Tao of the farm – Principle number 9: “The fence works because the bull chooses to stay behind it”

February 2015
I did not get a chance to watch the State of the Nation address last night. Things were a little busy. I made a presentation to a community meeting in Gqebera about a project, then Hlubi and I went to a function at the Radisson Hotel, introducing their new chef. But when we go back home we watched some of the footage from the debacle. The EFF were forcibly thrown out of Parliament, the DA walked out in protest. The discussion this morning on Facebook and Twitter is about how irresponsible it is for the EFF to walk out and to be disruptive. I am not that interested in politics. I get the sense that the energy I may commit there is so indirectly applied. My feeling is that I should be making more direct action right now. I am interested though in the principles, the fundamental laws that are illustrated by everyday events like the EFF being “goose-stepped” out of Parliament. Because we see this again and again around the world, when a dominant group abuses its power, those that resist them are left with no alternative but to break the rules. We saw this with Apartheid, where the inflexibility of the National Party, lead to the ANC eventually resorting to the armed struggle, “breaking the rules”. We saw this will the Palestinian Liberation Organisation “breaking the rules” in its response to Israel evicting Palestinians from their homeland. More recently we have we seen AL Qaeda and Osama bin Laden broke the rules very dramatically, flying passenger airlines into the World Trade Centre, breaking even the rules of international terrorism.  These acts of “breaking rules” are a pattern that repeats itself again and again no matter how far back in history you would choose to look. Oppression by the powerful will inevitably result in revolt, and very often the revolt is violent and ugly. Where the powerful have been successful in holding onto their power is where they have set up process, that make those that have less power feel included, to feel as if though there is remote chance that by participating in the processes that they will be able to impact the way things are. The other thing successful powerful groups have over the millennia, is to exercise grace and restraint. They have not wielded all the power they have been able to wield; instead they directed a fraction of this power to making sure their citizens were happily distracted. The Romans built the coliseum to house the gladiators, the Americans built Hollywood to house the movie industry.
Our Calves at Wittlekleibos
The point that becomes clear is that a hungry, unhappy population that feels that is not being taken seriously, is a very serious threat to the entire system. (including the unhappy population that are a part of it) The dynamic between the powerful and the powerless is governed by fundamental dynamics. It is governed by a “law”. This is a law that applies to the way people live together, but it runs much deeper, it applies to the way organisms live together and interact. You see, the fundamental law that applies to these relationships is Law of the farm number 9: “The fence works because the bull chooses to stay behind it.”
There was a  time (before I owned my own livestock) when I believed that the fences I saw between the cattle on the side of the road and the highway that sped past on, was what was keeping the animals from wondering into the traffic. I was wrong. A cow is an incredibly big animal; it can weigh 500 kg and more. If it decides that it would rather be on the other side of the five strands of wire that divide it from where it would want to be, then it will jump over, or walk through. Believe me I have seen this happen in front of my eyes, many times. In fact when I first began to buy calves to build our cattle herd, I was amazed at how these seemingly docile creatures were able to be such accomplished escape artists. My strategy then was to buy three month old calves that had just been weaned from their mother. I had negotiated to make use of some land in Tsitsikama, where Hlubi’s family had some historical connections to community land that had been returned to the community by the government.  It’s a long story, but Hlubi’s mother’s family is part of the Mfengu grouping, who were granted land by the British in the 1800’s in exchange for loyal service as mercenaries during the hundred year Frontier wars that raged in the eastern cape between the British and the Xhosa. The Mfengu were forcibly removed from the land by the apartheid government in the 1970s, but returned (in part) in the 1990’s when the democratic government came into power.
In 2009 we put our first nine calves onto grazing in Tsitsikama. Hlubi and I negotiated with Rasi, the “Isibonda”, the headman. He agreed that we could make use of the “Bull Camp” until such time as our calves were completely self-sufficient and no longer taking the nutrient rich pellets they were being fed every evening. We were very pleased to have access to the “Bull Camp” because of all the hundred and seventy two hectares that make up the Wittekleibos farm, which was home to the Mfengu community, this one hectare camp was by far the most secure, with very sturdy fences. It was the camp that the prize breeding bull would be secured in and into which cows would be brought in order for the bull to do his business without too much running around all over the extensive grassland.
The calves seemed content enough as they were released into the camp. They had been raised by a redheaded farmer just ten kilometres up the road. His name is Gerhard. He is maybe ten years younger than me, but insists calling me “Oom” in the respectful tone reserved for when one speaks to elders. Gerhard’s business model is to buy these calves in from farmers in the district that have no need for them, usually because they are running dairies and find the calves to be an unnecessary inconvenience to their operations. Gerhard takes great care to then rear these calves by hand, initially bottle feeding them three times a day and then slowly introducing pellets and grass.
By sunset on the day that they arrived, the calves were beginning to become restless and noisy. “Mooing” loudly at the top of their voices and pacing up and down the fence line. One by one each of the them found some way through the fence and were headed up the gravel road toward where they must have believed Gerhard’s farm was. When they were chased back into the Bullcamp (not an easy job to chase nine belligerent, single minded calves in the opposite direction to which they have got their minds set on) they would settle for a few minutes only to be headed up the gravel road toward the national highway again. The problem was only resolved by enclosing the calves in a very small; completely escape proof kraal for two weeks. By that time they were settled and had come to accept that this was now their new home.
Now years later, when I drive past the Bull Camp at Tsitiskama and see the giant majestic glistening bull gently lounging behind the fence, I know that he is behind that fence (that can’t even hold in my puny weaner calves) only because he chooses to be behind it. If the bull were so much as lean on the fence he would flatten it.  He could leap over it without building up a sweat. Of course this is so completely true of us and our everyday lives whether we live in the city or the farm. We all, in some way or another live out our lives behind barriers that we choose not to challenge. We stay in our jobs, we stay in the suburbs and townships we were born into, we stay in our relationships and or in our circle of friends. Sometimes we even complain that we are contained and limited by the “fences” of class or family or race or gender or education, but seldom do we challenge the “fences”.
The bull does not challenge the fences because the farmer makes sure he has enough water and grazing (and a willing cow now and again). By giving a little to the bull, the farmer makes his own life easier, and spends very little of his time driving up and down looking for runaway bulls. Where the farmer becomes greedy though, perhaps rather using the bull camp to build a shopping centre and constraining the bull to a small enclosure, without grazing or water or cows, he will find the bull becomes unhappy and becomes determined to be elsewhere. Our society is a little like this. An angry population becomes determined to break the rules (perhaps like the EFF in parliament) To respond by sending in armed police or building higher fences around the secure complexes of the rich is to not understand the problem.
The truth is that the poor and hungry don’t need very much to remain placated and stay within the boundaries that the rich and powerful have historically set for them. The rich and powerful elites know that if the poor and hungry challenge the boundaries and run amok they become a great danger to the order of things. This law is fundamental. Every society that has tried for extended periods of time to make the lives of the miserable more miserable than what can be tolerated has paid the price in a big way. A wise farmer knows not to abuse the power he holds over his animals and in the same way wise powerful elites will only survive if they know this to be true of the economy and the politics that gives order to it. That’s just the way things are; it’s the law of the farm.

In fact it is quite easy for the elite to contain the masses and the individuals that make up the masses when these masses have no vision; when they have no idea of a place they would rather be. Even a heavy powerful bull will wither away in a field with just a little grazing and some muddy water. The calves in my story are however a different matter altogether. Presented with the same grazing and the same water that was good enough for the bull, they were not content. They “knew” they belonged somewhere else. The knowledge made them challenge the fences. And so it is with us. The few that do challenge the boundaries and limitations are those that know where they want to be and believe that they belong in that other place beyond what is currently appearing to constrain them.  I suppose my calves who believed so strongly that they belonged back at Gerhard’s farm, that they were prepared to challenge and to overcome the fences that contained even the biggest and strongest bulls of Wittekleibos. So too,  it is a clear vision we need to develop in our minds that must drive an unwavering passion and desire to be beyond those factors that we have come to believe are limiting us. This is the way we will become free, because this is an observed and recorded fundamental law of the human condition and a fundamental and observed law of the farm.

Author: Tim Hewitt-Coleman

The World can be a better place.... But how? Taking the debate beyond the political, beyond the theoretical into the real economy, into the physical and spatial dimension where cities, landscapes and livelihoods take form.

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