‘Breakthrough in SA agriculture not about land reform but relationship reform’

Frankfort farmer Wessel Bibbey and three agriculture students, from the left, Johnny, Momalo, Johnny, living with his family in his house, sharing at a recent bridge-building land summit in Middelburg, Karoo.

The agricultural sector of South Africa is at a crossroads. To be more precise, it is actually at a three-way junction.
Not only do we have to choose wisely which road to take, but we must also consider how to travel down all three roads simultaneously.

As the land reform debate intensifies, it is clear that there are at least three interdependent problems we need to solve at the same time.

In the first instance we need a practical and economically viable solution to the ownership of land that is at the same time both just and equitable. Secondly, the sector cannot afford to forego skills while it works to increase the agricultural skills baseline; and thirdly, production must be stepped up as the demand for produce and assurance of food security is only increasing. This has become South Africa’s agricultural trilemma.

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According to the 2018 mid-year population estimates there are 21 777 307 people under the age of 19 in South Africa. That is an astonishing 37% of the total population of 57 725 606 in the country.[i]

According to the 2018/2019 Departmental Evaluation Plan of the Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), there are currently 529 students enrolled at Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute.[ii]

Dr Jack Armour from Freestate Agri leading a task group at the Middelburg summit.

UNISA had approximately 3 000 students enrolled in correspondence agricultural studies that include practical modules for completion of these qualifications.

Where do these students go to do their practical internships and apprenticeships? It’s common cause that the agricultural sector must prioritise job creation to accommodate this potential workforce; given that SA’s unemployment rate is currently estimated to be between 27%–36% of the total workforce of the nation.

Moreover, SA’s current cadre of productive commercial farmers is ageing and the next generation of farmers is not guaranteed as their children are reluctant to farm due to the risks and threats and financial realities associated with primary production in SA.

As an alternative, it may be possible to empower the current permanent workforce (also ageing), but in many cases these workers lack the academic training, technological skills and business acumen that is essential for senior managerial positions.

As the turnout of students from agricultural training institutions increases, and we are faced with a diminishing pool of experienced commercial farmers, there is an urgent need to match the practical experience of the current generation of farmers with the theoretical skills of the new incumbents to produce the next generation of successful farmers.

This conundrum was the focus of the recent, second Bridge Building Agricultural Land Summit (May 20-21), that was held to consider the challenge: “empowering the next generation of farmers for sustainable success”. The summit was held in Middelburg (Karoo), with the intention of bringing white commercial farmers to engage with inter alia Grootfontein Agricultural College agricultural students and lecturers.

Delegates documented the outcome of their deliberations by means of live data polling, with each participant using interactive – www.mentimeter.com – software. This interactive deliberation was brilliantly facilitated by Berné Leuvennink from Beulah Africa

Taking all things into consideration, the ageing commercial farmers, the limitation of semi-literate permanent farm workers and a large number of agricultural students with little practical experience, it seemed obvious that solutions must be available, yet not connected.

Hennie Viljoen, a former dominee, now farmer and visionary leader of Amos Agrimin and GF4GF has been a pioneer of agricultural relational reform for more than 25 years. His valuable insights contributed significantly as he pleaded for the prioritisation of non-racial, inclusive agencies such as FutureFarmersAmosAgrimin and GF4GF centres, all of whom have built relational credibility in the agricultural sector and gained respect among their peers in their efforts to bring diverse parties together.

As was made evident from the data and the debates, the single most important obstacle to full participation of all the key stakeholders in building an inclusive and productive agricultural sector that is both successful and sustainable over the long term, is lack of trust spurred on by the single-story (one-sided) polarising narratives raging on the social media and around the “braai and sheza nyma” fires and sensationalist reporting of farm murders.

Negative past experiences have forged a significant crevasse of lack of trust between white and black people.

During the two agricultural summits it was made clear that common ground can be found when individuals share their commitment to the Person of Jesus Christ and forthcoming agreed values: intrinsic worth and dignity; non-partisan; non-racist; non-violent; relationship-centred; freedom of choice; sanctity of life; personal responsibility; stewardship towards multiplication; common good; work to serve; justice and equity.

Every land summit programme commenced in the spirit of the first major land summit (Landbouweekblad and AgriSA Land Solutions Summit August 28-30 2018that showcased positive initiatives already effective in agriculture.

These inspiring stories of hope provoked the participants to create their own stories of hope. As someone remarked: “Isolated nation builders find connection and hope at the summit.”

Stakeholders from six broad spheres in agriculture attended the Middelburg Bridge Building Summit. The groups mainly centred on agricultural students (predominantly from a nearby agricultural college), transformation NGO’s (including church leaders) and commercial farmers (predominantly from around the Middelburg area).

Western Cape coordinator for Future Farmers, Nokubonga Ndima, wrote to her board after attending the summit: “Agriculture’s future is bright in South Africa”. She said these kinds of platforms provide an excellent opportunity to network and meet farmers face to face.

Themba P Cebani, principal of Grootfontein College of Agriculture, wrote in an email: “This was an eye-opener for me, and I hope to interact with you more in the coming events.”

The Middelburg host for the event, farmer and pastor Dave Turner, wrote: “The feedback so far has really been so positive and none of us will ever know the long-term consequences in the lives of the students.”

At the summit we heard the personal stories of farmer Wessel Bibbey from Frankfort who took three students into his home, and farmer Stefan Erasmus from Middelburg who has taken in various students for short period internships.

In these cases, both the mentor and mentee are learning from each other. The shared Christ-centred value base fast-tracks the learning experiential learning process.

It is obvious from listening to these stories that the establishment of new and foreign relational connections is within the framework of trusted relationships.

Some of the students who study at Middelburg proved they live the shared Christ-centred value base, inspiring one of the lecturers, Hoggie Viljoen, to contact certain Christian farmers for placement of interns.

Based on the trusted relationship farmers have with Viljoen, they allow the students to come. This leads to the farmer, once the student has proven himself or herself, again contacting other trusted contacts to possibly give the student permanent employment.

The whole time, the movement of people is within a chain of trusted relationships.

The immediate outcomes of the Middelburg Bridge Building Summit are the following innovative programmes and concepts:

  • Internship outcome – Affordable farm ownership for young black farmers, with mentor. Connecting the right hearts first, is paramount towards achieving success, giving land is the easy part. Farming that land is what takes courage, and long-term healthy relationships.
  • Local commodity mentor – Menti Hubs – Example: Middelburg area. Farmers form a hub of Mentors in local communities. Meeting regularly to encourage one another, and rotate students.
  • Electronic “Blue-Book” system (same as medical students), for logging practical experience.
  • Central AgriSETA-hosted, standard curriculum for internship. Farmers needs to have a general framework to provide students the specialised scope of learning experiences.
  • Official capturing of farmers’ contribution – incentive. More farmers will get involved in providing internships, if there are BEE, land-security incentives documented in a national register.

The main takeaway from this summit according to Jan Oosthuizen, facilitator of Bridge Building Summit Thinktank: “It is only through the strength of the relational chain that one can pull black and white people to work together, grow together, and eventually build together.

“Without a strong relational chain, the process collapses at the first correction given, the first misunderstanding, or the first expectation not materialising. Agriculture is ultimately a relational sector.”

With this delicate yet vibrant agricultural structure, the question is not so much whether we would prefer or agree to give the industry the relational focus it deserves.

Neither is the question whether the trilemma of skills, ownership and demand can be solved with a relational focus.

Rather, it is: Can we afford not to deploy this focus as a starting point in every community?

Local father-hearted bridge-building relationship connectors raise your hands, step forward and lead!

[i] http://www.statssa.gov.za

[ii] Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries (2018). Departmental Evaluation Plan 2018/19. DAFF, p.26.



  1. Rona van Niekerk

    What a wonderful story full of hope! I shall pray for you all. God is indeed with us in SA.

  2. Ernest Lempetje

    That’s what we really need, Shalom