Maverick Citizen

LAND REDISTRIBUTION

Award-winning Karoo wool farmers win battle to have farms returned after government locked them out

Award-winning Karoo wool farmers win battle to have farms returned after government locked them out
Farmers Joshua and Herold Bezuidenhout and Jan Bergh with their award-winning wool I The Nuveld farmers at the Western Cape High Court after they successfully won an interdict to stop the government from taking away their farms. (Photos: Supplied)

A company formed by the sons of farmworkers who benefited from the land redistribution programme had to go to court to have land returned to them after a government official decided to give two of their farms to other beneficiaries.

The Western Cape High Court has issued an order to restore possession of two Beaufort West farms to an award-winning company of wool farmers after Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development officials cut their gate locks and gave two of their farms to other “beneficiaries” of the government’s land reform programme.

wool farmers government land reform

Farmers (from left)  Herold Bezuidenhout, Jan Bergh and Johannes Joshua Bezuidenhout in Beaufort West. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

“The land was unilaterally taken from us overnight,” farmer Joshua Bezuidenhout said.

Bezuidenhout himself is a beneficiary of the land reform programme and had been building up the farms with his partners – all children of former farmworkers.

The farmers were represented in court by the Legal Resources Centre.

After benefiting from the state’s land redistribution programme, Joshua, his brother Herold Bezuidenhout and Jan Bergh have built up Nuveld Farming Empowerment Enterprises for the past two decades. However, in January and February 2024, the government took two farms the company had been farming since 2017. Officials cut their locks and replaced them with others, locking in their prize herds.

Joshua saw an official in a bakkie filled with household goods, moving one of the “beneficiaries” into a farmhouse.

Nuveld, however, has been waiting for years for the government to provide the company with a 30-year lease on the farms, but their application was denied without reason. The farmers have also taken the department to court to have this decision reviewed. The Nuveld farmers have 2,665 Merino sheep, plan to expand their flock and are creating 10 permanent jobs.

No legal process

In her ruling, Judge Gayaat Salie said the new beneficiaries had not followed the processes required by department policy to gain possession of the farms.

“The respondents [officials from the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development] broke the locks and put their locks on the gates excluding therewith the applicants’ [the Bezuidenhouts and Bergh] use and possession of the property, and they had been grazing and farming the said farm. 

“The taking of the property by the department was without any legal process and court order,” she said.

Joshua said in papers before the high court that in 2007, when he first saw the group of farms now known as Plateau Farm advertised as part of the government’s land redistribution scheme, “he could not believe it”. 

“It was close to where I grew up, so I had known the farm since I was a child. It felt like it was fate.”

Over the next few years, using modern and traditional methods to look after their sheep, they built up a flock of nearly 3,000 Merino sheep and won top prizes and awards for the quality of their wool. 

They and other beneficiaries were given a three-year lease, then a five-year lease and then in 2018 were told to leave. The Nuveld farmers applied for and received a caretaker contract and then also applied for a 30-year lease on the farms.

“We were the only ones left who were still farming.”

Joshua said when the farms were initially awarded to them, there were 80 beneficiaries, but that did not translate into a commercially viable scheme. He said eventually, the other beneficiaries left and would only resurface “when there is talk about money or when we were slaughtering sheep”.

Court papers identified Lubabalo Mbekeni, the director of service delivery coordination for the department’s Provincial Shared Service Centre in the Western Cape, as the official involved.

Bezuidenhout said the official had a “long-running campaign to undermine us and our access to farmland”.

Mbekeni, according to papers before the court, had said before that he believed Nuveld to be a front company for the “white owner” who sold the land to the government. The former owner denied this.

Mbekeni also denied the 30-year lease to the Nuveld farmers, a decision the court is reviewing. Joshua said in papers before the court that the former owner had shown Mbekeni the papers to prove his allegations were untrue.

The court also issued an interdict against the department to stop it from allocating any portion of the farm to any person, pending the finalisation of an application to review and set aside the decision not to award a 30-year lease to the farmers.

Problematic arguments

In 2009, the then Department of Rural Development and Land Reform allocated five farms in the district, collectively known as Plateau Farm, to more than 80 beneficiaries as part of its land reform project. The applicants were among these beneficiaries. All three are children of former farmworkers in the Beaufort West area.

The Nuveld sheep farming operations, however, became highly successful. In 2020 and 2023, their wool obtained the highest average price for the Beaufort West region at the national wool auction in Gqeberha.

In December 2019, the department advertised a call for applications for a 30-year lease agreement for Plateau Farm. The Nuveld farmers applied, were interviewed and were recommended by the National Land Acquisition and Allocation Control Committee as the preferred lease candidate.

Despite this recommendation, Mbekeni in September 2020 decided not to approve their application and the department refused to disclose the reasons for the decision to the three farmers. On 4 April 2023, the farmers applied to the Western Cape High Court to review and set aside the decision.

In January and February 2024, Mbekeni assisted two disgruntled former beneficiaries, despite their never applying for such access, to regain possession of two farms that fall under Plateau Farms.

Redistribution of state land is governed by section 25(5) of the Constitution, which requires reasonable legislative and other measures to ensure equitable access to land. Over the years, the department has developed several policies and procedures for allocating such land.

The court found that these policies and procedures were ignored. The government’s legal team argued only that the application by the farmers was not urgent. 

The government claimed that the two other beneficiaries whom Mbekeni assisted “were unfairly and harshly removed from the farm”. They had to be given back the land to honour the department’s land reform objectives. 

‘Difficulty’ with government submission

Salie said she had difficulty with the submission from the government legal team that the Nuveld farmers were not in undisturbed possession of the land.

“At various junctures, the State does not dispute that the Plateau Farms operate as a unit and that the three farms need to function as such to be viable. This is contained in its reports. As such, I cannot accept that Nuveld had no real possession of the two farms in question. Mr Bezuidenhout, the first applicant, had possession of the keys to both the gates of the farms,” she said.

She said Mbekeni also called on the applicants in February 2023 for their consent to allocate the farms to other persons.

“I find it problematic to accept in these circumstances that Nuveld had not held possession of these farms.”

Joshua said the two “beneficiaries” had been rehashing unsubstantiated allegations that they were removed from the farms.

“They complained that they had never been given an opportunity to farm and that their things were removed from the farms. They said that they were not able to attend the site visit. They said that the other applicants and I had ‘chased them away from the farm’. These allegations were not only untrue, they were ironic, as many had already been beneficiaries of other land reform projects before joining Plateau Farms. Their inclusion in the redistribution project at Plateau Farm in 2009 was their second bite at the redistribution cherry,” he said.

Joshua also pointed out that neither of the two who had been given parts of the farms had applied for the 30-year lease. He said they were called to a meeting with Mbekeni, where he said they must give the two farms to the other beneficiaries. They refused. 

“We would not fall for this ploy,” Joshua said. 

After this meeting, Mbekeni arrived with one of the beneficiaries, asking for the keys to the farm gate and the tractor. 

This specific piece of land, Joshua said, was earmarked for grazing for their sheep from April 2024.

The police were then called, but were told that Mbekeni had told the beneficiaries that they could live there “forever”.

Another senior official was asked to intervene and said he had no knowledge of any of this and that there was no new lease or agreement for the two farms. 

At the same time, the Nuveld farmers were trying to access their animals “locked in” at one of the farms taken away from them. 

According to papers before the court, Mbekeni had told one of the“new” beneficiaries that the farm would now belong to him. DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Julian Chandler says:

    Excellent!

  • Richard Bryant says:

    The idea of carving up a Karoo sheep farm for 80 possible beneficiaries is mind boggling. This idiot Mbekeni clearly knows nothing about sheep farming in arid areas and seems motivated by racism and or corruption.

    The only way this doesn’t become a wasteland is to keep the farm together and grant a 30 year lease to the people who clearly have local knowledge and farming skills. Any lease less than 30 years would only result in an asset strip and disaster.

  • Michael Thomlinson says:

    I don’t know if this is entirely a good news story. I think this is just an example of what can happen if we go the route of expropriation of land without compensation. Politicians will install their preferred candidate (and there is sure to be a kickback somewhere) while the real farmers, who should be benefitting from this, will be excluded from the deal.

  • Gavin Weir says:

    Viva Farmers Joshua, Herold Bezuidenhout, Jan Bergh and the Legal Resources Centre! The state official Mr Mbekeni should be dismissed for his arrogant and disgraceful actions.

  • Richard Blake says:

    Another filthy ANC cadre trying to loot and destroy.

  • Ryckard Blake says:

    The entire concept that land for farming (be it commercial or existence farming) is “ALLOCATED” by powerful chiefs or officials, AT NO COST TO THE BENEFICIARIES is bound to lead to this sort of nonsense. Thirty years into “democracy”, the Ngonyama Trust chiefs still have the power to kick off the lands of their ancestors individuals who have displeased them. The concepts of feudalism seem to still hold sway in the ANC (and IFP, EFF and presumably MKP).
    Let applicants BUY title, even if the terms strongly favour the previously-discriminated-against. Without skin in the game, most emergent farmers will simply walk away after 2 years of adverse weather and market conditions.

  • Geoff Coles says:

    One wonders about the competence of these officials, let alone other issues relating to decisions taken

  • William Kelly says:

    As others have pointed out this is not land redistribution. It is creating serfs without title deeds beholden to the State for all time. This is land ownership transfer from citizens to the State. Nothing less than the EFF model: it is a lie, a lie and a lie.

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    I hope that the officials involved are fired and audited as it all sounds corrupt to the core. And if it is, make Mbekeni pay all the legal costs in his personal capacity.

  • Graham Swan says:

    More ANC criminal cadres…..Mbekeni should not only be fired….he must be investigated and jailed….but OOPS….we forgot…all the criminal cadres will PROTECT one-another!!

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