Opinionista Simamkele Dlakavu 13 January 2014

Young black farmers in South Africa reclaiming their space: Chiti Makwetu

The issue of land redistribution has long been one of the most crucial focal points in South Africa’s political discourse, and along with it has been the mission to de-racialise the agricultural sector. But by the mid 1990s, reports Emilie Iob, more than 80% of commercial farms were owned by white commercial farmers. And yet the old debates still rage on: if black people were to be given back land, would they be able to work the land? And do they have the capabilities and resources to venture into the tough terrain of commercial farming?

At first, judging by the efforts of government in post-Apartheid South Africa to increase and empower more black farmers, it would appear that the critics have a leg to stand on. Emilie Iob further reports that “about 90% of the farms distributed to black farmers since the launch of land reform 16 years ago are no longer productive” even with the little land, which is less than 8%, that has been redistributed post 1994 from white farmers to black farmers. Furthermore, those black farmers who are still trying to run their farms successfully are facing hard competition not only from well-established, mostly white farmers but from international agri-business, without adequate support.

With a young population like ours in South Africa, we need introspection and to ask ourselves: do young people want to farm, and specifically do young black people want to farm? Do they want to become a part of the agricultural processes? Personally, with my rural and township upbringing and now my urban living coupled with the workshops I host with mostly black rural and township youth, I have not encountered many young people who say that they want to go into commercial farming when I ask about their future plans. However, during a recent trip home to Queenstown, this was changed as I got to interact heavily with a young black farmer: Chiti Makwetu, whose story needs to be shared.

Chiti is a part of a growing number of young black farmers in South Africa reclaiming their space in the agricultural sector. He runs his and his family’s farm which is 761 hectares in size. He started farming at 23, after university, and is now 34 years old. He is extremely passionate about farming and states that this is what has carried him through his many life hurdles. He breeds bonsmara cattle and currently employs five permanent staff and a casual employee. In 2012 Chiti was nominated in the Breedplan Landbouweekblad 2012 emerging beef farmer of the year competition, where he came second.

In future he sees himself becoming an industry leader, because he understands that the commercial farming space in South Africa is not just a business enterprise, but is also political. It is political because the unresolved issue of land dispossession that was at the centre of colonialism and Apartheid in South Africa. Moreover, because of the poverty rate, farming becomes political because it affects food security for many people. Chiti states that “our forefathers fought for this land” and to him it would be a “disservice” with the opportunities that are now available for young black farmers not to take them up because “people have lost blood for land that was taken away” he states.

One of the challenges that Chiti has faced in the industry is breaking through stereotypes, from both the black and white community that “black people cannot be successful in farming”. A stereotype similar to that experienced by Gift Mafuleka, the 2011 winner of Toyota New Harvest Farmer of the Year award. As reported by Emily van Rijswijck, unlike Mafulela, who stated that farming is “one of the toughest challenges for emerging black farmers [because] they are not recognised as genuine farmers, or taken seriously enough by the larger agricultural community”, Chiti states even though it was challenging at the beginning, the farming industry “opened their doors for me” and he received mentorship from two white Afrikaner men and that his “skin colour was not a problem”. However, he does share the sentiments with Mafulela that the “the industry is very big and it is difficult to break through”. He states that because the production cycle is much longer, especially with the type of farming he does, which is livestock, profit margins are very low at the beginning stages. He says that his type of farming is “all about scale”, and this needs a lot of investment. He just recently received a grant for the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform which he has used to purchase cattle and infrastructure. He stated that he is expecting further funding where he will purchase more land.

Unlike most young black potential farmers, Chiti had a strong foundation although he is not well off. His grandmother was a farmer and as well as his father, who owns his own farm where Chiti and his family grew up.

Black emerging farmers from worse and or the same background have countless challenges to overcome, as reiterated by Professor Carlu Van der Westhuizen, who is quoted by Rijswijck as stating that “many black farmers did not receive the same opportunities as their white counterparts. In most cases they are more restricted in terms of available resources, education, information sources and other aspects”. However, there are existing efforts within the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform to develop young black farmers, as well as events such as the Agri-Youth Indaba and the African Farmers Association, amongst others.

However, the existing efforts to encourage more black farmers need to be scaled up and improved upon, if we are serious about creating more black commercial farmers – not only for addressing the imbalances of the past, but also for issues of food security. With a young population like ours, like every other industry, we need to look into the young, especially those ignored racial groups. DM

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