Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|June 23, 2022|11 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

Crazy If You Do, Crazy If You Don’t: A Tale Of Pigs Profits And Paul Kruger

It was the strangest background for a young African farming entrepreneur helping to roll back the racial imbalance in ownership of the red soil of her ancestors. She couldn’t have found a more unlikely place to farm and spends her days with crops, manure and the odd ailing animal.

She makes an unlikely entrepreneur farmer. Ditebogo Diale is an eloquent and sharp talking young woman and descendent of a chief who trained for another life of cappuccinos, air-conditioned offices, egos and deadlines. She worked at TV station CNBC Africa and in the radio newsroom of Classic FM – a world of journalism and the chattering classes that she couldn’t have left further behind.

These days, Diale wakes up to the chatter of the farmyard; the unrelenting heat of the dry fields and instead of smelling the coffee there is the stench of the pigsty.

“Cleaning out the pigsty? Yes, I have done it. It stinks, but you can’t leave it there because, if you do, you won’t get good meat out of the pigs,” Diale told Billionaire Tomorrow.

“It is quite a different world and a different culture. In media there are deadlines. With farming, it is really up to nature if it is raining or it is not raining. If one of our animals gets a disease, you have to deal with it. As a journalist, I am seeing a story in everything, in rural areas there is a lot of exploitation of people and a lot of issues.”

Diale, with the help of training and support from the government and farmers’ body Agri SA, is one of the foot soldiers in South Africa’s slow, but steady, attempt to increase black ownership of land. The racial imbalance in the ownership of land is one of the bugbears of many post-colonial countries across Africa. In Zimbabwe, where a few thousand white farmers once owned nearly all the best land, blood was spilt in the clumsy, violent, seizure of the land after decades where little was done.

In South Africa, where manufacture, tourism and mineral resources create the lion’s share of the wealth, the land issue may not be an as high profile as it was in Zimbabwe, but it is becoming a growing political issue on the hustings as the years go by and times get tougher.

In 2017, the South African government published a land audit. It revealed that whites owned 26,663,144 ha or 72% of the total 37,031,283 ha farms and agricultural holdings by individual landowners; followed by mixed-race people with 5,371,383 ha, or 15%, Indians at 2,031,790 ha, or 5%, with Africans bringing up the rear with 1,314,873 ha – a mere 4% of farmland for people who make up more than three-quarters of the population.

Diale’s farming of 40 ha of land, along with her relatives Otlile Tlhapane and Boitumelo Matshaba, is helping to turn the tide – albeit in a small way with the support of their people. The queen of the Bafokeng sent tractors to uproot trees and cut the farmland out of the wild after decades of neglect.

“Having land is one thing, doing something with it is another,” says Diale.

The location of this farm is even more astonishing.

The three young black farmers till the soil on Boekenhoutfontein- a farm that used to belong to Paul Kruger the personification of Afrikanerdom. The former president of the South African Republic was arguably one of the fathers of black oppression in South Africa that saw land farmed by the black majority for centuries taken over by a small commercial farming elite.

Kruger’s legacy is as controversial as the land question in South Africa. His supporters call him a tragic folk hero – who killed his first lion at the age of 14 – forced to flee the land of his birth in ignominy. He jumped the border to Mozambique in 1901 – as his rough-and-ready bands of horse-riding riflemen lost the bitter Anglo Boer War against nearly 500,000 British soldiers. He never set eyes on Africa again and died in Switzerland in 1904; his body was shipped back to Pretoria for burial.

The British army was equally harsh on Krugers farm at Boekenhoutfontein and razed it to the ground at the end of the war. It was bought from the Kruger family in 1971 and turned into a museum displaying Krugers rifle and bibles.

The detractors condemn Kruger as an obstinate guardian of an unjust cause who paved the way for the infamous apartheid regime that institutionalised racial discrimination with the rise of the National Party in 1948.   

Not that the British were liberating liberals. When the victorious drum-beating, khaki-clad, British army marched into Pretoria, in 1900, black South Africans – many of whom had helped the British – burned their hated passbooks and danced in the streets in celebration. Days later British soldiers forced the same people to apply for new passbooks that proved just as hated.

The British army was equally harsh on Kruger’s farm at Boekenhoutfontein and razed it to the ground at the end of the war. It was bought from the Kruger family in 1971 and turned into a museum displaying Kruger’s rifle and bibles.

Yet there is more to the Kruger-Boekenhoutfontein story than meets the eye. Diale and her fellow farmers are of the Bafokeng people a tribe that has been tilling the soil around Rustenburg for more than 500 years. It lost most of it during colonial days.

Kruger, who bought Bokenhoutfontein in 1860, got on well with the Bafokeng and encouraged them to raise money to buy back their land.

Chief Mokgatle – a forebear of Diale – took this idea to heart and saw an opportunity to raise money in the 1880s with the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley. He selected a group of young men to walk 500 kilometres south to work the Kimberley diggings. Heaven knows how many weeks it took them on foot – these days, the trip between Rustenburg and Kimberly takes nearly five hours by motorway.

The diamond diggers of the Bafokeng returned months later with cash that their people used to buy back their land. Education, hard work and canny investment led to the Bafokeng people building a small commercial empire over the next century. It includes platinum mines, a World Cup football stadium and the 40 ha farmed by Diale.

The organic farm tries to make the most of everything in growing crops and attempting to protect the environment. It converts the swine manure into fuel to run the borehole pumps on the farm.

Diale’s job is to look for markets for the organic produce in the shops and stalls of the region, not often an easy job, as well as getting her hands dirty in the field.

“I usually feel I will be more of a hindrance than a help. But I am very good at watering, harvesting and animal feed. We grow herbs, maize, lemon bush, rosemary and thyme. There is a market for it. There is room for smaller guys in the market and a big part of my job is getting onto supply databases. Most of the big contracts are taken by the established players and if you are not part of the club it is hard to get in there,” says Diale.

The farm that Diale has staked her future on is on a lease with an option to buy if sufficient cashflow and profit can be achieved in a business with slender profit margins.

Diale says she decided to break from the chattering cappuccino world of journalism when she heard an interview on the radio with rapper turned farmer Motlapele “Mo Molemi” Morule – a former member of Morafe.

“Realised people don’t realise this food business has seven billion customers every day! I thought: ‘I will be crazy not to join this thing right now. Right there and then I made the decision I’m going into farming,” he told Cape Talk.

That is the farming business in Africa for you: you are crazy if you go into it, maybe even crazier if you don’t.