Written March 2014
The South African headlines are dominated by crime and corruption, protests and fear. But while those truths happen, so do other, unreported truths. Here is one of the other stories…
Remo Bartels has been a farmer all his life. As a young man he farmed pigs, cattle and crops in Bergville in Kwazulu Natal and later moved on to biochemistry, selling chemicals and micro-organisms to improve soil health. Nowadays, he is helping to grow something even more valuable: the next generation of African farmers.
“Grain SA are hiring the white farmers who don’t farm any more and making them into mentors,” he explains.
Through the year Remo travels into the rural villages in the former homelands teaching farm skills. In the week that I met him, he had been in Njwezeni, a village outside of Mthatha teaching a group of young black farmers how to do on-farm repairs.
“I was one of those who said ‘fucking kaffirs, they are so stupid’, but doing this, I’ve realised: how can they have known when they didn’t have the knowledge? We weren’t willing to share our knowledge, so how could they know?” he says.
“Are all the white farmers backing this?” I ask.
“You get some of those who still have the old regime in them, but they themselves haven’t twigged on to the truth that knowledge is power and that there’s a bridge that needs to be built and then everything is going to actually come right. We have to put our pride in our pocket for a while. The future is in our hands. It’s what we do with it right now.”
There is fiery passion in his voice. He leans forward and his eyes glint as he speaks.
“Are you welcome in the villages?” I ask.
He nods. “I think coming to where they are in the villages, cuts out a lot of fear. It shows them that I don’t want to be a dictator. At the end of the week we give out a questionnaire and 90% of them say this is what we need. This is how we will get over the hatred of the past.”
He tells me his favourite story. It is about an old man at one of his first training courses who said: ‘you can’t teach me anything’. Remo encouraged him to give him a chance. That week Remo was teaching the business of farming, how to make your land more profitable. He demonstrated that if you have 3 hectares, and plant only maize, selling that maize for R3,000/ton, you can only ever earn R9,000.
“You can’t live on that,” he says.
But if you plant one hectare of maize and keep 2,000 chickens on the other two hectares, using the maize to feed the chickens, you can sell each chicken for R20, making a total of R40,000.
“The old man knocked on my door at the end of the week with his daughter’s laptop. He wanted my spread sheets so he could put together a business plan,” Remo says with a huge grin.
“How far is Njwezeni?” I ask.
“About half an hour from here,” he says.
I follow Remo’s Mobile Training Unit through the crowded streets of Mthatha, tapping my fingers on the steering wheel as the thumping tunes of the taxis pump through my open window. It is Friday morning, and the city is already filling up with busy shoppers buzzing in from the rural areas. We leave the city on the Port St Johns Road, and head into the rounded, green hills to the south of the city, taking one last dirt road down into a valley, over a river and then up to Njwezani, a quiet village spread across the crest of a hill. Six young farmers, aged between 22 and 30, are waiting for us at the kraal of Leonard Nondogna, a local farmer who has opened his home and his garden for the course. Lying in the yard is a rusty old Massey Ferguson tractor, in pieces. This week Remo has been teaching welding, workshop skills and farm equipment repairs. The tractor, which has not worked for five years, has been one of their projects. They have welded it and rebuilt the bonnet. Yesterday the farmers clubbed together and gave Remo money to buy spray paint. Today Remo is going to show them how to use the compressor.
Remo changes into his paint-splatted overalls and introduces me to the farmers. They are all shy and speak only a few words of English. They all push 27-year-old Sithembile Vava to talk.
“I like farming,” he says. “Life is not easy. You need to work and produce something. I encourage young people to co-operate so they must know themselves how to deal with life.”
“Will this course change things for you?” I ask.
He is sure. “From today, there will be no crime around here. These guys promise that they will go out and teach the other guys. We will benefit a lot from this.”
Nosiseko Margaret Nondonga, Leonard’s elderly wife comes out to greet us. She is also delighted about the course.
“This is giving them hope and opportunity. They are learning to work with their hands, repair things that were broken without spending money,” she says with a wide smile.
Mrs Nondonga and I sit down on an old wooden bench in the shade of a green rondawel. Her granddaughters, six-year-old Esinako and five-year-old Mihlali clamber onto our laps.
Remo switches on the compressor and the young farmers frown in concentration, listening to his instructions, taking it all in.
He makes a few slow, careful lines with the spray paint, and then hands the spray gun over to Sithembile and stands back.
Sithembile takes over, moving slowly, deliberately, with concentration.
Before our eyes the tractor is being reborn. Its grubby, dirty exterior is being transformed into a cheery, cherry red. The granddaughters clap their hands and giggle with delight. Mrs Nondonga laughs.
I laugh too at this amazing sight: an old Afrikaner helping a young black farmer paint over the past.