Mohammad Karaan, the reluctant strategist

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Strategy and leadership go together. People follow leaders who have an attractive dream, and a plan on how to pursue it. If on top of that a leader could also have the gift of words, the talent to package the dream and plan in a way which captures people, inspires them and makes them take ownership of it, you have a great leader. But those type of people are scarce, and every generation gets only a few.

Mohammad Karaan had all of those. He shared his dreams free and wide with policy makers, farmers, foreign governments and scientists, but, most of all, with students and the youth. Young people were closest to his heart. By their very nature dreams are about the future, the unseen and unknown. Hence the youth is the most fertile soil for dreams.

We met on a rugby field when we were very young, with too many dreams for the limited wisdom we had accumulated to pursue them. He played in the front row, and I remember how hard it was to stop him or to bring him down.

I remember him as a politically aware student on the opposite end of the spectrum from where I was, and the heated debates we had in the eighties. We argued in Afrikaans, though, and shared a fundamental love for our mother tongue.

Mohammad was better versed in literature, and especially in poetry, than me. For decades we shared our poems with each other – one by one until we exchanged our published collections. He often said that the Cape Malay community has a stronger claim to Afrikaans than the Afrikaners of Dutch descent. He could make the language sing! He was one of the most captivating orators in the agricultural arena and all his students would testify to that.

Forging a strong, respectful friendship

After a short career at the Development Bank of Southern Africa, Mohammad went back to Stellenbosch University to join the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences, where he eventually became the dean. He still served as a professor of agricultural economy and president of Maties Rugby Club at the time of his death.

Professor Karaan was the ideal mentor, and as such had a tremendous impact on the development of a generation of Stellenbosch graduates in agricultural sciences. His patience with young people, the way he unpacked complicated concepts and principles for them and all other stakeholders who cared to listen, and his unique knowledge and understanding of agriculture, were all mere extensions of his passion for our food systems and more so for the primary production side of it.

I’ve lost count of the hours and days I have spent with Mohammad as a very special friend, and of the farms, towns, farmers’ meetings, cities, conferences, countries and exhibitions we visited or attended together. When we were alone, there were very few things we agreed on. I remember a day-long journey on a train to Berlin which we spent on wrestling with how inherited guilt from previous generations should or could be accounted for in our present-day efforts to design our future.

We argued, shared and wondered about religion, God, His grace, the afterlife and values for a whole day during a stopover in Dubai. Our different Islamic and Christian commitments made an extremely interesting background to the conversation. But we most often argued about politics – especially about where we are heading, where we want to be and how to get there.

In the public domain, however, when we spoke at conferences or farmers meetings, when we negotiated with foreign ministers or investors or visitors, and in all the TV, radio or media interviews where we shared a podium, we always fought on the same side. To the farmers’ constituency and the world, we were partners in pursuit of a land reform and agricultural development model which can create the kind of wealth needed to establish a class of profitable black farmers within our lifetime.

Restructuring our rural economy

In 2009 in Stellenbosch, we had our first conversation in a coffee shop about a partnership-based approach to land reform. For him the idea of mainstreaming beneficiaries in profitable value chains within one generation by partnering them up with well-established white commercial farmers, was an attractive one. My conditions were that participation should always be voluntary, partners must choose each other, and market value should prevail in all land transactions. At the time Mohammad swayed a lot of influence in government and had recently been appointed dean of the Faculty of AgriSciences. I was the vice president of Agri SA and headed the policy committee on land reform and farmer development.

When he was appointed to the Agriculture Committee of the National Planning Commission (NPC) in 2010, a golden opportunity opened up to moot the partnership approach to the restructuring of our rural economy. It proved to be quite a challenge to set it up as basis of Chapter 6 of the National Development Plan (NDP). However, the text left enough space to both get it endorsed by the ANC at their 2012 Policy Conference in Mangaung, and to cement market-friendly principles in the implementation plan.

The unanimous adoption of the NDP and Chapter 6 caused a memorable celebration for us back in Stellenbosch, but Mohammad warned that there would be a tough road ahead, sown with all kinds of political thorns. First, we needed broad buy-in from organised agriculture, and for this purpose he called for a united front of agricultural unions. That was the birth of the Agricultural Sector Unity Forum (ASUF), which was much more inclusive and relevant in those first few years than it is today.

Next, he launched a committee to discuss and develop an implementation plan, which culminated in a round table event in April 2013 at Spier. My colleagues could not make it to the event, and I ended up doing most of the negotiations on behalf of the farmers’ constituency. While the broad strategy was known as the Chapter 6 model, the implementation strategy (which contained the nuts and bolts of the conditions such as selection criteria, voluntary participation, choice of partners and the maintenance of market value) was referred to as the Karaan Plan.

Facing intense opposition  

The Karaan Plan was met with animosity and resistance from the onset, especially from farmers’ leaders in those commodity organisations and provinces who had not experienced the pressure of restitution and sub-market offers on their farms. I had difficulty in securing a mandate to take part and coordinate a pilot project in Mpumalanga in the run-up to the 2014 general elections. However, both TAU SA and the African Farmers’ Association of South Africa (AFASA) took part with valuable contributions. Milaan Thalwitzer of Komati Fruits committed to invest in a citrus farm for purposes of a trial run, but some of the biggest commodity and provincial farmers’ organisations in Agri SA would have none of it.

The pilot plan was implemented like clockwork, until the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, under Minister Gugile Nkwinti, failed to pay the state’s 50% of the partnership commitment. Until today there has been no explanation on why the department did not honour their agreement, and Mohammad believed (and explained it abroad) that some officials did not want the model to work.

From failure comes success

Our friendship did not only grow from shared successes such as the offer by the German government to assist with the financing and implementation of the Karaan Plan, or the cooperation of so many stakeholders in the pilot project. It was also forged in fire through our failures. Mohammad lost all hope that the relevant department would be able to serve the interests of beneficiaries, and often got depressed by their lack of performance. I could never get the strongest voices in organised agriculture on board, and in the years I’ve served in leadership positions in farmers’ organisations, my darkest hours were spent in unpleasant and often indecent arguments about the Karaan Plan.

Prof Mohammad Karaan, Dr Theo de Jager and Christian Schmidt, minister of food and agriculture in Germany between 2014 and 2018.

When it became clear that our model would become more divisive than unifying, I visited Mohammad to prepare him for something he already knew. He listened with empathy when I told him that we will probably need a new vehicle outside the existing structures of organised agriculture to promote the partnership driven approach to land reform. His reply was a quote from Abraham Lincoln when he was advised not to push the agenda on the abolition of slavery in the run-up to the general election for his second term: “I would rather be right than be president!”

His model thrived, and gained the support of Agbiz, the commercial banks, Land Bank, AFGRI, Humansdorp Co-op, Wildlife Ranching SA. It led to a partnership agreement between Agri Limpopo and AFASA which was initiated by Mohammad himself. It became the cornerstone of South African farmers’ involvement elsewhere in Africa through the structures of Agri All Africa. It has indisputably proven itself to be the most successful model for land reform and rural development in South Africa.

Envisioning a peaceful, prosperous South Africa

After the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Agriculture, of which Mohammad was a member, published their report in May 2019, and my public criticism against it, we met at a hotel in Stellenbosch to thrash out our differences. He came well prepared, with media clips and notes neatly tucked in a file. He had a well-considered answer to each of my questions, until I asked him what marks he would have given for the report if it was submitted by a student as a master’s thesis? With his shy smile he answered that it was not an academic study, but an imperfect political compromise; the best one available under current circumstances.

For Mohammad Karaan it was never about his land reform model, or the interests of any sector or community. It was about a normalised South Africa in which we all could thrive in peace and prosperity. That was his dream. He had plans how to get there, and I was one of many farmers who bought into those plans. His extraordinary communication skills, which were founded more on the way he listened than on how he spoke, was enough to convince me. He was on his way to the try line and refused to be brought down.

I am not the only one who will miss him dearly; the whole of South Africa will. But I believe that Mohammad left enough for us to pick up the ball and carry it to victory. – Dr Theo de Jager, chairperson of Saai’s board of directors and president of the World Farmers’ Organisation