Lulama Kapa, 66, and his wife Nothandekile, 63, are emerging black farmers. But their success is precarious as they neither own nor have a lease for the land they have been farming for the past 31 years.
In 1989, when the couple were in their early thirties, they started working for a white commercial farmer on portion 5 of Oribi Dale Farm 360 outside Ugie in the Eastern Cape. Several years after apartheid ended, the farmer told the Kapas that portion 5 was being leased from the government, that he was leaving and that the Kapas should consider taking over the farm.
The couple did exactly that. But for the past 10 years, they have been unable to get the government to transfer the lease into their names. Lulama Kapa has kept a file of all the letters he has sent and received from government departments during this time.
A March 2011 letter to Kapa from what is now the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development informs him that a senior project officer from the State Land Unit will handle his application: “This office would like to inform you that this department needs to investigate the ownership, the history of the farm and physically visit the property. You will also be kept informed about the developments regarding your application.”
Almost a year later, nothing had happened. When Kapa enquired, he received a letter from the assistant director of utilisation and contracts at the now Department of Public Works and Infrastructure saying, “Your application to lease the abovementioned property is receiving attention. We are conducting needs analysis with our client departments, ie SAPS [South African Police Service], Justice, Correctional Services, etc. Should our client departments not show interest in the property, your application will be forwarded for leasing/disposal.”
About eight months after this, Kapa received a letter from the deputy director general of asset investment management at the public works department saying it would “assess the request in the context of its portfolio strategies and user needs. Due to the absence of the disposal policy, the department may only consider concluding a lease and will revert to you accordingly.”
But still nothing happened. More than six years later, the government was apparently still assessing Kapa’s application because in May 2017, the deputy director of property holdings and disposals at the agriculture department wrote Kapa another letter saying “the department will sort lease agreement after investigations have been finalised as per the meeting”.
Despite the fact that the Kapas have no formal lease, their farm on the state-owned land is flourishing. They grow mielies and livestock fodder, and own 87 cows and 305 sheep. They have built two small houses on the land and bought a bakkie and two tractors along with a plough, crop sprayer and ploughing tools. The couple is more than willing to lease the land, which would otherwise be lying barren, from the government.
On paper, the Kapas are exactly the type of successful former farm workers turned farmers that the government says it wants to support.
But three years ago, matters took a turn for the worse. Lulama Kapa received a phone call from someone who identified himself only as Mr Nelani from Cape Town. The person said Kapa was squatting on his family’s ancestral land and that the Kapas must vacate the farm immediately.
The Nelani family is well known in the Mthatha area, but this is about 80km away from Farm 360. The mayor of the King Sabata Dalindyebo Local Municipality, which encompasses Mthatha and Mqanduli, is Nyaniso Nelani.
A deeds search shows that Zoyisile William Nelani and Virginia Nobantu Nelani own land in the area, but not Farm 360. They bought portion 0 of Farm 373 in 2001. Zoyisile Nelani was an uMkhonto weSizwe struggle icon in the Eastern Cape who was arrested several times in the 1960s and 1970s before serving five years on Robben Island. He was an ANC councillor for a brief period after apartheid ended, before his death in 2014. The government still owns Farm 360, according to the deeds search.
Instruction to vacate
Kapa spent three years fending off calls from Mr Nelani, who would not supply his first name. But then in 2018, Kapa began receiving letters from Mthatha attorney Mpumelelo Notununu instructing him to vacate the land, even though there had been no application for an eviction order.
Expecting help from the government, Kapa’s agriculture department case officer told him instead that he could leave the farm or remain in his two small houses but give up the land to Mr Nelani.
“Nelani was farming some other land nearby for some time before making a claim to this farm.” Kapa suspects that after Zoyisile Nelani died, one of the Nelani family members took a liking to Kapa’s farm after seeing how productive it is and decided to grab it.
Kapa now fears that the politically connected Nelani family has been putting pressure on the government to have him give up the land he has been farming for the past three decades.
In 2019, the agriculture department suddenly told Kapa that Farm 360 had been sold and that the new owners had changed the farm’s name to 373. But when the department was shown the deeds search proving that the government still owns Farm 360, and that Nelani owns Farm 373, it changed its story and said the two plots of land had been mixed up and that Kapa was mistakenly farming 373 and not Farm 360.
Provincial department spokesperson Thabile Mehlomakhulu said area surveys show that Kapa has been farming privately owned land for 31 years. But she would not provide New Frame with the surveys. She declined to explain how the agriculture and public works departments had not picked up on the mistake earlier, or say who, if anyone, holds the lease for Farm 360.
The farms are completely different sizes, so it is difficult to understand how the government could have gotten them mixed up for 10 years. Zoyisile Nelani also farmed his land nearby from 2001 to 2014 without once mentioning to Kapa or the government anything about a mix-up.
“We don’t understand how we could be on the wrong farm, because government has been coming here all these years. In 2017, they came to put the windmill and said it was for us to have water. They never said this was Nelani’s land,” said Nothandekile Kapa.
In early February, the agriculture department suddenly arrived with surveyors and began surveying the land. Mehlomakhulu would not say why. Meanwhile, the government’s unwillingness to grant Kapa a lease when he first applied has led to a dangerous situation as men who say they are from the Nelani family regularly invade Kapa’s farm with their livestock.
While New Frame was interviewing Kapa, three men arrived with 30 cows and drove the cattle to drink at Kapa’s scarce water source before threatening a local activist and Kapa’s young daughter. The men claimed to be members of the Nelani family and said Kapa’s farm and “all the farms in the area” belong to Nelani. Kapa called the police and laid charges of trespassing. The men have previously broken down fences that Kapa has erected and four of his livestock have gone missing.
“We are scared. This is really affecting us. I get worried because all these people came and broke our fence to let their cattle in. They opened our own water tank and used our water. I don’t even know these men,” said Nothandekile Kapa.
“We are supposed to be planting in this season, but we can’t because these boys will open the gate and let their cows trample our plants,” added Lulama Kapa.
The couple just want to be left alone to farm peacefully. They are good at farming and willing to move if the government offers them the chance to rent a bigger piece of state land on which they can expand their operations. “This farm is small. If there is an option of a bigger, equally fertile farm, I will take it,” said Lulama Kapa.
However, he does not believe there is a better farm in the area. He says his department case officer “told me I can go and look for a better farm. But I am too unsettled by the case [the legal letters] to go and look. All the beautiful farms have already been taken.”
Case officer Miranda Tengani would not comment and directed questions to the department of rural development and land reform. Multiple attempts to reach the Nelani family through their representative at Mpumelelo Notununu & Associates were unsuccessful. Notununu did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails.