Digging in: Members of the Mmamahlola community work the land on Serala Estate. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Digging in: Members of the Mmamahlola community work the land on Serala Estate. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

After enduring 17 years of heartache as they watched the farmland that was "successfully" returned to them waste away, the Mmamahlola community in Tzaneen, in Limpopo, is firmly against expropriation of land without compensation.

Their more than 3,000ha of productive land planted with avocado, mango, citrus and macadamia plantations was a thriving business before the government’s restitution processes in 2000.

The land was returned in terms of the Land Restitution Act to the Banareng ba ga Letsoalo after the government bought it for R43m on a willing-buyer-willing-seller basis from white farmers. The community had been forcibly removed from the land in 1958 and dumped 75km away in Metz.

After the land was returned, the community became mere spectators as government grants of R12m were wasted, with the full knowledge of the department of rural development & land reform.

As the debate over land expropriation rages, the Mmamahlola Communal Property Association says their experience taught them that it is easier said than done. In 2001 "unknown people" emerged as the government’s endorsed claimants and appointed themselves to management positions on the farms, which soon collapsed as the development grant was "misused and embezzled", according to association chair Samson Modiba.

The lack of skills, financial challenges and conflicts over the legitimacy of the association led to crops failing. A farm that had exported fruit to Canada and Japan collapsed.

While its rightful owners contested their exclusion from its management, the department obtained a court interdict in 2006 to place the farm under judicial administration. The original communal property association was also dissolved.

Yet then minister for agriculture & land affairs Lulu Xingwana told parliament in 2007 that the project had "efficient management", its fruit was being exported, and the project had created 207 permanent jobs and 100 seasonal jobs.

The department then hired two management companies, which both failed to attract investment to revive the farm, and it was then handed over to the bona fide claimants in 2015. But by then most of the trees had died and 137 employees had been retrenched.

The rightful landowners inherited a R500,000 debt in unpaid municipal services and were also liable for R3.4m in unpaid salaries.

Modiba and 17 other people were elected to run the new communal property association by members of the community and the tribal council in Ga-Letsoalo to spearhead the restoration of the farm in 2016. With the government’s assistance, the association solicited the services of Vumelana Advisory Fund, which facilitated their partnership with agricultural company ANB Investments.

The community entered into a 25-year lease agreement with ANB Investments in October 2017 and the farm was renamed Serala Estate.

We learned from the experience of the first communal property association — they turned themselves into production managers, did not have the expertise and the farms collapsed. We did not want to fail, and we are not failure

The estate’s project manager, Faan Kruger, says it was challenging to get the farm functional again. About R41m was invested in it by June 2018, which allowed for the hiring of 135 people, including the workers who were retrenched.

"Coming into this, we knew there was a lot of hard work to be done. It is redevelopment from the start," says Kruger.

"We will redevelop about 450ha. We were able to save only about 30ha of macadamias," he says. "We can graft 45ha of mangoes and were able to save 40ha of citrus. The rest must be planted, almost starting afresh."

At the farm last week, signs of new and abundant life were visible, and the faces of reinstated workers and the association’s members were filled with contentment.

Kruger says the farm is expected to break even in 10 years, but the community will receive rental payments as per their agreement.

To get the farm up and running again, the community had to accept that it had neither the skills nor the funds to run it successfully. "We wanted to have a third party assisting us; we did not even contemplate working on the farm on our own," says Modiba.

"We learned from the experience of the first communal property association — they turned themselves into production managers, did not have the expertise and the farms collapsed. We did not want to fail, and we are not failures," he says.

With his eyes gazing at the peaks of the Drakensberg mountains towering over the lush Letsitele Valley, the property association’s treasurer, Kanapa Mawasha, shares an astonishing tale.

A part of their restituted land was "given" to the state-owned SA Forestry Company for timber farming by the land reform department while the farms were under administration. Despite countless promises, the land has not been transferred back to the community and there is no lease agreement in place.

An undertaking to pay R4m into the association’s trust account for using the land has also been dishonoured.

"During the judicial administration, the government gave themselves that farm. We signed documentation that they would transfer the farm to us, yet we do not know what is still blocking them," Mawasha says.

The property association is hoping for skills transfer during the 25-year agreement with ANB. They want to manage the farm themselves.

Another battle they hope to win one day is to get the title deeds for the land. The department has not handed them over despite promises.

At the public hearings across the country into land appropriation without compensation, many successful land claimants complained that they had not received the title deeds to their properties.

Serala Estate’s senior supervisor, Karabo Miyeni, whose family is part of the community that owns the land, says that without skills and funding there will be little to celebrate for any beneficiary of land reform.

Miyeni holds a diploma in agriculture and is highly thought of by the association and the farm’s management for his passion. His grandparents had been removed from the land in the dead of night by the apartheid government.

"There is no use if you have the land but you have no expertise and finances to work it. I am not supporting it [appropriation]," Miyeni says.

"As a farmer and graduate of agriculture, I know all the commodities needed to run the farm. We can get the land for free, but it will just lie fallow, and this land is an example of that," he says.

In its preliminary report after 34 public hearings, parliament’s constitution review committee said close to 60% of written submissions were against a constitutional amendment in favour of appropriation of land without compensation.