We must debunk the myth that black people cannot farm

Dr Sam Motsuenyane at his citrus farm in Winterveld. Picture: Motlhalefi Mahlabe
Dr Sam Motsuenyane at his citrus farm in Winterveld. Picture: Motlhalefi Mahlabe

“Black people cannot farm Paul, even if we gave you all the farms what are you going to do with them? You guys have never been farmers, you are not good at farming…” my soil science professor in 2004 at the University of Pretoria said when I was studying Agronomy during a land reform debate in one of my lectures.

This statement sparked confusion and curiosity in my teenage mind, to dig deep and do research to prove this old white man wrong.

A few weeks ago, the nation watched in pain and horror when the truth about one of its most iconic daughters finally surfaced about the murder of Stompie.

Watching this unfold, It dawned on me that South Africa suffers from a delusional account of its history.

The extent of the power of those who create content and the ability to recreate lies as facts was fully revealed.

The lack of voice from the majority to give account of its history.

The danger of a single narrative especially from those with narrow interest that drives the national agenda, the false facts that finally gets printed in books as true accounts and filters as history to future generations who will accept the lies as their history.

This is all possible because those who know the truth remained silent while the incorrect facts were peddled.

I am descended from the Motsuenyane family which originates from the Bakwena ba Modimosana tribe and whose ancestral home is Molokwane, situated about 30 kilometres west of the town of Rustenburg. Around the 1820s this farming community was driven from its ancestral home at Molokwane.

They moved to the Orange Free State where they worked for Afrikaner farmers. Prior to the Anglo-Boer war in 1899 they moved back to the old Transvaal.

Some went west and some of my father’s brothers who had experienced farming with the Afrikaners in the Free State bought their own farms in the Lichtenburg and Potchefstroom areas. This was around 1903.

I am among those who support the ideas of freehold individual ownership of land.

I was born on February 11 1927 on the farm Eignaarsfontein, where my parents worked as sharecroppers on the system called “derdedeel”.

Under this system which operated over large parts of South Arica in 1930s, the big landowners who could not make use of their land organised black people with a strong work ethic to run the farms and then share the crop.

A third of the harvest went to the owner of the farm. The system was abandoned when some Afrikaners became apprehensive that it was creating very rich and highly independent black farmers.

We must debunk the myth that black people cannot farm and refresh our erased institutional memory of our highly skilled forefathers.

For the best part of the 19th century the agrarian revolution missed the black farmers. Would you expect a technology company whose developmental advances were only allowed to progress until 1913 to compete with a modern-day Space X which plans to set up a million-person city in Mars?

While The Natives Land Act 27 of 1913 debate has resurfaced in the furnace of a burning land question, it is important to reflect on the historical facts and not make a mistake of alternative facts and distorted history.

The Land Act 18 of 1936 made provision for the establishment of the South African Native Trust.

The South African Native Trust Fund was created to acquire land for natives with a maximum cap of 13% of the total land. The trust was to own the land and not the natives.

It is important to note that the act created reserves for natives and increased the 8% of land reserved by the Native Land Act to 13%.

The trust made reserves, not that it acquired the 13% of the total land. This is historically significant to note.

In order “to achieve the objectives of the act, section 13 empowered the trustees of the trust to expropriate land owned by natives outside a scheduled area”.

The miscalculation risk was counting the land owned by natives outside the scheduled area twice.

If one follows the current public debate one naturally concludes that blacks own 13% of the total land. This is not a historical fact, regardless of the popular narrative.

After the 1913 Land Act the South African National Native Congress delegation paid visit to the minister of native affairs, the governor-general of South Africa, Lord Gladstone, and the British parliament in London to lay a complaint.

The Natives Land Commission 1913-1916 led by Sir William H. Beaumont was set up to look at the possibility of giving more land to black people after the 1913 Act.

The commission “was appointed in 1913 to delimit areas to be reserve exclusively for European and areas to be reserved exclusively for African ownership”.

Unfortunately, the commission was created before the First World War from July 28 1914 to November 11 1918. This shifted the focus of the government.

This meant that the report was never looked at until 1936 when the amendment was made to make available additional seven and a quarter million morgen which was to be added to the scheduled native areas.

This would have pushed the total reserves to 17 500 000 morgen which is about 13% of the area of the whole country.

However, post the Land Act 18 of 1936 when the government was supposed to go ahead with the allocation of additional land, the Second World War, which lasted from 1939 to 1945, broke out.

This interrupted the process of allocating the 13% total land reserved for natives. After the war, land values went high. The Great Depression of 1929 to 1939 also negatively affected the process.

Three years after the war in a general election which took place on 26 May 1948, DF Malan’s National Party won the election.

The Tomlinson Commission 0f 1956 dealt with utilisation of existing land and not expansion of scheduled territories.

It made recommendations that £104 486 000 (about R10 billion in 1998 value) be made available which the minister of Native Affairs Dr HF Verwoed rejected.

It is therefore highly questionable that the government did indeed reach the 13% land target. Dr Edward Roux made a deduction that it was 9% and not 13% of total land that was eventually allocated to natives.

In 1953 I was tasked by the National Veld Trust to establish The African National Soil Conservation Association. Its mission was to conserve land for the future in the homelands and prevent overgrazing.

It was formed to inculcate the conservation and proper land use for cultivation so that land became the source of wealth and development.

The organisation had luminaires like the Paramount Chief Cyprian ka Bhekuzulu, Dr JS Morkoka, Ms T Soga, Chief Pilane, Chief Sekwati Mampuru, Chief Frank Mmaserumula, Dr WF Nkomo, Lady Selbourne, Rev SS Tema, Chief CK Sakwe, Prof Jabavu, Mr DB Ngakane, Dr JM Nhlapo and Chieftainess Mantshebo.

It operated by showing films demonstrating the dangers of soil erosion to show conservation work.

It published a monthly journal called Green Earth and arranged land camps during school holidays where children were taught agriculture.

The school holiday camps were important because it introduced kids to agriculture as a career option at an early age. We know we have a pending crisis because of the lack of interest in agriculture as a career in our country and the average farmer is more than 60 years old.

t also held an annual conference with chiefs and leaders to discuss issues relating to land. The National Party wanted the organisation to be split according to its segregation Bantu policy.

The government became suspicious of the organisation and eventually shut it down. They didn’t want chiefs of different ethnicity to meet, that posed a threat to their segregation agenda.

The organisation took a moral decision to suspend the organisation instead of yielding to government’s proposal.

It was decided that a time will come when the African National Soil Conservation Association will be resuscitated fully supported by a government with reasonable policies.

One of the biggest problem is land that is already available that is lying fallow which is not productively cultivated. The black farmer situation in this country is dire.

The conditions are no more different from that which necessitated the 1932 Carnegie Commission which evaluated the Poor White Problem in South Africa. We ought to draw lessons from the report.

How was the poor white problem defeated?

Black farmers virtually have no dedicated financial institution to assist them. The Land Bank and The Agriculture Credit Board historically were used to provide cheap funding to white farmers.

In its current structure the land bank does not and cannot serve emerging farmers.

Even if it allocates more to emerging farmers (the bank plans to increase its allocation to R3 billion for emerging farmers out of a R39 billion book which is largely for white farmers).

The problem is that it operates like a commercial bank, therefore it remains largely inaccessible for the majority of black farmers.

We also cannot ignore the issue of title deeds which our people can leverage to access capital. One of the most important resource in our country that is not shared properly, is water for irrigation.

The government only owns 350 out of 4000 dams. The problem is also the water rights allocation process. To this day the irrigation scheme infrastructure mimics that of the apartheid era.

If you look for example at the Hartbeespoort dam, the canals go through white-owned farms and end where black farms begin in areas like Bapong, Jericho and Segwelane where there is fertile land for irrigation.

Seeds to farming is like a foundation to a house. The Agricultural Research Council needs to play an integral role in developing agriculture particularly in rural areas like it did in the past, however it cannot do this when its budget continues to diminish yearly.

We procure through the tender system outdated open pollinated seeds which we distribute to our emerging farmers.

This is tantamount to giving a white driver a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport car and a black driver a 1953 VW Beetle and expect them to race.

As if that’s not enough we then celebrate the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport car driver for finishing first and being a good driver!

If we want black farmers to commercially compete we need to seriously look the issue of open pollinated vs hybrid seeds with higher yields and disease resistance.

To finally respond to my soil science professor, albeit 13 years later, black people have always farmed this land even prior to the colonisers’ arrival in 1652.

I supposed it will please my professor to know that I’ve just enjoyed oranges from Dr Sam Motsuenyane’s farm from Dennilton which he sends to Marble Hall for processing!

He is a brilliant 91-year-old farmer and agronomist.

The future of this country hinges on all of us working together to sort out the land issue.

The Dr Sam Motsuenyane Rural Development Foundation is hosting the Inaugural Agricultural Development Lecture at the TUT Tshwane Campus on June 1.

Dr Sam Motsuenyane (Agronomy 1960: North Carolina State University) is a patron of The Dr Sam Motsuenyane Rural Development Foundation. Paul Ntshabele (Agronomy 2004: University of Pretoria/ USDA Cochran Fellow) is a trustee of The Dr Sam Motsuenyane Rural Development Foundation.

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