There is a large perennial stream flowing from a gorge, and the farm has the right to much of the water. As a result, even though the area is semi-desert, the farm has huge potential. It has five houses on it, comes complete with half-a-dozen tractors and lots of other machinery, huge orchards that are drip-irrigated - and yet has been essentially abandoned for five years.
It did not take me long to find the problem. Labour. There is lots of labour in the area. In fact, the unemployment levels are among the highest in the country. Yet my son and his brother-in-law, who also lives on the farm, are striving to do it all themselves. The fruit trees will go, along with the drip irrigation. Fruit does very well there, but it demands seasonal labour, and the labour laws are against casual seasonal labour. A casual worker who does more than 16 days work for you is deemed to be a permanent employee, and deemed to have a contract and a minimum wage and paid holidays and and and - - -.
There is even a threat that, if the worker should be permanent for more than a year or so, he would become entitled to a portion of your farm. That threat became law in about 1996, and I saw the effects in the Free State - villages were suddenly flooded by homeless farm workers. The farmers had said "When we need you, we'll send a bus." Shacks sprang up alongside decent houses, and quiet villages overnight became noisy havens of crime.
Another problem with the present dispensation is how you ever get to develop skills among your workers. When I had an interest in farming, we decided our tractor drivers, who were responsible for the safe and efficient operation of the capital equipment that represented our life savings, were underpaid and undertrained. We sent the drivers off on training courses, we set up planned maintenance schemes, and we offered the drivers bonuses based on their productivity and equipment reliability. Our labour costs increased, but our tractor costs dropped dramatically and the productivity shot up, so we won handsomely. The only drawback was the neighbours, who complained that we had wrecked the local market for drivers!
But what can you do today? How can you hope to develop skills when you can only afford to employ someone for two weeks? I know of one Free State farmer, with a few thousand hectares of mielies, who has taught his 55-year-old wife to drive a multi-million rand combine harvester. It is very impressive to see her hauling herself up into the cab, and driving off in impressively straight lines - "All done by GPS!" she tells us later over coffee, after harvesting a few thousand tons of corn by 11 a.m.
I suppose the good news is that COSATU and the ANC government have finally found something to fight about. At present, it is pensions, and whether the workers should be allowed to access their savings before retirement. I hope the government wins this one. It may give them the courage to liberalise labour laws. We need jobs. Putting restrictive laws in place may protect those fortunate enough to have them; they also prevent those needing a job from having one.