12/03/2018 06:53 SAST | Updated 12/03/2018 15:58 SAST

WATCH: Meet Two Successful Black Free State Farmers

"It is important for young black people to get involved in agriculture, because it is not like before. We do not live in that era of apartheid, in which we never had opportunities for schooling."

Diyatalawa (named after a concentration camp in Sri Lanka at which the British interned Boer prisoners of war during the South African War of 1899-1902, aka the Second Anglo-Boer War) is a small farming district in what was once "independent" Qwa-Qwa, a few kilometres west of Harrismith, Free State.

The land, green and lush, spans thousands of hectares, and the atmosphere is serene.

The second farm in Diyatalawa belongs to outspoken mixed farmer Shadrack Mbele. He is one of the few black farmers we interview in the area who owns the land he farms.

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His late father, Ephraime, was originally know as an exceptional farm worker in the area. Ephraime managed to acquire the Diyatalawa land after 1994, having previously farmed on leased land in the apartheid-era bantustan of Qwa-Qwa.

His dad's devotion to the land evoked Shadrack's love for farming – and his passionate determination to become one of the best farmers in the province.

"We started farming long before 1994, but we started small, leasing land from the then-QwaQwa government," he explains. "Then after 1994, [my father] started acquiring this farm – at that stage, I was still working as a teacher."

"I had to remain at government work, and [my father] continued with farming. We tried to finance the farming operation out of the money we got from where I was working."

"By 1992, I was in the taxi industry. I had to sell those combis and invest that money back on the farm," he said.

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Mbele's teaching job and taxi business were the main sources of financing his dream of being a commercial farmer. In 2006, he could no longer ignore his passion, and he became a full-time farmer like his father. Sadly, his dad has since passed on in 2013, but he is proudly maintaining the family tradition.

Very few colleges were there for agriculture during apartheid – and back then they were strictly white

Mbele lives in a quaint house with his wife, mother and two children on the farm. His living-room wall is plastered with certificates, ribbons and pictures of cattle.

It turns out, he and his father have had a long history of cattle-farming prestige.

"[My father] was a very renowned breeder in this country," he says with pride.

His father's love for breeding and years of training paid off, and proof of his success is evident in the row of trophies won at the Royal Agricultural Show in Pietermaritzburg.

"In 2007 we won... it started far back! From 1973, we had this cow – but then my dad was still a farm worker – it won a gold cup at the Rand Easter Show," he said, pointing to a framed certificate on the wall.

His and his father's successes at these agricultural showcases refute the racist trope that black South Africans "don't know how to farm".

"[Those trophies and certificates] mean we are capable," he says.

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Ephraime Mbele's love for farming started at Bobby Dell's farm in eastern Free State. He was put through a hands-on animal husbandry apprenticeship alongside Dell's son, Freddie.

Shadrack believes more young black people need to study agriculture, to bring diversity and equality to the predominantly white agricultural industry.

"It is important for young black people to get involved in agriculture, because it is not like before. We do not live in that era of apartheid, in which we never had opportunities for schooling," he says. "We must encourage them to [study] agriculture – and whatever they acquire from that school, they must come and implement it."

He speaks about the hardships of entering the industry.

"Very few colleges were there for agriculture [during] apartheid – and [back then] they were strictly white."

The one problem in agriculture is getting funding - they do not know whether you will be able to pay it back

Mbele's two blue-overalled interns help him with milk production and minding the cattle on his farm.

But farmers don't get to "just supervise" – one of their duties is waking up at the crack of dawn to assist him as he milks his cows.

Third-year University of Pretoria agriculture student Hlonepho Ntsoereng says working with Mbele has been a fantastic learning curve, underlining just how important mentorship is for aspiring young black farmers.

"It is difficult – but also nice [working with Mbele] – we do things wrong because we don't know how to do them properly. He is a good [at teaching us the skills]," he says.

Ntsoereng says his "love for nature" is why he wants to be a commercial farmer.

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He also believes it is important for black people to get involved in the industry and build generational wealth through farming.

"We have to study this thing, because we do have much knowledge about this sector. We can do what is best to inspire the coming generation too," he says.

Ntsoereng aspires to one day have his own farm, growing crops and herding cattle.

France Majoe has been interning at Mbele's farm for the last eight months.

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"I have learnt a lot since I came [to Mbele's farm]. We know how to manage the milk production; we know how to manage sheep," the Central University of Technology honours student says.

He has already started trying to acquire land, so he can start poultry farming. He says funding is the hardest part.

"The one problem in agriculture is getting funding and getting a loan. They do not know whether you will be able to pay it back."

Grooming these two young men is not Mbele's only priority. He also wants his son to be part of the family business eventually.

"Already he is with me – he completed his studies, but he did accounting and auditing. He started joining me last year," he says.

At competitions, they ask 'Who is the owner here?' – maybe they think it is a white person

A friend of Mbele's, Maseli Letuka, also farms in area. Farming was his hobby until 1998, when he retired from teaching.

Unlike Mbele, Letuka does not own any land and has to lease his hectares.

"I do not have enough money to buy land. In this area land is very expensive – the average is R25,000 per hectare," Letuka lamented.

However, the first-born of 10 siblings says that business has been so good, it has attracted his siblings into cattle farming as well: "Definitely the money is there – if you do not make money then you won't last in farming. My brothers are also following me – they are also keeping cattle."

He attributes his success to the assistance he has received from Nerpo (the National Emergent Red-Meat Producers' Organisation).

The primary aim of Nerpo is to commercialise the developing agricultural sector and ensure the meaningful participation of black people within the mainstream commercial agribusiness sector.

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Letuka clutches his red Nerpo golf shirt: "They assisted me to buy livestock, especially the bulls; because in livestock, without a bull, you are just playing. You must be able to get the correct gene quality to modify your cattle."

He was named GrainSA's 2016 New Era Farmer of the Year, and prides himself with the quality of his cattle.

Letuka chuckles: "At competitions, they ask 'Who is the owner here?' – maybe they think it is a white person."

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