The voice of agriculture . Die stem van landbou . Izwe lezokulima

‘Always raining bullets’ Weenen fighting takes its toll, jeopardises 700 citrus jobs

The Witness

29 Jul 2019

NOKUTHULA NTULI • nokuthula.ntuli@witness.co.za

Thokozani Mncwabe at Weenen’s Sun Valley citrus farm, which exports its oranges and lemons to the European countries.

IT’S been “raining bullets” in a feud between villages in Weenen, jeopardising local investment and the fate of the multi-million-rand Sun Valley citrus farm.

The residents of Nhlawe and KwaMadondo are alleged to be fighting over boundaries of their villages, which determines how much each should get from Sun Valley.

The citrus farm owners have been leasing the land from the Silindokuhle Community Trust for more than 12 years. The trust is made up of beneficiaries from seven communities, including the two that are feuding.

Some say that Weenen is living up to its name as “a place of weeping” as it was dubbed following a 1838 massacre of 101 Voortrekkers after land negotiations between Piet Retief and Dingane collapsed.

The office of the MEC for Community Safety and Liaison, Mxolisi Kaunda, said at least 39 people have died in this land feud, but the locals believed it was more, as some had been killed in Johannesburg and Durban, where they worked.

They said people from a neighbouring village, Ekucasheni, have also fallen victim to the violence.

Some families had apparently fled to other parts of the province as the violence had taken a nastier turn with even women and children being gunned down.

“Be careful, but you might get stopped by people who will ask you for money for ammunition. Give them what you have otherwise they will help themselves to your possessions and you might get hurt,” warned one of the residents when The Witness team drove through the area recently.

Gunshots could be heard echoing in the valley as The Witness conducted interviews with some of the locals.

“It’s always raining bullets. Sometimes I wonder how I’m still alive but I guess God and my ancestors are still watching over me and my family,” said one of the residents.

Some people said they have been sleeping in the bush since last year for fear of being attacked at night.

The concern over the safety of their children has led to some parents taking their children out of school.

“I want my children to get an education so that they can get good jobs but they have to be alive to get that far in life and it’s my job as their mother to protect them from harm,” said one of the women, in her early 50s.

There were allegations that hired hitmen had found the dispute lucrative as they had been paid to carry out some revenge killings.

Some of those working at Sun Valley feared that the farm could come under attack or the investors would decide to pull out if the dispute is not resolved urgently. This could result in the loss of about 700 jobs.

“There are families who are now struggling to even put food on the table because the breadwinners were killed. If I had money I would also move somewhere else.”

David Ngcobo of the Weenen CPF said repeated appeals had been made to the feuding groups to put down their arms with no success.

“Spilling blood only breeds anger and despair because of revenge killings and businesses closing down. We need to do more to protect the few farms that are still operating, otherwise we will become a ghost town.”

He said it saddened him that innocent people who were not even part of the warring factions were also getting caught in the crossfire.

“We are all living in fear and there are also suspicions that criminals have taken advantage of this war and they are using it to target their enemies and those they want to rob or kill.”

Many said they were hopeful that the recent intervention by MEC Kaunda would yield positive results. His spokesperson Mluleki Mntungwa was optimistic that the parties would come to a peaceful pact.

He said in the meantime, the police were on the ground trying to prevent violence from erupting. He said a recent raid recovered four firearms — an AK47, two rifles and a 38 revolver — as well as 120 rounds of ammunition. A peace committee has also been set up and is working with Inkosi Siphamandla Mthembu, Kaunda aimed to bring together the ring leaders of the conflict and facilitate the signing of the peace agreement between the Nhlawe and KwaMadondo parties.

“While this process is continuing, the MEC asked the police to maintain a strong presence in the area and conduct law enforcement operations day and night,” he said.

Apparently the factions are currently consulting internally and a meeting with all the parties is said to be imminent.

THE management of Sun Valley are uncertain about the future of the farm as the feuding in the area has damaged operations.

This resulted in them being two months behind on this season’s harvest, which was anticipated to cost them thousands of rands as it delayed their shipments to the buyers of their oranges and lemons in European countries.

“We have deadlines to meet and if we are late that affects our product and the prices,” said one of the managers.

The farm’s management previously lived on-site with their families but have since moved to a neighbouring town as safety concerns mount.

“There are daily shootings. We still have to come here for work and each day we don’t know whether we are going to get out alive but at least our wives and children are safe.”

Another manager said sometimes employees asked to leave work early when violence erupted in their villages. He said the company did not stop them because the management did not want to do anything that could jeopardise their safety and that of their families.

“We are going through this with them so we try and support them as much as we can because we know how difficult it is,” he said.

At least 700 people would be left jobless if Sun Valley, the town’s biggest employer, closed its gates.

Sandy la Marque, the chief executive of the KwaZulu-Natal Agricultural Union (Kwanalu), said the organisation was aware of the situation that is threatening the sustainability of Sun Valley. “It is understood that at this time the situation is being attended to and we should allow these processes to take place. Kwanalu and its members are committed to ensuring that agriculture remains a key economical activity in the province, as such the importance of economic and property rights and the protection of these is imperative to growth and employment,” she said.

Her sentiments were echoed by Weenen Farmers’ Association’s Sarel le Roux who said the agricultural community did not want to get involved in disputes, they just wanted peace.

Most of the region’s farms has been awarded to land claimants and Le Roux said those who leased them from the restitution beneficiaries wanted that land to remain productive.

“All of us, including the government and communities, must protect the land that is still productive otherwise we are going to became another statistic of a failed region and people are going to lose their jobs.”

He said going forward the government needed to review the land restitution programme so that awards were made in an orderly way. He said this would include working with commercial farmers to capacitate the beneficiaries with the knowledge and skills as that would hopefully reduce the number of farms collapsing and disputes.

Le Roux said the government should also look into bringing agri-processing investments to areas like Weenen where people fought over limited agricultural job opportunities.

“Agriculture is the biggest employer in Weenen so I don’t have to tell you what happens if just one farm closes.”

“Agriculture is the biggest employer in Weenen so I don’t have to tell you what happens if just one farm closes.”