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Promises, but no action after government employees allegedly cause a devastating fire on a farm

Promises, but no action after government employees allegedly cause a devastating fire on a farm
Limpopo farmer Harold Ramahala has had his business ruined after a fire allegedly started by municipal workers in 2016. He has been struggling to get the municipality to repair for the damages which has led to his business being ruined and 26 workers jobless. (Photo: Lucas Ledwaba/Mukurukuru Media)

Four years of waiting for compensation over damages caused by a fire allegedly started by council workers leaves farmer destitute and 26 jobs on the line.

The pump room at Harold Ramahala’s farm has been vandalised and the water pump stolen.( Photo: Lucas Ledwaba/Mukurukuru Media)

Harold Mapiti Ramahala’s voice rises angrily on the phone.

“Tell those people I have been waiting too long. I am hungry. What more should I wait for?” he says, the irritation in his voice comprehensible.

Ramahala has spent the past four years asking five arms of government to force the Greater Tzaneen Municipality to pay up for damages to his farm – which was destroyed by a fire allegedly started by their employees.

But Ramahala, 80, has received no assistance and is worried he may die without having restored the farm in Mohlak’amosoma near Modjadjiskloof in Limpopo, to its former glory. He is even more worried about the 26 jobs that have been lost since the damage to the farm.

His is an agonising story of a man who in the last four years gravitated from being an independent farmer employing more than 20 workers to a destitute man surviving on government’s meagre old age pension. Although it’s been almost four years since then, the municipality says Rahamala should wait.

The electric transformer on the farm owned by Harold Ramahala was stolen recently. The farm has not been operational since 2016 after it was gutted by a fire. ( Photo: Lucas Ledwaba/Mukurukuru Media)

The farmer says in early 2016 he was approached by the Greater Tzaneen Municipality to allow them to move his farm’s western boundary so a contractor could lay down paving on the road which often flooded when it rained.

Ramahala says prior to that learners always had difficulty getting to school during the rainy season as the road was often flooded and he often watched them burning tyres in protest along the main road.

“When they approached me and spoke to me about moving the fence back… I asked them, hey, you are still talking? Stop wasting time. Move the fence as much as you want. They moved the fence and started working,” says Ramahala.

But in November 2016 after the completion of the paving project the company which was laying down the paving, Sejagobe Engineers left without having reinstalled the fence, telling him the municipality would be responsible for doing that. He then approached the municipality.

The road passing near Harold Ramahala’s farm has been paved after he agreed that his boundary be pushed backwards. The Greater Letaba Municipality failed to replace the fence. Ramahala has used indigenous tree trunks to build a new one. ( Photo: Lucas Ledwaba/Mukurukuru Media)

“The municipality then wrote down all the materials I needed to fix the fence. Then they said I should return [later]. But each time I went back to the municipality, I would find a different person. I realised they were playing games with me,” he says.

“I went to the premier’s office. I told them look here premier, these are your people, they have wronged me, please see what you can do. They sent people to the farm to assess the damage and then apologised and promised they will fix this. But this did not happen.

“I went up and down to the premier’s office but nothing came right. I decided to approach the minister’s office [Cogta]. But this also did not help after I wrote many letters. Then I went to the Presidential Hotline. But this did not help either. I went back to the premier’s office…”

As he was fighting to have his boundary fixed to keep away livestock which was wandering onto the farm – disaster struck.

The irrigation pipes on Harold Ramahala’s farm were destroyed in a fire allegedly started when municipal workers were burning rubbish near the farm. He has been fighting to be compensated since 2016.( Photo: Lucas Ledwaba/Mukurukuru Media)

Municipal workers clearing weeds along the road started a fire to burn the rubbish. But in no time the fire spread onto the farm. He was called urgently to rush to the farm as the blaze got out of control. He helped the workers and his workers battle the blaze and managed to extinguish it – or so they thought. Later that afternoon Ramahala was called and informed the farm was on fire again. This time they could not stop the powerful blaze. Since then operations at the farm have come to a halt.

Municipal spokesperson Lovers Mainetja says “we are busy with his matter… he’s being impatient.”

But it’s been four years. Why has this taken so long?

“There are processes that need to be followed,” says Mainetja. “We need to follow protocol.”

She says the municipality has to source funds and since the five-year IDP has already been completed this will not be easy.

“We have to find a budget to assist him because we can’t take money meant for other projects and use it for that. Otherwise the taxpayers will be accusing us of all sorts of things,” says Mainetja.

She says after the fire incident the municipality provided Ramahala with a borehole pump and irrigation system.

“Two days later he said the machine was stolen,” says Mainetja.

But Ramahala disputes this.

“They are lying,” he says.

He says the only support he has ever received from the municipality was a R30,000 farmer support grant, long before the troubles with the fire. He estimates damages to the farm to be in the region of R200,000.

Did the municipal workers cause the fire that gutted the farm?

“We will not entertain who was right or who was wrong. The issue of the fire is just an allegation and we were willing to help him with the fencing issues,” Mainetja responds.

But isn’t this an injustice to this man who has waited so long?

“It would look like an injustice. We are definitely going to assist him, but we just can’t say when. We can’t make a commitment as to when we will assist him,” Mainetja responds.

Ramahala says he cannot take legal action because he does not have the financial means.

Mainetja says as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown the municipality has had to reprioritise their finances which may mean Ramahala may still have to endure another long wait.

Meanwhile, 26 workers who used to earn a living on the 25 hectare farm Ramahala inherited from his parents remain jobless.

“All I want them to do is to help me with what they destroyed so I can farm again,” says Ramahala standing under the shade of one of the mango trees that survived the 2016 blaze.

“I have never been one to depend on the government or other people. I employed 11 people permanently. I also gave jobs to 15 other people part time. Now all of us are jobless and hungry,” he says.

Ramahala was farming tomatoes, peri-peri chillies, green beans, butternut, cabbage and beetroot which through sales agents, he sold to the fresh produce markets in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town before tragedy struck.

After school Ramahala studied carpentry and relocated to Johannesburg where he worked as an inspector for a furniture retailer. But in 1978 he decided to return home and take over farming from his ageing parents.

“The Lebowa government supported us with fertilisers, they encouraged us to use modern farming systems and gave us seeds. They were really good because we also used to enter competitions with our produce. But these ones of today, are gangsters,” Ramahala reminisces about the pre-1994 era.

Despite the farm being inactive since 2016 – Ramahala has been going to the land every day without fail.

On Monday, 1 June as Grade 7 and 12 learners returned to school after 80 days of lockdown he too made his way to the farm as usual. But when he got there something was amiss. The electric transformer that used to power the water pump and the rest of the farm had also been stolen. He opened a case with the police.

“I don’t know who did it. But if any person is thinking of killing me to ensure this matter also dies, then I am not afraid.”

The following day the provincial office of the Public Protector asked Ramahala to submit a quote of the material required to restore his farm to operate once more to the municipality.

The Public Protector’s national spokesperson Oupa Segalwe confirmed that they were investigating Ramahala’s complaint against the municipality. He said they have written to the municipality and received a response and that progress would be provided to Ramahala. – Mukurukuru Media. DM/MC

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