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Tuesday, 18 June, 2002, 12:16 GMT 13:16 UK
Farming in the new South Africa
Lilla von Maltitz and her son Friedl in the office of their farm
Lilla von Maltitz has shared her farm with black labourers

During South Africa's colonial and apartheid era, 87% of the arable land was given to whites to farm, and black people were resettled onto barren soil.

But after almost 300 years of racism and exploitation, there is now an attempt to redress the wrongs of the past.


This has empowered people who have never in their lives sat across from a bank manager and negotiated a loan.

Lilla von Maltitz
The government is supporting black farmers who want to get back onto the land, and reclaim land that was taken from them.

But there are also some white landowners who believe that unless they share their wealth, and farms, with their black compatriots, there will be no future in farming.

New deal

For the past 130 years the von Maltitz family has farmed Saxon Park, a 2,500-hectare estate in the lush eastern region of South Africa's Free State province.

Farming by their side have been the families of four black labourers who accompanied Friederich Wilhelm von Maltitz when he first staked out the land for a farm in 1879.

At work at Saxon Park
Generations have worked on the farm

Together they have survived the Anglo Boer wars, the British concentration camps, famine, drought and political upheaval to turn Saxon Park into one of the most successful farms in the eastern Free State.

They harvest crops as diverse as wheat, asparagus, peaches and sugar beans, as well as running a successful cattle ranch.

When Lilla von Maltitz married into the family and took over the running of the farm in the 1970s, she quickly realised that without the black families by her side, she could not cope.

"You can imagine that 25 years ago there wasn't much room for a woman in the farming community in South Africa, so it was very lonely," she says.

A first

"I realised very quickly that I needed the old black families who had farmed with the von Maltitz family for 130 years."

"They knew where the water was, which were the good lands, which the bad lands, where the cattle should graze in summer, and where they should graze in winter."

"I shifted a lot of the management responsibility to them, and that was how I was able to farm."


Now we work together, we solve problems together. There's no 'Mister this' or 'Mister that'. We are all equal now.

Paul Sematlha

In 1989 Lilla von Maltitz decided she wanted to formalise the arrangement, but it took another 10 years, during one of the most turbulent transitions in South Africa's history, for her wish to become reality.

In 1999 the von Maltitz family legally transferred 50% of the farm to the descendants of the four black labourers who had started out with Friederich Wilhelm von Maltitz.

It was a unique share ownership scheme, and the first of its kind in South Africa.

Looking to the future

"There was never a feeling that we were giving anything away," says Lilla von Maltitz.

Bale, the women's initiation rites
Sotho traditions have been revived on the farms

"I think, and the whole family thinks, that you deserve reward for loyalty, you deserve to share in profits, and you also deserve to share in the responsibility."

And so five new black directors of Saxon Park were appointed.

One of them is Paul Sematlha, whose parents and grandparents were born and died on the farm.

"We've come a long way with the von Maltitz family, and I would like to think my children will also have a future on this farm," he says.

Immediate effect

"Things are so much better, so different from during the apartheid era."

During the apartheid days, we couldn't really talk to the white people, we couldn't really discuss things, or make suggestions."

"Now we work together, we solve problems together. There's no 'Mister this' or 'Mister that'. We are all equal now."

Bringing in the wheat crop
Turnover trebled when the farm was shared

The results of the share ownership were immediate.

"In the first year we trebled our turnover. Our profit went up by about 40%," says Lilla von Maltitz.

But the human impact was even more profound.

"The other huge spin-off was the growth in the people," she says.

"This has empowered people who have never in their lives sat across from a bank manager and negotiated a loan."

"So in decision-making, in just being confident and sure of themselves, the transformation has been wonderful."

It has also helped the von Maltitz family contend with a whole range of new challenges that face them in post-apartheid South Africa.

Faith

South African farmers can now compete openly in global markets, there is no buffer in the form of state subsidies to protect the farmers from failure, and there is also the issue of security.

Farm murders, particularly of elderly white farm owners, have become a feature of crime in South Africa post-1994.

Yet the von Maltitz family do not feel the need to arm themselves, or put up razor wire for protection.

Relatives comfort the mother of a 21-year-old woman who died of Aids
Mother at her daughter's burial on Saxon Park

Neither do they fear a Zimbabwe-style land grab as hunger for land grows in South Africa.

Friedl von Maltitz, 28, who now manages the family farm, says he has faith in South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki, and in the transformation process.

For her part Lilla von Maltitz is so convinced that share-ownership is the only way to go, she would like to recommend it to all of her fellow white South African farmers.

"If people share responsibility, if people are going to share in the profits and the rewards, they can only succeed."

See also:

05 Jul 01 | Africa
18 May 00 | Africa
13 Feb 01 | Africa
04 Oct 00 | Africa
10 Jan 01 | Country profiles
21 Mar 01 | Africa
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