the CPA – all of which we have been getting so far,” he says.

TEETHING PROBLEMS

The Matsamo CPA has had to overcome its share of problems. Allegations such as lack of transparency from CPA executive members, gatekeeping and the fleecing of funds have been levelled against it, but it seems the claims weren’t strong enough to collapse the businesses.

Early this year, some of the CPA members were even calling for the Mpumalanga rural development and land reform department to place the CPA under administration. However, Thumbathi says the warring factions have resolved their differences.

There’s a great potential on our farms, which makes us consider developing our processing capacity to produce ready-made products directly for the market.

The CPA, adds Thumbathi, also stands to get more agricultural estates and a wildlife reserve transferred back to its ownership.

“After everything, we will be the biggest and most expensive land claim, as the outstanding claimed properties and what we have got back already, will surpass the R1 billion value of the Mala Mala land claim,” he says.

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