Alexious Shoko was a trained agricultural advice official in Zimbabwe before coming to South Africa to seek a better opportunity – and that he did on a fruit farm in the Western Cape. In January 2016, he was crowned the Western Cape’s Agricultural Worker of the Year.
Alexious describes the Prestige agricultural event when he received his accolade as the proudest moment of his life. Alexious and his wife, Tabita, live on the farm Mouton’s Valley, high up Piket-Bo-Berg in the Western Cape in South Africa, where he is the assistant production manager.
“I was born in Mberengwa in Zimbabwe’s Midlands province, and grew up in the Masvingo province,” says Alexious.
After completing his high school career at the Dadaya School, also in the Midlands, he obtained an agricultural diploma at the Kushinga-Phikelela Agricultural College in the Mashonaland East province. This was followed by a diploma in horticulture from the Harare Polytechnic, Zimbabwe’s largest technical college.
He spent four years working as an agricultural science teacher at the Makumbe, Chiguhune, and Chatikobo high schools in the Masvingo province. After this Alexious worked as an advisory official at Agritex under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development, supporting and advising co-operative farms. He was also a farm manager on a tobacco and cattle farm for 10 years before moving to South Africa in 2007.
“By this time things were no longer great in Zimbabwe. The inflation rate and politics were out of control. Agriculture had also become so much smaller and there were no longer any good opportunities.”
By this time things were no longer great in Zimbabwe. The inflation rate and politics were out of control.
Tabita and Alexious decided to rather try to make a living in South Africa.
“Because I worked for the government it was easier to cross the border,” says Alexious, who left Tabita and their seven children for another month in Zimbabwe while he searched for work and accommodation in Johannesburg.
They got work at Nicolas Plants Nursery.
“We often feared for our lives in Johannesburg. We were very scared and heard many tales of crime. We kept our doors constantly locked.”
A couple of months later they saw a vacancy in an English agricultural magazine for a gardener and domestic help on a farm at Piket-Bo-Berg. They grabbed the opportunity to move to the Western Cape, even although it was in the middle of a huge nationwide xenophobic crisis and their documentation was not yet in order.
Tabita, who also has had training in agriculture, said: “To work as a gardener and a domestic servant was still better than being in Zimbabwe because the Rand was stronger than the Zim Dollar and we could save money to send our children to school. Furthermore, we felt more welcome and at home in the Western Cape. It was totally different to Gauteng.”
They were the first Zimbabweans to establish themselves in the area. The news about the true state of affairs in Zimbabwe quickly reached the local populace’s ears.
“Everyone, even the coloured folk, sympathised with us and tried to help.” Alexious says this is where they experienced the true nature of South Africa for the first time. “This part of the country is peaceful.”
OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE CHILDREN TOO
About four months later, in September 2008, Alexious got work as a supervisor of a small team in the orchards at Mouton’s Valley, a fruit and buchu farm. Tabita also started working on the farm as a general labourer.
Three years later, Alexious became part of Mouton’s Valley management team and later was promoted to Assistant Production Manager. He is clearly a popular and trustworthy member of the company.
Farm manager Rickus Jooste says that Alexious’s sense of responsibility extends much further than expected from a person in his position.
“In Zimbabwe he didn’t have it easy, therefore he knows how things could turn out and for that reason it is extremely important to him to have good relationships with people.”
He is a natural leader according to managing director, Eric Starke. “When he speaks, the people listen.”
Director Michele Starke adds: “He really is passionate about the farm and is always the one to ask the questions such as why something has to be done in a specific way as opposed to another way. His confidence is also astounding.”
Rickus says that if there is something he wants to know, then Alexious will not shy away from putting up his hand at an information day in front of hundreds of commercial farmers.
“I thoroughly enjoy applying that which I learnt during my studies every day in my place of work. I really have a passion for agriculture and view myself as extremely lucky to be living on a farm. I would like to see that each of my children working in agriculture.
“As a farmer, you are busy with the original task given by God in the Garden of Eden. I am crazy about the farm life and the fresh air that we can breathe. Being a primary producer is also of major importance, as you are part of the backbone of the economy.”
He has this to say about his characteristics that make him so successful in his work:
“I am reliable, hardworking, and persevere in that which I do. Even in a difficult situation I believe that a person should persevere and work hard to come out ahead. That is just my character.”
Tabita adds: “He always places his family first and is the most concerned about us. I believe our children’s’ education and welfare spur him on.”
They encouraged their eldest son to study at Elsenburg (the agricultural faculty of Stellenbosch University), but he has a passion for the business world. He is studying for a B.Com degree at the University of the Western Cape. Their eldest daughter works at a supermarket in town and is studying psychology through Unisa.
The rest of their children are at high school in Malmesbury and primary school at Piketberg. These Shona-speaking children learnt to speak Afrikaans in just two years.
“Our greatest opportunity in South Africa has been that our children can study further. Here there is even a chance to study via correspondence. At the time of our leaving Zimbabwe we couldn’t afford for our children to study there,” says Tabita.
Here and there the situation in South Africa is also worrying, but it is not nearly as bad as in Zimbabwe.
Inflation is a problem here as well, and it is a concern that the Rand is losing so much value, but compared to Zimbabwe, the South African economy is underpinned by so much more, such as mining, agriculture and manufacturing. This all helps to ensure the country survives.
“The political situation is also much better here. People are free to follow the political party of their choice and the relationships between the political parties are actually wonderful. They bump heads, but in a mature fashion. Nobody is killing anyone just because they are affiliated with a certain political party.”
Alexious wishes that the government and organized farming would approach Zimbabweans now living in South Africa and involve them in the discussions around black economic empowerment.
“South Africans could learn from our experience in Zimbabwe. We know what mistakes were made.”
He says that training must be a priority. “People should receive plenty of training before they are involved in these schemes. Although people are willing to be involved in the economic empowerment, they make too many mistakes due to ignorance. This costs money and creates a poor image, even if the economic empowerment plan is actually all right.”
Nepotism must also be eradicated. “If someone gets an opportunity simply because they are related, then it is an indication that they are not necessarily hardworking.”
He believes that it is also important that white folk are involved, especially in the economic empowerment transactions in agriculture, as their experience is invaluable.
HOW TO IMPROVE PRODUCTION
Alexious has many suggestions to improve agricultural workers’ productivity so that farmers don’t get hampered by the higher minimum wage.
At Mouton’s Valley, the workers sometimes get incentive bonuses. “This doesn’t only happen at the end of the harvest, but it is always unexpected. This makes an impression on the workers and this is one of the things that keeps them at Mouton’s Valley.
“The other issue is accommodation. I believe we have some of the best accommodation there is. If the farmer supplies the accommodation and constantly maintains it, such as is the case here, then the workers won’t just leave the farm and they remain productive. They see it as a sign that the farmer cares and that he values his workers.
Mouton’s Valley employs about 250 people and the majority of them stay on the farm or in the farming town just a stone’s throw away. About 66 workers/families got the chance a few years ago to buy a plot in the town and to build a house.
On the farm, there are houses for married couples, as well as larger houses for families. A few of the workers live in the town Piketberg.
“I believe programs, such as adult education, can also assist productivity. If someone has prospects for a better upbringing and a brighter future, then they will be more productive, because they know that what they are busy with now will get them somewhere in life.
“Conversely, someone who failed at school and lives under the impression that they will have to labour the rest of their life will tend to be frustrated and unproductive.
Farm workers don’t always have an easy life, and the unaffordability of food, dissatisfactory health care, and a breakdown in discipline are all issues that Alexious views as problems.
“If someone is ill, they will often have to travel great distances to get to the nearest clinic, just to hear that the clinic is full. Transport is also a problem. Our employer has fortunately employed a nurse that visits the farm in the mornings to treat the people. I believe every farm needs this.”
He also has strong feelings about discipline on farms. “On most farms there is a distinct lack of social integrity and people do not respect each other. Some people abuse alcohol and use drugs, mostly tik and dagga. They think they can do as they please, especially after working hours.
“There ought to be social workers, community workers and disciplinary committees on the farms who are responsible for the social wellbeing of the people.
At Mouton’s Valley there is a trained worker who carries out community work and counselling. Alexious is part of a disciplinary committee which will step in where necessary.
“If someone is using drugs for example, we will not allow him to remain on the farm. If he chooses to use drugs, then he will have to go and live in the town and travel daily to the farm to work.”
IN HIS FOOTSTEPS
Alexious believes it is important to create good role models in the rural areas and in the worker’s communities.
“I remember looking up to someone myself as I grew up. It was Richard Mukurumbira, who along with my father, worked at Agritex as a guidance official. He also studied and gained his master’s degree. I always said that someday I wanted to be like him.”
He says that young people who have a role model realise that it takes hard work and determination to achieve the pinnacle of success.
“It helps to encourage people to better themselves and aim higher.”
He is fully prepared to be viewed as a role model for his colleagues, as well as their children. “It is a huge responsibility, but I hope one day that people will want to follow in my footsteps.”
Enquiries: Alexious Shoko, email: email@example.com.