Mike Mlengana has called for title deeds to be given to black farmers, and says white farmers should not be threatened. Picture: ROBERT TSHABALALA
Mike Mlengana has called for title deeds to be given to black farmers, and says white farmers should not be threatened. Picture: ROBERT TSHABALALA

Mike Mlengana, who is highly respected in the agricultural sector, has been suspended as director-general of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries after refusing to sign a contract because the proper tender procedure was not followed.

He says he objected to minister Senzeni Zokwana's decision to award the contract to a company owned by two former provincial police commissioners to provide security services and investigate allegations of corruption in the department.

"I told him we had the police to look after us and the auditor-general to investigate our finances," says Mlengana.

He asked Zokwana to withdraw the contract and was informed he was being suspended because of underperformance.

In a statement released last week, Zokwana said Mlengana had been suspended pending internal investigations, and that the "suspension is a precautionary measure and does not in any way constitute a judgment".

Organised agriculture says his removal will be a blow to the industry. They say that since his appointment last July, Mlengana has brought a level of expertise and farming knowledge to the department that had been absent, and he has been restoring the sector's fraught relationship with the government. Mlengana, 57, is a successful commercial farmer in the Magaliesberg region, and was president of the African Farmers Association of South Africa before his appointment as director-general.

He is an economic history graduate from the University of Fort Hare and a Fulbright scholar with an MA in financial economics and economic development from the Graduate School of Economics and International Studies in Denver in the US.

He says he and Zokwana were "like brothers born of the same mother", but their relationship had "not been easy" for a while.

It's not hard to see why. Mlengana, whose passion for farming is infectious, says he didn't become director-general to play politics. He lays the failure to transform the sector and develop more black farmers squarely at the door of the government.

When the government acquired farms for black farmers there was no integrated planning, he says. "There was nothing that took into account the profile of the farmer and the farm. There was no analysis of conditions, what kind of commodity would be best, the availability of a market, and so on."

Rural development officials appointed to support black farmers "had no clue about these key variants".

Not enough was done to "engage the assistance of white farmers. For various reasons, they were underutilised".

There was "no clear value proposition", and not enough "awareness of agriculture as an industry contributing to the economic growth of the country".

White commercial farmers should be invited to partner with black farmers rather than just mentor them, he says.

"Don't put too much money on recapitalising farms. Create 50-50 partnerships for five or 10 years so that the white farmer invests some of his own money, determines with the black farmer the profitability of the enterprise and likely returns, develops a business plan [and] identifies areas of shortcomings in the black farmer's operation."

Mlengana says government accusations that white agriculture is anti-transformation are "hogwash".

"I have never seen people so determined to make the economy of South Africa work and ensure that agriculture contributes to the GDP of this country. It is the experience of white farmers that has helped many of us black farmers to become commercial."

He says commitment to implement support programmes is lacking, partly because of a lack of capacity. "In agriculture you cannot be a desk-based person. You have to be on the ground to understand the issues. We need to train extension officers. They're the first phase of support for the farmer on the ground. If the extension officer doesn't know what to do, then failure has occurred."

He says too many senior officials in the department have "no knowledge of agriculture. Nobody has the required knowledge to question reports from the extension officers.

"If you're an official it is important that you visit the farm and interact with those on the ground. Unfortunately, that official doesn't have a clue."

He says he became director-general to ensure that "we have appropriately trained people with the appropriate skills. I didn't go into government to be a policy formulator. I was clear that I am here to strengthen regional, provincial and district capacity."

He says another key reason for the failure to develop more black commercial farmers is the government's refusal to give them title deeds. "If you do not have security of tenure, you're not going to invest. You'll just fold your arms and wait for government to give you what you lack."

He says the government is afraid that, when they have title deeds, black farmers willsell their farms back to the previous white owners. The African Farmers Association of South Africa guaranteed government would have first right of refusal if a farm didn't work and the farmer wanted to sell.

"We were bowing down as Afasa saying to government: 'Please release them, let them take risks, let them invest in their farms.'

"You can only be self-reliant when you own the property."

He says the development of black commercial farmers is happening "very, very slowly ... you need a new mindset".

There is too much bureaucracy, too many meetings, too much talking, too many plans, too many people not doing their jobs, too little accountability and, ultimately, "no delivery". he says. "I was trying to move the department from this thing of 'We're planning, we're planning, we're going to the committee, we're planning, we're planning'."

He says the government's priority should be a unified agricultural sector. "If all those in commercial farming can get together, we can produce the best commercial farmers in the world. That is where I was leading to."

As long as white farmers are seen as the enemy and threatened with land grabs, this won't happen, he says. "We cannot build unity on the basis of insulting others. Common sense tells me that we need these farmers to carry this country forward."

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