South Africa

1 Jun - 1 Jul 2000

On the road again - Capetown to Cairo

I don’t know that we picked up a lot in the way of innovative farm practices in South Africa and Egypt. Handpicking and stomping of cotton and the use of donkeys as the primary carrier are probably not going to catch on here. But in terms of markets for our agricultural produce we learnt a lot about a potential competitor and a major client. And we had a particularly interesting time doing it.

We learnt that in South Africa, as in Australia, farming is a gamble. We worry about the weather — so do they — but none of us can do much about it. We worry about prices — so do they — but again there doesn’t seem to be much we can do about them. But it’s there that the similarities end. The South African farmers are gambling for much higher stakes — stakes so high that we had difficulty comprehending them.

We worry about land tenure under ‘Mabo’. This is essentially a legal battle being fought by lawyers over country most of us will never see. The South Africans have seen their neighbours in Zimbabwe driven from the farms they have owned and worked for generations. The violence was condoned by the Zimbabwean government and largely ignored by the South African government. Many of the South Africans we met are genuinely concerned that their families and farms are similarly under threat. 

This concern is given substance by the frequency of violent home invasions suffered by farmers in South Africa. The authorities seem to believe that these are more to do with robbery and rape than land claims — but they are still a terrifying prospect.

The level of security we encountered on the farms was — to use an often-heard South African expression — unbelievable. It soon became obvious that those making money out of farming in South Africa are the razor-wire and electric-fence contractors and the guard-dog breeders.

Mind you some of us first thought that those three metre electric fences topped by razor wire and patrolled by the Dobermans might be to keep wild animals at bay. Our farmer hosts confirmed this — but they explained that it was the two-legged variety they were most worried about.

Although the security concerns were a tad sobering, that was not necessarily a bad thing. It is good to be reminded that we do live in the “lucky country”. And with the South Africans being such wonderful hosts, sobering thoughts certainly had their place.

Suitably humbled

The timing of our visit could not have been better. The weather was perfect and back home we were beating the Springboks. Winning at rugby was particularly important. We of course were suitably humble about the success of the Wallabies. But I suspect the South Africans would have been insufferable if the results had been reversed. And they were a bit funny about the cricket and in particular, Hanse who the devil had got into. Out of respect for their feelings we didn’t mention the subject — much.

Brian Hayward had last been in South Africa as a member of the first Australian Schoolboys Rugby tour. Although this was several decades ago Brian has maintained his match fitness and was keen to run out once more onto the hallowed turf at Newlands Stadium, Capetown. 

A large contingent travelled to the stadium with him to relive his past glory and to toast memories of some of the team’s more lurid ‘off the field’ exploits — something about a leading dignitary’s daughter providing an especially warm welcome. Surprisingly the only toasting beverage readily available at the ground was hot Milo — with a marshmallow floater.

We left Capetown about 17 times over the next few days, or so it seemed. Every time we thought we had left the city behind we would come over a hill from what was surely an entirely different direction and there it was again.

The Cape area is very pretty with whale spotting from ocean side parks, scenic snow-covered peaks, high mountain passes, quaint historic vineyards and some very civilised farming country blessed with a relatively benign Mediterranean climate. 

We spotted the whales — they were the black spots viewed from the restaurant that was perched on the cliffs overlooking a number of oceans. We saw the scenic scenery and passed over the passes. We quaintly quaffed the wine and we met with extension officers and a farmer who owned much of the civilised farming country.

They had a very efficient operation combining grain production with a large dairy and dairy product factory. And they had embraced deregulation over the past few years. Their enthusiasm may have been linked to the fact that the Mandela government had very abruptly done away with many, if not all, agricultural price support schemes and statutory marketing authorities. 

Still in the Cape area we visited the Sensako Grain Research Station, we learnt how to control an unruly ostrich (just take hold of his lower beak/jaw and wrap his extremely long neck around a convenient fence post), and we were introduced to an interesting home brew called Vitblitz.
Vitblitz aptly translates as ‘white lightning’ — a name I seem to recall from travels through moonshine country in Tennessee. We first encountered a bottle courtesy of our guide, Marius. This bottle was wrapped in barbed wire. I am not sure if this was to protect you from the contents or to make it impossible to put the bottle down once you had started drinking.

But Vitblitz in a barbed wire bottle was to prove almost tame — at least when compared to Vitblitz distilled by an ostrich farmer from an indeterminate fruit source and decanted into a five litre plastic container. This was presented to the group with a considerable flourish. Luckily we were able to reciprocate when someone found a previously overlooked bottle of Aussie red in his or her handbag.

Vitblitz could be readily substituted for aviation spirit and it was to sustain us as we trekked the veldt — just as it had sustained the Boers when they had dared to go to war with the British Empire. We visited a number of Anglo–Boer War battle sites and had local guides walk and talk us through the engagement. The sites were impressive, so were the guides, and you would have to wonder how the British won the war. They were certainly trailing on points at all the sites we were taken to — perhaps that was a prerequisite of site selection. It may have been linked to the fact that the British Lions had recently beaten the Springboks for the first time in years. 

It seems the Poms’ losing streak in South Africa goes way back — all the way back to 1879. At Isandlwana, in what was Zululand, 5000 very confident troops of the British Army picked a fight with 24,000 equally confident Zulu warriors. The British came second. It is not advisable to come second to a Zulu warrior, they take no prisoners but they will take your intestines.

Some 4000 Zulu warriors, annoyed about missing out on the big massacre earlier that morning, decided they would at least have a bit of fun sweeping up the crumbs. Rorkes Drift — a mission station just a few kilometres from Isandlwana — was defended by 100 British soldiers. After 12 hours of close quarter fighting the Zulus had lost around 400 men, the defenders had lost 15. The British Army, realising that there is nothing like a hero to take the public’s mind off bad news (like the massacre of 1300 troops), made sure the public had lots of heroes. The defenders of Rorkes Drift received 11 Victoria Crosses — the greatest number ever awarded in a single engagement.

When in Zululand do as a Zulu. We stayed at Dumazulu Lodge in a variety of units built in the traditional style of the locals. A bout of bare breasted dancing, a five course meal, a few beers and then off to bed in my domed, thatch-roofed, hopefully lion-proofed hut.

Into cotton and lion country

We started to get among the cotton as we headed further north towards Pongola and the border with Swaziland. Cotton in this area is becoming a marginal proposition for many growers. They cite increased costs and low prices. Although this may sound familiar, the question of labour costs raised an interesting issue. Our host observed that they traditionally employed a large number of permanent staff and an army of casuals when required. 

Picking in particular had always been done by hand but now he was having to price mechanical harvesters. This had little to do with a desire to modernise but was driven by the South African HIV Aids epidemic. Infection rates of around 40 to 50 per cent of the workforce were commonly heard figures. This is an unnerving statistic with huge social and economic implications. A large part of the nation’s population is soon going to require medical attention — and the existing services will not be able to cope. 

On the economic front our host felt that, although the infection figures for his permanent staff were not this bad, a casual labour shortage was inevitable. A reduced labour pool means restricted access to workers and increased prices.

We passed through the kingdom of Swaziland and made our way to Kruger National Park. We arrived early in the morning at the two million hectare wildlife reserve to transfer into open Landrovers for the drive through the park.

The guide’s instructions were a little chilling. Seems that if you keep all parts of your anatomy within the confines of the vehicle the animals consider you part of the vehicle. If you protrude then you’re “meals on wheels”.

We saw lions and cheetahs and elephants and zebras and rhinos and impala and warthogs and giraffes and elephants and … , all before breakfast. It was very impressive and then it got even better.

Kapama Private Game Reserve is 12,000 hectares of undisturbed bushveld adjoining the western boundary of Kruger. It was magnificent. The lodge was luxurious and the animals “unbelievable”. 

At the start of the evening game drive we got the same instructions about protruding body parts and then proceeded to park within easy munching distance of every animal we could find.

We got very close — very, very close. So close that we could smell the buffalo the lion had eaten for dinner — and we were not at the end of the lion where you might expect to smell his breath. Despite the unsavory nature, and origin of the odour it did give us cause to hope that he wasn’t hungry. If he decided he was still peckish — or even just peeved — we were being served up on a plate.

We got very close — very, very close. So close that a baby bull elephant used, appropriately enough, the bull bar of our vehicle to sharpen his tusks. Even though he probably outweighed the vehicle, this was cute. Mum was watching and she was much too big to be called cute. Dad was busy pushing over a tree a few metres away and he was definitely more brute than cute.

I would love to go on, to talk about the leopards, the rhinos, the buffalo and even the baboons (we saw a very handy demonstration that served to convince many of us that we are related to the baboon). But there is insufficient space and I don’t have the ability to do them justice. Just let me say that I have seldom been as impressed by anything as I was by those animals in that environment. And I know that I was not alone in this — there were a lot of very hard to impress growers who agreed with me.

Land to farm but no roof

Back to work in the Loskop–Marble Hall irrigation area. We met with Larry Collett, a leading cottongrower and then visited the Delta Pine facility for both lunch and a very good ‘question and answer’ session. And then it was a look at one possible scenario for the future of farming in South Africa. We had an interesting session with some black South African farmers. Theirs were certainly small-scale operations that were enthusiastically farmed on a shoestring budget. They were essentially squatting on five acre irrigated blocks that had been abandoned and subsequently vandalised. One family had land to farm, no matter how tenuously held, but no roof on the house. 

A visit to a mechanical picker refurbishment company, on to a local gin and then out to Willem Van Der Walt’s cotton and grain operation near Settlers in the Springbokflats area. We had met Willem at the Cotton Trade Show when he was touring Australian cotton producing areas — this trip was the prize he had received when he was judged South African Dryland Cotton Farmer of the Year. He was keen for us to visit and we were happy to oblige.

We had a good look at his operation, including the piggery where his family value adds to their grain production. It was then on to the house for a Brie–BBQ with Willem’s family and friends. Coming directly from the piggery we were probably as ‘on the nose’ as the before-mentioned lion. It seemed to matter less and less as the night progressed. And at the end of the night we had a very clear indication of our tour leader’s preparedness to give his all in the interest of the group. 

We had been escorted through the various electrified security fences and past the guard dogs to board the bus. We waved goodbye and headed off into the night. Then came the realisation that we had left one particularly important item behind. Your editor, my brother, and our leader volunteered to find his way back through the dark and the dobermans to collect the video of the second Wallabies–All Blacks game that Willem had taped for us.

The Cullinan Diamond Mine offered some value-adding opportunities of its own but these were discouraged by the body search on leaving. This was disappointing as we had thought to pick up a diamond as a thank you for our guide and by now good friend, Marius. But in Pretoria we were able to find an even more appropriate gift for our rugby mad but chronically-discouraged companion. Lloyd and I walked for several kilometres through a city we didn’t know, to find a sports store that no-one seemed to have heard off, to buy a Wallaby jumper from a former frontrow forward for the Boks. We were able to wave farewell at Johannesburg, confident that Marius would wear his autographed jumper with pride at all the Springbok home games.


Itinerary

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❮ Top end Australia
1 Jun - 1 Jul 1999