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Fresh voices in land debate

The land debate in South Africa is hotting up in a year that the government party will elect a new leader to replace Jacob Zuma

Fresh voices in land debate

Mike Mlengana, centre, with Ismael Motala (left) and Michiel Prins in Waveren’s orchards

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In recent times, the slogan of radical transformation across all levels of South African society has been used by government ministers and party supporters in an effort to divert attention away from the many failures during the past 20 years of the new democratic government.

Increasingly under pressure as more and more support filters away to other political parties amidst claims and allegations of wide-scale corruption, there are indications that the government, in particular, has seized on the land issue to divert attention away from its own woes. For the commercial fruit sector the debates surrounding the issue are almost always dominated by lack of substance, depth and reality.

That is why the address by Mike Mlengana, director general at the Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries (DAFF), at Stargrow Development’s ‘Transformation in Action’ day near Wolseley in the Western Cape, was so impressive and drew much praise from the black growers and industry representatives attending.

Stargrow Development is one company in the fruit sector formed specifically to boost transformation. It held its ‘Transformation in Action’ Day to focus attention on new initiatives which are underway in the fresh produce business.

Critical of the government’s performance on some levels, Mlengana said that a failure to communicate its strategies effectively to the agri sector had contributed to a lack of confidence and understanding.

“That is why people are adverse to taking risk,” he said. “Risk is required if one is going to be successful. That is why it so exciting to see that the shareholders of Stargrow Development are committing to partnerships which requires taking risks and working together in an atmosphere of trust.”

Mlengana was also critical in the way finance has been made available to people entering farming, without proper monitoring and oversight of the success of these investments. It has often been a case of ‘we like you, you have a nice smile, we give you money,’ he said.

Mlengana noted he would like to see the South African Land Bank focusing on development rather than purely commercial priorities in order to ensure that black farmers entering the industry have funding to develop and extend their farms.

“We have already taken control of the Recapitalisation Programme which is aimed at turning around struggling projects. It is a disgrace what has previously happened under this programme," he continued. "We also want agro processing which is located in the Department of Trade and Industry to come under DAFF, because this sector is so crucial to the success of the agri industry.

“We cannot continue to do business as usual," Mlengana exclaimed. "We need to place more people in employment through our agricultural development to ensure that we alleviate poverty and reduce the incidents of crime which result from people feeling useless. There is a lack of partnership and we are not filling all the gaps."

Mlengana said he was impressed with the 50-50 partnerships which have been developing in the Western Cape. “More partnerships of this nature will bring about huge changes. As long as I am in my position what happened before will not happen again.”

The director general addressed the issue of transformation while visiting the Waveren farm near Wolseley, where Ismael Matala and his family are working to transform their farm into a profitable pear business with the help of Stargrow Development.

“This is now a multi-million project and it speaks of the commitment from both sides,” said Motala. “True empowerment works both ways, not from the top down. This is why we are confident that what we will develop here is a model that other black farmers can follow.”

Michiel Prins, chairman of Stargrow Group, said the company is in the process of planning similar projects with other black farmers in the Western Cape. “On a macro level we are also engaging with communities in areas of high potential for fruit growing in other parts of the country, but these projects represents another challenge altogether.”

He explained that it is one thing to provide land to people, but in almost every case the recipients struggle to access funding to develop their orchards and to carry the project forward.

“It is a constant struggle," he said. "We have to work together to access funding sources, while at the same time ourselves investing in trees, technical support, advice and other services.”

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