Six years ago, 68-year-old Simon Ninela enrolled his son, Mfezeko, at Zakhe Agricultural College situated in Richmond in the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) midlands. It is almost a 300km drive from the rural village of eShowe, northern KZN where the Ninelas run a livestock and poultry farm.  

Ninela had hoped that the decision would drive the youngster to fall in love with agriculture because the college is known for producing successful young black farmers and agriculturists who are nurtured from a young age to become commercial farmers. For Ninela senior, this was a strategic move in preparation for his son to one day run the family business and carry on his legacy.

But hostile market conditions experienced by land reform farmers coupled with recent droughts in KZN has made Ninela regret his decision to compel his son to consider agriculture as ‘the new gold’.     

Speaking to Mukurukuru Media, Ninela says that agriculture was never his son’s passion; instead, he was interested music and film production.

“I thought his dreams and passion were far-fetched, so I convinced him to study agriculture. I even went to an extent of threatening him that I would take away all his allowances if he did not succumb to what I demanded. I desperately wanted the boy to carry on the family legacy because I believed that agriculture was the future,” Ninela says.

Ninela, a former school principal, exhausted his entire pension to start the farming business. He bought a herd of cattle and goats and sold meats to a few supermarkets in his rural town. He also received special orders of livestock from burial societies and from people organising different traditional ceremonies such as weddings and lobola. For a few years, the business was very profitable allowing him to expand. He even built his own abattoir and bought expensive machinery as his livestock business was growing beyond his imagination. His businesses success was however short-lived when drought struck killing hundreds of his livestock. In 2017 alone, Simon says, about 1 300 of his cattle perished because there was no feed available for them.

“The drought situation is so severe that I’ve resolved to buy water for livestock from the nearby shops and this is very costly. This is process is unsustainable for us as emerging farmers.  At one stage, about 32 of my goats died all at once because of thirst and hunger. How do you stay in business under these circumstances?”? he asks.  

The goats died while seeking water from the nearby Mpenjane River which has since dried out.   

Ninela says although there are dams and a water source nearby, it was only accessible to commercial white farmers. He points out that failure of legislation to accelerate water-use licences to emerging black farmers is driving them out of the farming business.

Ninela’s frustration is echoed by Zanele Ntanzi, who together with members of his community in Umkhuze, KZN far north district, run a 17-hectare plot of vegetables and supplies it to the local schools. The co-operative is contracted to the provincial department of education through the school feeding programme.

“With this initiative, we have provided jobs to locals and the unemployed youth. But water access has been our pain. We now have to hire tractors to fetch water for us in the nearby streams and this is very costly. Sometimes we buy water from water tankers at an exorbitant prices. We have tried in vain to get a water-use licence so that we can access water with ease in the nearby reservoirs and dams,” she says.

Ntanzi says their business has taken a heavy toll without the water-use licence and they are losing much needed profits as a result.

Besides this, Ntanzi says because of the drought, village wars over water have ensued and recently a young girl was stoned to death over water after being accused of contaminating the only water source in the village.

African Farmers Association of South Africa (Afasa) chairperson in KZN, Jabulani Mthembu says water-use licences was a problematic issue in the province.

“KZN is one of the provinces that has been hit hard by drought, so far, more than R14 million livestock have perished because of drought. This is worse for emerging black farmers with hundreds of them having their farms and property repossessed by financial institutions because they cannot service their debts under these circumstances,” says Mthembu.

He adds that they also have had reports of farmers of committing suicide because of the financial distress.

“There are also loopholes in the water licence system. For instance, you’ll find that when one is issued with a licence it already has an existing debt making it difficult for emerging farmers,” says Mthembu.

Water-use licences are issued by the Department of Water and Sanitation and all farmers are required to apply and register for it before they can access water into their farms. Those farmers who are found to have use water from dams and boreholes or any water source without the required licence can face sanctions for noncompliance which usually carries hefty penalties. A person guilty of an offence – including illegal water use – can be fined and imprisoned for a period of up to five years for a first offence and 10 years for a second. The licences can cost anything between R10 000 and R100 s000. Once registered, farmers are billed for the water they utilise.  

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