'Move to Oz was hard, but worth it'
This former Free State farmer has no regrets
Even after a client and the client's wife were murdered, and a flurry of attacks on farmers he knew, Theo van Niekerk was convinced he should stay and help build his country.
Working as an agronomist in the Free State, he had an extensive circle of friends in the farming community.
It was only when a businessman was attacked and killed in his driveway in town, though, that “things hit too close to home”. He took a leap of faith and moved his family to Australia.
Although he and his family have set down roots on foreign soil and things are really going well for them, farmers thinking of relocating should realise that a move like that comes with its own challenges and hardships, he warned in an interview with Times Select.
His own start overseas was wobbly when the company that recruited and sponsored him to work in Australia closed down three months after he arrived.
Still, he stuck it out.
“I made the decision for my children’s sake. Psychologists reckon the second most difficult decision one can make is to emigrate. Number one is suicide,” he recounted that time.Van Niekerk was speaking after the announcement by Canberra’s home affairs minister‚ Peter Dutton, that Australia plans to fast-track visas for white South African farmers to relocate to their country.
Dutton earlier told The Daily Telegraph that the farmers “deserve special attention” due to the “horrific circumstances” of land seizures and violence.
“If you look at the footage and read the stories‚ you hear the accounts‚ it’s a horrific circumstance they face‚” Dutton reportedly said.
“I think these people deserve special attention and we’re certainly applying that special attention now.”
TimesLive reported earlier that the South African government rebuked the minister's suggestion that white South African farmers needed help from a “civilised country”.
The Van Niekerks have settled down in Katanning, almost three hours from Perth.In South Africa he lived with his wife Louise and three young children in Bethlehem in the Free State, where he was a senior agronomist for a fertiliser company. He lived a comfortably lifestyle with no mortgage and a company car. He was even a provincial rugby referee on the side.
“A friend told me that I am the head of my family and that it was my duty and responsibility towards my family’s safety and for a secure future for my children. That was a key moment in my life. Another attack happened in our town and a businessman was killed in his driveway. That made me think this was getting too close for comfort,” said van Niekerk.
When an Australian fertiliser company came to South Africa looking for agronomists, he saw the gap and took a trip to the land down under to test the waters. Soon after, the company agreed to sponsor him and his family and off they went.
“That was the most difficult decision I have ever made. I made the call and told my family we are going. My son was in year 12, daughter in year 10 and youngest was in year 7,” he explained their school grades.
Louise now teaches in Katanning and runs her own bed and breakfast.
His son is now an environmental manager at a gold mine and married with children, his middle daughter is a stay-at-home mom and his youngest daughter an accountant’s assistant.“We arrived in July 2001 and after only three months the company closed down and I was without a job. We were five agronomists from South Africa that worked for the company. We had a meeting and we saw the opportunity to provide a service to the farmers that was not available at that stage. We formed an association and each of us started our own unique business.”
He now owns Katanning Soil Nutrition Service. Van Niekerk gives advice on soil amelioration and fertiliser programs as well as crop inspections, plant nutrition and plant health.
“The support you get from the government to start a business is unbelievable. From financial support to business advice. A friend of ours ( South African) started a diesel mechanic service. He got $80,000 from the government to start up his small business. There are conditions but the support is available.
“I have spoken to quite a few people and farmers. They all are supporting Peter Dutton. I did see on social media there are a few negative remarks, but they are in the minority. The Greens party are the only ones against it,” said Van Niekerk.
He strongly recommends that South African farmers first work on a farm there before jumping in and purchasing land.
“Land here costs R31,000 plus per hectare. An economical portion is at least 1,200 hectares. But a farm is going to cost you R36-million plus. Then you don’t have any equipment. That’s why I say that to buy a farm is almost out of reach for most SA farmers.
Farmers who did manage to buy there, did so when the rand/dollar exchange was still favourable, Van Niekerk said. “In the last 17 years many farmers came to check out the conditions, but few have pushed through and bought.”
One of the biggest challenges when he initially moved was the language. Van Niekerk’s first language is Afrikaans and, although he could speak English, he said the Aussie slang threw him off especially when it came to terms in the farming industry.“The first month I worked here was a nightmare. I couldn’t understand people at all. The use of language was strange.
“In the beginning you need expats' support, and they are everywhere! You need guidance to get things done from getting a licence, insurance, how to apply for a telephone, to know which rice to buy.”
He said initially for his South African farmer clients it was tough to find everything they needed, as everything had a different Australian name. Sometimes they would have to go into a lengthy description of what they were looking for.
“South Africans are wildly popular with local farmers because of their good work ethic.”
This learning period will also allow SA farmers to learn the tricks of the trade and where to find bargain deals for equipment, he suggested.
“In February/March there are always the clearing sales. Some farmers stop farming and sell all the equipment. That’s where you pick up a lot of bargains.”
But locals welcomed Van Niekerk and his family with open arms.
“The support that you will get from your fellow farmers is also on another level. They care easily and give advice, but you must ask because they aren’t pushy. Last year, one of my farmers was diagnosed with a heart condition around planting time. All the farmers in the area jumped in and planted his whole harvest with his equipment.”One popular way of farming is share cropping with neighbours, where each farmer provides either land, seed, fertiliser or crop spray, and in the end everyone shares in the profit.
The most difficult aspect is that you start in Australia with a clean slate and don’t have a frame of reference.
“You don’t know the places people talk about; people they mention do not mean a thing. But you slowly build your own references through visiting places and getting acquainted with TV and radio personalities and politicians,” he said.
“We miss the family, the mountains, wildlife and the South Africans' creativity and the South African humour. We find some Aussies very serious.”
And whenever they visit he is sure to bring back some South African favourites like Klipdrift brandy, which cost “a scary $47” in Australia.
He said he will always visit SA, but will never move back
“If you ever get the opportunity to come, do it. You will take two steps back to gain fives steps in a short time. Financially and emotionally we are way better off, less stressed and live a more relaxed life style.”