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November 07, 2011

Farm mentoring project reaps new success in South Africa

by Justine Gerardy

John Davids' pride is emblazoned on the door of his pick-up truck: a brawny, reddish bull that took top prize at an agricultural show for South Africa's new black farmers.

The stockman is a rare land reform success -- in an equally uncommon partnership with white farmers -- among hundreds of failed government attempts to close the racial divide in commercial farming.

"It was always my dream," said Davids, a 53-year-old of mixed race whose group farms 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) in scenic hills of Napier, two hours east of Cape Town.

"My life has really changed. In my wildest dreams that I dreamed, my life has completely changed. I cannot go back. I am a shareholder of two farms."

Unlike the violent seizures of white farms in neighbouring Zimbabwe, South Africa buys farms on the open market to hand to blacks to reverse one of apartheid's most visible and emotionally charged legacies.

Nine out of 10 projects are unproductive and some have even been sold back to white farmers.

But there are triumphs where experience has partnered with enthusiasm to give new farmers the tools -- from technical advice and financial management skills to sorely needed capital -- to beat the odds.

The catalyst in Napier was Kosie van Zyl, a 40-year-old white Afrikaner from a family of farm managers, who was inspired after another farmer gave him a loan to buy his first property.

"I understood that it was just because of one guy who gave me a chance that I'm a commercial farmer and there the whole Agri Dwala vision was born," he told AFP.

The Agri Dwala project now has 29 beneficiaries, some of whom permanently farm six properties with a profit.

"Today we are at the place where I am renting equipment from them and they are renting from me," said Van Zyl.

The new farmers here have no illusions about easy wealth. It's something that Gavin Jaars, 24, Agri Dwala's sheep manager, says many land reform failures don't realise.

"They do not want to have a white mentor. They want to do it alone. They want to make money quickly," said Jaars, who also works on Van Zyl's farm. "We have been here six years and you don't see any money in our pockets. We reinvested it into the business."

At first, South Africa handed over farms with little support or vetting of beneficiaries.

Trevor Abrahams received an unfenced piece of land in 1998 and now exports fruit from the mountain-ringed Ceres valley for British retailers such as Marks & Spencer after being approached by a well known local white farmer Robert Graaff.

"We didn't sign anything formal as a mentorship agreement but we had two conditions. The one condition was that I will pay for everything except his advice," said Abrahams, 53, a former teacher.

"The second condition was that there was not an expectancy from his side that I must do him any favours."

The reason for the successful relationship is "absolute trust", he said, pointing to an interest-free loan of more than one million rands ($123,000, 90,000 euros).

"There's no baggage -- I don't blame him for anything that may go wrong on the farm and he is prepared to stick to the end."

"It's more business partners at this stage," he added.

Moving toward a similar model, the state has set up a rescue programme for collapsing farms and is promoting the use of mentors or managers.

Near the icy West Coast are two picturesque grape farms managed by a private company Bono Holdings, which is training farm workers who are shareholders and not owners.

"You need to turn their minds so that they know they are no longer workers. You give them that ownership that if someone is misusing the tractor, they should be able to stop that person," said managing director Evans Nevondo.

Back in Napier, Van Zyl and crop specialist Piet Blom want to take the successful Agri Dwala example to other white commercial farmers.

"They have the same heart like us to start a new generation: a new South Africa, not separated people," said Blom about the beneficiaries.

"We are a new South Africa and I think that's the way to have it."


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