Aaron Zulu (58) never thought the day would come when he would return to the land of his birth after the apartheid system forced him and his family to leave his home.
In 1913, thousands of black families were forcibly removed from their land by the apartheid government, following the declaration of the 1913 Natives Land Act.
They were stripped of their land, homes, livelihood and dignity and were forced into the homelands or relocated to poorly planned and serviced townships.
In 1994, the democratic government identified the need for land and agrarian reform as part of national reconciliation.
“We were forced off our land. Our homes were burnt and our cattle killed,” says Zulu.
Zulu is one of more than 76 000 claimants who received their land back through government’s land restitution programme. The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform has spent more than R24.6 billion on the programme.
Zulu is the chairman of the Nodunga Communal Property Association (CPA), which represents 376 households.
The community of Nodunga recently signed a 10-year lease agreement with packaging and paper company Mondi for commercial forestry on 685 hectares of land, valued at R7.4 million, to help them acquire the necessary skills to benefit from business opportunities on the land.
Claiming the land back
In 2012, after more than 17 years trying to claim back their land, the Nodunga CPA was given about 2 897 hectares back.
“I never thought I would return to my home. I thought it was the end of us because everything we had was taken away,” said Zulu.
Zulu and other community members of Nodunga launched their claim in 1995.
“We encountered a couple of problems, even within the community, which caused certain delays. Initially we didn't know where to go to get help to claim our land back.”
Zulu said the real work of reclaiming their land started in 2008 when government officials made regular visits to the land, which was occupied by farmers, to evaluate it.
“During this process we were working with the KwaZulu-Natal Commission on Restitution of Land Rights. It was difficult because some of the community members had moved and were living in other areas so we had to advertise in the media to try and find them.”
The KwaZulu-Natal Commission on Restitution of Land Rights falls under the provincial department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Once the claimants of Nodunga were found, they formed the Nodunga CPA.
“We called on people who might have skills in accounting or running a business because we had a goal for the farm. There are seven of us on the committee.”
The CPA registered Nodunga Farming, which is run by three directors, to enable the community to do business on the land they claimed back.
Nodunga Farming also received R17.8 million from the department’s Recapitalisation and Development Programme (RADP) which was introduced in 2009.
The RADP provides training and development to those who have received land through the land reform programme.
“When we officially got the land back in 2012 we had nothing to run the farms or start a business with. The farms were in a very bad condition and there was no electricity.”
Today Nodunga Farming produces sugarcane, mangos, naartjies, litchis and macadamia nuts.
There are 239 community members working on the farm and 42 casual workers.
Investing in the community
Apart from providing employment opportunities, Nodunga Farming also supplies uniforms to five schools, for 1 500 children, every year.
“We saw a need to develop the schools in this area by supplying uniforms. We also help with recreational activities and sports kits to make children interested in school.”
Nodunga Farming also helps less fortunate families. It has built houses for them and also provides grocery vouchers.
“So far we have built three houses for members of the community. Community members are allowed to make submissions for their needs. It can be anything from help with funerals or education bursaries. We evaluate the submissions and help where we can.”
During the company’s last financial year, its turnover was R17 million, mainly sourced from 36 tons of sugarcane it produced.
Advice to other land beneficiaries
Zulu said that to become a successful farmer one needs passion.
“The returns in the business are there, but you need to be patient. You also need to know how to manage a business and you need to know the running costs of a farm.”
He added that the beneficiaries must be able to work together to ensure that they can make something out of the land.
“A farming business doesn’t work if there are too many misunderstandings.”
Jabulani Dube, the financial director, said beneficiaries must be trained before they take land over.
“We had knowledge of farming sugar cane which was advantageous. We would like to even mentor people entering this sector.”