A few years ago, climate scientists struck on the idea of explaining the impacts of climate change through food: show people how a warming planet, with its devastating droughts, floods, and other extreme events, will hit us at the kitchen table. The strategy grew out of a 2014 study by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that warned of sharp declines in food production as the effects of climate crisis deepen.
This month the IPCC released a more urgent report: keeping global temperature rise to a liveable minimum demands a transformation in the way we produce food. Food production and agricultural activities, including forestry and food waste, account for almost one-quarter of greenhouse gas production. Incorporating the whole food chain, including fertilizer production, transport, and food processing, takes that contribution to nearly 30% of greenhouse gases. Half of methane emissions (one of the most harmful greenhouse gases) come from cattle and rice fields. Soil degradation and erosion, resulting in part from the destructive soil practices of industrial agriculture, threaten our future in profound and unacknowledged ways. Healthy, properly managed soils, meanwhile, can be a vital carbon sink.
The new IPCC report explains that land must be managed more sustainably if we are to make meaningful reductions in carbon emissions. Focusing on transportation, industry, and energy is not enough – we must address agriculture. Sustainable land management means reforestation,rewilding (including, e.g., restoration of peat lands - which, like healthy soils, absorb and store greenhouse gases) and major reductions in land use for food animals and the grains that feed them.
Which brings us back to the kitchen table:
Avoiding – or at least reducing – meat and dairy consumption is one of the most effective ways to reduce our personal carbon footprint. Eating beef twice a week (calculated as two fast-food patties, 75 g each: i.e., not much!) results in 600 kg of greenhouse gas emissions across a year. This is equivalent to driving a gas-fuelled car 2500 km. Producing those humble patties consumes 1700 m2 of land. Beef produces about six times the carbon emissions of chicken, and 150 times the emissions of beans. The newly-public ‘Beyond Meat’ burger is looking better all the time. For a succulent homemade veggie burger, try this black bean burger or one of these.
The women at Hleketani Community Garden, like most people in the Global South who eat little meat, have been eating a relatively low-carbon diet all their lives. Their plates are piled high with maize meal porridge, leafy greens, and other vegetables. Peanuts have been a key protein source for generations, and feature in this tasty staple dish from Tsonga kitchens. Happy meatless eating.
Spicy Spinach from Hleketani Garden (from Recipes from The Thinking Garden; order at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Saute a diced onion in oil.
Add and saute a crushed clove of garlic.
Stir in two bunches (450 g) of giant spinach or Swiss chard,
A squeeze of lemon juice,
½ c vegetable stock or water,
1 t (to taste) of South African Peri Peri Sauce or other sambal or chili sauce.
In a separate bowl mix 2 T peanut butter with ¼ c stock. Stir to a liquid consistency, then stir into spinach mixture. Heat through and serve.
*In N’wamitwa, freshly ground peanuts are used. The dish is served with vuswa, maize meal porridge. It's tasty with brown rice or any grain.
One of many powerful sentiments expressed at this year’s South African conference on Recognition, Reparation, and Reconciliation is “we wanted freedom, and we got democracy.” The frustrations of young people in particular, nearly a quarter century after the hard-won achievement of democracy, are deep and deeply warranted. There is no meaningful freedom for youth (here defined as under 35) who cannot find jobs, even if they were fortunate enough to finish high school and access some form of higher education. Nor is there meaningful freedom for older women who now earn a monthly income from the Old Persons Grant – only to exhaust every cent of it helping to support two or three generations of family members.
At the conference many commentators pointed out how South Africa’s experience of the past quarter century presages the catastrophe unfolding in so many other countries of the Global North and South. South Africa’s tight embrace of neoliberal (market-fundamentalist) economic strategies, with results including deepening inequalities of wealth and income (see French economist Thomas Piketty’s global analysis, with its special focus on SA);
its jobless urbanization and constricted growth; and its ecological disasters (Cape Town’s “zero water” spectre only one of many) anticipated processes that are now unfolding much more widely. Sarah Nuttall, director of Witwatersrand University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research, observed that pain once seen as particular to South Africa is spreading in a “global after-life.”
Here I focus on the life stories of two South African youth, Dzunani and Nkhenso (names changed), to illustrate the nature of the challenges facing South African society – and, in some measure, many other liberal democracies today. Dzunani and Nkhenso both come from rural Limpopo Province; both were small children when Nelson Mandela won the presidency after decades of political struggle and imprisonment, and following several years of challenging and violent political transition across the country. Both are living the frustrations and disappointments that today define the “rainbow nation.”
Dzunani graduated from a decent rural high school in 2000. He has always been a hard worker – the phrase he uses to describe himself in preference to any other. His parents were hard workers, his father as a plumber in Johannesburg during the apartheid era, and his mother raising several children in the rural “homeland.” When Dzunani’s father fell ill and lost his job, his mother began to take on seasonal work at local (Afrikaner-owned) farms and later worked as a cleaner. The parents impressed on their son the importance of securing his own path through commitment and hard work. Like so many South Africans, they felt a surge of hope for their children when apartheid was dismantled and Mandela’s ANC came to power. The hope lasted well into the 2000s, South Africans being a generous lot and having learned patience through years of abject experience. Hope began to falter at the height of the epidemic of HIV/AIDS, a crisis neglected by the fledgling democracy under Mandela and infamously enflamed under his successor, President Mbeki.
Hope turned to outrage and despair with the flagrant abuses of democracy and economy enacted by Jacob Zuma’s presidency – abuses encapsulated in the phrase “state capture,” to express the degree to which private interests (especially but not only those of the Gupta family companies) “captured” the agenda of governance and the functions of the state, and subverted these to the interests of capital.
Back to Dzunani. His dream when he graduated from high school was to become an engineer. He was good at math, and could fix anything that came his way. His grades were not high enough to earn him a bursary to university (and his parents, like many who grew up under apartheid, had no idea of how to position their first-born for higher education). He spent many months going about the countryside and nearest town asking people “where do I go to find a job?” Dzunani landed a first job helping with construction projects around the communal territory where he lives. With a recommendation as a hard worker, he earned a marginally more secure position (because salaried) as a packer at a banana farm. But without seniority, he was let go when the farm cut back on labour. Worn out by lack of opportunity in the rural region, Dzunani headed to the city in 2004. His experience there was dire.
“I was telling myself that I would work at any job that I get. … But at Johannesburg I didn’t get a job. Just finding, finding, finding [looking, looking, looking], agggh, until I decided to come back again to home.” Dzunani experienced what so many learn in the city: in an economy of structural joblessness – an economy that spawns precarity and insecurity rather than decent employment – life in Johannesburg was unsustainable. He found work with an engineering company for a few weeks; they made promises of stable employment that never materialized. The company paid him a very small sum and let him go without notice. While in the city Dzunani camped on the floor of a cousin’s flat, but still he couldn’t afford to stay “because in Johannesburg they need money for food, money to pay the rent.” After many more months without work he returned to the village, where he could live rent-free in his parents’ compound.
Dzunani finally had some luck in 2010. He happened to hear at a funeral of an externally-funded job-readiness project for youth that was coming to the local villages. He took his resumé to the office of the youth education project, and to his delight he was selected to participate in a six-week program called “Fit For Life, Fit For Work.” His cohort was then chosen to start a youth food security project, also externally funded – a vegetable farm that would provide Dzunani with salaried, stable work from 2011 to the end of 2017. Serendipity took Dzunani to the farm; hard work and commitment kept him there. Sixteen youth started at the farm in 2011. Retrenchments followed little by little as external funds began to dry up (various complex problems stood in the way of the farm becoming self-sustaining, not least competition from larger commercial farms and supermarkets). Dzunani remained until the end, clearly the most talented and devoted of farmers.
Dzunani told me several years ago about his transformation to farmer. With his colleagues he spent three months at an agricultural college learning a mix of conventional and agro-ecological farming methods. From time to time he was offered additional short courses in agro-ecological methods of pest control, soil management, and aquaculture. He soaked up the learning – and more profoundly, the daily experience of working in the soil – and became a farmer.
“I feel it. I feel like a farmer,” Dzunani says. “I pray every day, every night for thanks for giving me that opportunity to know this one, because it’s my career … I enjoy it and I like it to be my career.”
It was not an easy six years. The monthly salary never increased, despite sharply rising food and living costs. By the end of his time at the youth farm, Dzunani was spending nearly one-third of his salary on transport from his village to the farm site. Transport costs are often suffocating for rural workers and a major challenge for those in the cities, who generally live in poor neighbourhoods far from their place of work. He and his co-workers arranged a “taxi” (as small-van private transport is called) to carry them every day from a central pick-up point to the farm in a distant village. Even with that arrangement, transport costs were choking. A local white farmer heard this story and told me “they must make a plan” to reduce their costs – moving closer to the farm, for instance. That’s an impossible compromise for youth who live at very low cost on their parents’ compounds, contributing as they can to the shared costs of food, water, and other necessities. Moving to another village means purchasing or renting land (that is, if it’s even available in the over-crowded villages) and building a small house. These costs would eclipse monthly transport costs several times over. The suggestion of this “plan” makes clear the white farmer’s – and perhaps the government’s – utter lack of comprehension of social and economic realities in poor households.
Close to the bone as his circumstances were when he worked at the farm, unemployment was far worse. Dzunani shudders when he recalls his years of under- and unemployment. Waking in the morning with a knot in his gut as he faced another day with nothing to do, he remembers being blamed for thefts and other nuisances in his village.
“You wake up and you don’t know what I’m going to do,” he says. “It’s very hard, you wake up … The important thing is to work and get money for food. If you don’t work you don’t have food, soap for cleaning your body, clothing … Ayeesh, it’s very, very, very hard to wake up with nothing to do. If you don’t work, are you going to steal from the neighbours? Even if it’s not you, even then the neighbour says it’s you: you are not working, you are staying at home. Some others are going to school, others are at work, and you, you’re staying at home. Everything that is bad, [they say] it’s coming from you.”
With regular work, by contrast, “when I wake up in the morning … I’m happy because, in my heart, I’m telling myself ‘I’m going to work’.” Regular work enabled Dzunani to build two rooms on his parents’ compound for his wife and two children. It enabled him to help with school costs when the elder child started school a couple of years ago. His wife manages the child support grant for each child – US$28 per month per child that is crucial to enabling children to attend school (attendance is free, but uniforms, books, and transport cost money), and keeping them properly nourished.
Dzunani was the last of the youth farmers to be “released,” the mild local euphemism for dismissed, from the food security project. All the salaried workers were replaced by casual workers, mostly older people who live near the farm and can be called up when there’s planting or harvesting to be done. His dismissal is emblematic of a rising global shift from salaried work to casual precarity, a shift lamented by millennials in Canada as in the Global South. Since being let go, Dzunani has been moving around the countryside as before, “finding, finding, finding” work – piece work at construction, picking produce, whatever he can turn up. He’s cheered by the prospect of finding work closer to his heart – and, importantly, walking distance from his home – at Hleketani Community Garden, where the women have promised to call him when they need help with odd jobs. More powerfully, they have offered him a patch of irrigated ground where he can grow food for his family and, all going well, for sale. When he worked at the youth farm Dzunani’s dream was to one day have his own farm. He couldn’t afford the land. Perhaps this is a step in that direction.
Nkhenso’s story is different, though more in the details than the broad sweep. Several years younger than Dzunani, she was born at the start of the transition to democracy (1990, the year Mandela was released from prison). Nkhenso grew up in the same communal territory as Dzunani, under the same traditional leader, in a village down the road. Her father was in the picture on and off during her childhood, but stopped contributing and ultimately left the household when she was in high school. Her mother was left with Nkhenso and five younger children to raise. Nkhenso, who had been a good student, saw her chances of higher education evaporate.
Like Dzunani, Nkhenso had the good fortune to be chosen to participate in the Fit For Life program. She came to the attention of the program’s leaders as a smart young woman with enormous energy and strong language skills (her mother had taught her children English from a young age, and often insisted they speak English at home). These abilities have landed her occasional work as a research assistant and interpreter on university research projects. With the money she earns Nkhenso helped her mother extend the house from two to several rooms, helps pay for school uniforms and other school needs for her younger siblings, and helps support her own college studies in the city.
Nkhenso’s story is still being written. Serendipity and talent brought opportunities, as they did for Dzunani. But for vulnerable households in precarious circumstances, it is often one step forward, two steps back. Among many backward steps beyond their control, Nkhenso’s family has seen their stable life on the family compound brought to a crashing end by the return of the father.
Nkhenso’s father is able to claim the plot because it came through his family when the couple married. Although Nkhenso’s mother raised the family there on her own for many years, and might win the argument in court, she knows that she would likely face retribution if she sought to stay. She and the children have taken refuge on her family’s small plot in another village. The children now face all the challenges of starting again in new schools – while traumatized by the uprooting – while Nkhenso’s mother has had to leave behind a very supportive community of women and church colleagues. She visits as often as she can, but the cost of transport, and time away from her children, make it difficult to draw on those connections. She remains a member of various savings and credit clubs in the original village, connections that are vital to the constrained family economy. She is trying to recreate normalcy for her children at a time when her own emotional life is in turmoil.
The situation takes a toll on Nkhenso. Since the final family split and the move to her grandparents’ village a few months ago, Nkhenso has frequently come home from the city to deal with her siblings’ crises and the family’s material needs. She aches to see the resources she so lovingly invested in the family home squandered on a father who has done so little for his children. She aches to witness the pain of her mother. All this travel and turmoil draws Nkhenso away from the studies that might, in a just world, underwrite a different kind of future.
Writing from another context, the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante describes how the dream of a new day – with its faith in progress, improvement, growth, technology – is shown to be without foundation as the strains of late capitalism accumulate. In Ferrante’s bleak formulation, “the dream of unlimited progress is in reality a nightmare of savagery and death.” Is the lesson of Southern Italy also the lesson of South Africa? Is there still time for a different ending? Nkhenso and Dzunani are committed to another step forward. May it be toward justice.
Ferrante, Elena. 2015. The Story of the Lost Child. Europa.
Mbembe, Achille. "Revisiting 'Historical Trauma'," Keynote address at Recognition, Reparation, Reconciliation Conference, Stellenbosch University, 8 December 2018. Unpublished.
Nuttall, Sarah. "Dark Light: Coming Out of Trauma," Plenary address at Recognition, Reparation, Reconciliation Conference, Stellenbosch University, 7 December 2018. Unpublished.
Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard.
Piketty, Thomas. 2015. Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture. Nelson Mandela Foundation. Transcript at https://www.nelsonmandela.org/news/entry/transcript-of-nelson-mandela-annual-lecture-2015
When I ask the women at Hleketani Community Garden what the garden has done for them, the answer is immediate: “It heals us.” They break into a call-and-response song: “Where do we heal? At the farm!”
In this post I'll consider, as much as possible through the farmers' own words, the nature of the historical trauma they experienced under apartheid; the political – resistant – response they developed; and the forms of healing that the farm continues to offer 26 years after its founding.
Hleketani Garden was founded by several dozen women in 1992, in the throes of the tumultuous transition from apartheid to democracy, and in the midst of a severe regional drought. In other writings I analyse the farm as a case study in social economy – a collaborative, grassroots enterprise with a social remit, whose purposes go far beyond material benefits to generating a community of cooperation and mutual help. These kinds of initiatives are proliferating across the globe – small, constrained, but meaningful acts of self-determination in an era of increasingly precarious livelihoods, soaring inequalities, and ecological devastation.
Under apartheid Jopi village was in the so-called homeland of Gazankulu, which was envisioned as a rural enclave for women, children, and elderly people of Tsonga ethnicity – their men were the labour force in the mines and cities. This rural-urban binary is misleading: people and resources circulated among these spaces, within and in infraction of the strict spatial regulations of apartheid. Yet rural space was, under apartheid, a space apart. Prior to 1970, when the people of what became the village of Jopi were forcibly removed from the countryside and placed in a cramped new space they would call “the lines” in reference to its tight grid pattern, the countryside was a heavily female domain. The twenty-seven women from the farm recall their lives in the countryside – a place they insistently refer to as “our home” – as healthy, traditional, unencumbered. No doubt there is some nostalgia here; some retrospective reanalysis in light of the historical trauma entailed in their removal from the countryside. Yet their stories of life in the countryside are of a piece:
“Back then there was enough rain, there was water in the rivers. Everyone ate from the big gardens. Children learned to plough [grow food] from their mothers and grandmothers" (Sara); "We had to cook with a big pot” to accommodate the produce of their vast gardens. “At the countryside we had space for sorghum, we had space for maize, we had space for squashes. … It was a healthy life" (Dinah).
The women don’t recall much direct intervention in their lives from the apartheid state before 1970. Sara recalls that “the only thing white people would do is come and arrest you when you didn’t pay the permit for your dog or your bicycle.” Substantial service had to be paid to the hosi (traditional chief), but the apartheid state felt distant. The major exception was the impact of the migrant labour system – a system that was a product of British colonialism, and that carried over and took on particular manifestations under apartheid. Its effects were deeply felt across families and kin groups. The men lived in workers’ hostels and women were not allowed to visit. “Distance made a very big gap between husband and wife,” the women say. Husbands were away most of the time, only entitled to holidays from work for – at best – 21 days at Christmas and a shorter break at Easter. Some got home only once every few years. Many of the women recall being afraid of these virtual strangers. Daina’s words are poignant: “you had children with a person you had no relationship with.”
Their rural lives changed in 1970, when households were “chased” from the countryside to the lines. Formally, this enforced move was part of “rural betterment” planning, a process aimed at improving rural economies to ensure they could support and reproduce the segregated African population (e.g., through infrastructure projects like dams; conserving soils and trees). “Betterment” was infused with the belief that black people inhabited a backward and wasteful subsistence economy. Chiefs found themselves agents of policies rooted in a logic and set of priorities alien to their society, and which (as historian Peter Delius shows) “most rural residents saw as profoundly invasive and destructive.” The forced move to the lines was part of what scholar Cherryl Walker calls the “unruly multiplicity” of actual land dispossessions. The women view it as forced removal. They acknowledge certain benefits – their children would now go to school, girls included; new rules protected many kinds of trees. But the dominant memory is of a profound, collective trauma. From their vantage point nearly half a century later, the removal from the countryside was a tear in the social fabric from which their communities have not recovered. As Mphephu puts it, "They didn't better anything. They destroyed our lives." Across seven years of interviewing, the women consistently cite the move to the lines as the root cause of many present problems, including chronic food insecurity. And it brought home the harsh realities of apartheid: the government “started controlling us when we moved to the lines,” Sara says.
Memories of removal are vivid and charged. “The government came with donkey carts, we loaded our things, they said ‘we’re showing you your land.’” These are the words of Daniel, the husband of farmer Mphephu. He was at work in a mine on the Rand when the dispossession occurred. “I’ve got nothing to say. Not one of our family remained there. I can’t find words” to express the losses – loss of land, of home, of the graves of the ancestors. The forced and inhumane nature of the move still stirs anger. “It was heavy,” he says. “We were not in control … They never consulted us. It was an order,” and it was very clear there was no recourse. “Who were you going to complain to?” he asks bitterly. “This was not happening in Jopi only; it was happening across South Africa.” Here he links the tragedy of his kin to that of the community and the nation. The women’s tones are similarly sharp in discussing these events. “There was nowhere you could go and ask,” Mijaji says. “The only thing we heard is that there’s new stands and we have to go. Women were not allowed to attend the meeting” where their indhunas (headmen) passed on the order, so they heard even less than the men.
After being “chased out” (ku caciwa) of their homes, given little chance to prepare, people arrived at the lines – the village site – to find few arrangements had been made for the sudden influx. “The only thing they gave us was stand numbers,” Mphephu says. “They should have made reservoirs” and other preparations. She and others, several of whom were pregnant, remember making bricks to build houses (a task requiring fetching extra supplies of water from the river). There were long days of work in an inhospitable space; Mamayila remembers working all day to build the houses, and then cooking after dark. A particular trauma for her was losing a baby and not being able to mark his grave. In the countryside the family would plant a tree to mark the burial site of a loved one. In the village they were expected to pay for a grave marker, and she had no money to do so. She is still disturbed by not knowing where that child rests in the cemetery. A more general trauma came when the local chief, Gagesha, was imprisoned. He had resisted the removals, arguing to the homeland government that at the very least proper preparations needed to be made before his people were torn from their farms. The government locked him up and appointed his more compliant cousin as chief.
“I lost everything I knew, the trees and the land,” Dinah says of the displacement. “Now the space of ploughing is very small. … We can’t forget sorghum,” the indigenous grain they no longer have space or labour to grow. Mamayila says it’s “very painful [va va ngopfu] to remember the way we were situated. It was so nice. You had enough land to have your garden, donkeys, cattle kraal, one side for goats, one side for pigs.” Today we have “maybe a cattle-kraal size,” says Sara. Land dispossession is at the heart of the trauma. “Pain comes in this way,” Daina explains. “This is my compound; right there the mango tree is somebody else’s compound.” Over the years the women have often conjured chickens as a metaphor for overcrowding in the village: “If my chicken tries to pass [the property line], it stirs up a fight between neighbours” (Daina); “If the chicken says it’s moving, it’s going next door” (Mphephu). As a group they settle on the phrase “you can’t find a place to spit” (ku pfumala vuphelo bya marha) as the most apt way to describe the lines. They implicate crowding in many of the health crises they face today. High blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, asthma, stroke, and circulatory problems are all called “diseases of the lines,” becoming widespread because “there is no air between us” (Sara). Josephine is curt: “the one who signed that paper” calling for the move to the lines is responsible for these diseases.
These recollections shouldn’t be written off as nostalgia, nor the challenges blamed on population growth. Compounds in the betterment villages are very small, an estimated 850 square metres on average, and the arable portion smaller still. Water was a limiting factor from day one, and growing demand and neglected infrastructure make water a critical concern today. Overgrazing, erosion, and other effects of overcrowding and climate change further diminish agricultural potential.
The women do not draw such a straight line between the move to the village and the crisis of HIV/AIDS; rather, HIV, for these older women, is related to cultural losses that accompanied the loss of their healthy lifestyle in the countryside. “We lost our culture and tradition when we were chased here,” Mhlava says. Daina points out that “so many cultural [practices] are not happening, because we’re sitting on top of each other” with no privacy. Elder generations used to be the main influence on children’s behaviour, including through initiation rituals; now it’s the neighbours and television, Sara complains. Then she returns to material explanations. “It’s because of hunger,” she says. Impoverished girls look for boyfriends because they hope they will give them money. Mthavini insists that what she names as a decline in morals, alongside a rise in criminality, is “happening because we are poor. Our kids aren’t working,” and the grandparents’ grants aren’t enough to meet their needs.
The women have a sharp critique of the growth of individualism and acquisitiveness, and again they implicate the lines. (They also understand that these are global trends: television both relays and helps constitute the problem, they point out.) The word they favour to describe this cultural shift is jealousy (used in the English). They allow that there could be jealousy in the countryside – people might be jealous if their neighbours reaped a better harvest, for instance. But in the cramped quarters of the village, with its many layers of scarcity, jealousy reaches fever pitch. “We’re burning,” Sara says. Being so close together means seeing everything the neighbours have, and endlessly comparing. Mthavini remembers an early Christmas in the village when she kept her children indoors all day, despite stifling heat, to protect them from the sting of not having the new clothes and special food that some children were enjoying. Rosina laments the demise of the communal ethic of the countryside, where households shared with neighbours in need without question. “Now people eat food and some they put in the dustbin, without asking their neighbours if they have eaten.”
The shift to the lines meant “all we could do was work for white farmers,” Mijaji says. “Pick tomatoes. We didn’t know that [later] the good government would come, give us a farm in our village to plant tomatoes and grow.” That grant of land and borehole well, provided by the hosi and the departments of health and agriculture in 1992 (transition era), changed their lives. “The farm makes us forget what we had in the countryside,” Mhlava says. The forgetting heals. “The farm is our hospital.” This six-hectare garden is the first place they have felt “at home” since the countryside. Mamayila puts it poetically: “Our hearts are back to teenagers. Our hands are so strong. Only our legs are painful.” She picks up a stick and acts the part of an old woman hunched over a cane: “In the morning I will have to drag myself out of bed, walk with my walking stick, and think about my home.” Several say they would be buried at the farm if given the choice, underscoring its role as home.
The founding of the garden was grounded in women’s resistance to their predicament, resistance enacted through their communal tradition. “One finger cannot feed us,” they say. “We had to work together.” The strategy is driven by their determination to resist the deepening challenges of hunger, poverty, and unemployment in their households and community; and to “make something for ourselves” as women. By a number of measures, the farm has been a success. In material terms, as Daina puts it, “Our people are being saved, their lives are being saved. There is no more kwashi because of this farm.” (Kwashi, for kwashiorkor, is the local catch-all phrase for malnutrition.) In commercial terms its success has been very modest, but only the agricultural extension officer measures success in those terms. The farm’s impact on fragile household economies is substantial. Women describe how the “seconds” (blemished vegetables) they take home from the farm twice a week free up scant household income for children’s school needs, other household needs, and savings clubs. Importantly, take-home vegetables free up cash to buy water, something many households have to do two or three times a week due to the dwindling and crumbling municipal supply. Even at the height of drought in 2015, when the farm was without irrigation after a major theft, they managed to provide their households with indigenous greens that they encouraged on the margins of the farm.
The farm enables the women to enact the communitarian ethic they revere from the countryside. They see themselves as a linchpin of the wider village community. In addition to making available nutritious, diverse, and affordable produce to a community 40 km from a supermarket, they donate their produce to families hosting funerals and to the very ill. The community is proud of “their farm,” the women say. For Florah (now retired), “[t]he reason I work here is not for the sake of [financial] benefit or the sake of my health. It’s for the community. We are supporting a very big community.” This rhetoric of community service, the gendered respectability that flows from this role, and the sense that they are able to feed the “big community” are fundamental to the women’s resilience and recovery from loss.
The women have built their own empowering community inside the fenced perimeter of the garden. When they walk through the gate in the morning they enter a space of healing: a refuge from abusive husbands, out-of-work adult children, or other stresses at home. They have built community across three generations; they have secured and elaborated positive social identities for rural women, in a context where this group remains one of the constituencies most likely to live in crushing poverty. Through their daily, monthly, and seasonal activities, working side by side in the heat and dust, the women of Hleketani Garden have managed to re-inhabit the social identity of productive farmers. They are healing themselves as farmers, as women, and as reproducers of households.
But always, the power of local self-determination is circumscribed. The women’s successes, inspiring as they are, mustn’t blind us to ongoing structural oppressions. Their priorities clash with, and are often subjugated to, those of an agriculture department focused on profit maximization and marketization; a local and national economy that is still shaped by the legacies of racialized land ownership, and defined by poverty and precarity; a global political economy that privileges multinational agribusiness and supermarkets as sources of food; and a development assistance economy in which the activities of women like these are barely legible. The women have laboriously carved out precious space for self determination – precious, and precarious.
Delius, Peter. 2008. "Contested Terrain: Land Rights and Chiefly Power in Historical Perspective," in Aninka Claassens and Ben Cousins, eds., Land, Power, and Custom: Controversies Generated by South Africa’s Communal Land Rights Act (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press).
Harries, Patrick. 1989. “Exclusion, Classification and Internal Colonialism: The Emergence of Ethnicity Among the Tsonga-Speakers of South Africa,” in The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa, ed. Leroy Vail (London: James Currey).
Hay, Michelle. 2014. “A Tangled Past: Land Settlement, Removals and Restitution in Letaba District, 1900 – 2013.” Journal of Southern African Studies 40 (4).
Vibert, Elizabeth. 2016. "Gender, Resilience, and Resistance: South Africa's Hleketani Garden," Journal of Contemporary African Studies 34 (2).
Walker, Cherryl. 2008. Landmarked: Land Claims and Land Restitution in South Africa (Johannesburg: Jacana).
Sara is quick to sum up the experience of Hleketani Community Garden with government funding opportunities: “It seems like they don’t want us to apply.”
In the past seven or eight years the women have attempted to apply to many programs, from the agriculture department to the lottery, from supermarkets to small ngo’s. It’s a harrowing tale. Usually they hear of opportunities through their agricultural extension officer, who’s been supportive with advice and encouragement over the years. He brings them an application form and one of the couple of women who reads English decodes it as best she can. As Sara says ruefully, “with our high-level education we can’t do the papers.” They enlist the help of two high-school teachers who have been generous with help in the past (they’ve tried many teachers, but most look over the complicated forms and tell the women “whoa whoa – you better take this to someone else”). They proceed through the forms only to find – again and again – that they’re missing this or that required piece of information. For at least three years their efforts were stymied by the refusal of a government office in Pretoria to send the farmers their non-profit registration number. The office insisted the number had long since been sent by post (it was never received), and staff were unwilling to help the farmers further.
Do they think the fact that they’re politically powerless, older rural women stands in their way? Certainly. “They don’t want us to apply.”
The farmers’ experience jives with the experience of women farmers in the Global South more broadly. Women, with lower levels of formal education, are far less likely to successfully access farm credit than men (women get less than 10 percent of the credit aimed at small farmers in Africa); women are much less likely to own or control land; they’re less likely to have access to agricultural education and training; they have less access to labour-saving tools and other inputs; and they have more trouble mobilizing labour when it’s needed. These factors have been exacerbated by external assistance programs that long saw “commercial farmer” as a male occupation. Add in their demanding roles as caregivers for children and other family members, women farmers – the majority of food producers in Africa – produce considerably less food per hectare than men. As the World Bank put it in a 2014 study, “If women worldwide had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30% and raise total agricultural output by 2.5-4%.” The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that those gains alone could raise more than 100 million people out of hunger and undernutrition.
In the Q&A following screenings of The Thinking Garden I’ve occasionally been asked “Is this farm sustainable?” The questioner usually means in economic terms, since it’s very clear from the film, and from the farm’s twenty five-year history, that it’s socially sustainable. The fact that the women can rarely afford chemical inputs and use water-conserving irrigation methods mean it’s on the sustainable end of the environmental spectrum.
I understand the question. I’m open about the fact that generous folks from back home have donated to Hleketani garden a number of times since I started talking and writing about it in 2012. Could the farm run without these donations? The answer I generally give is that they were running very well – albeit close to the bone, given their community priorities – until they were hit by repeated thefts and then slammed by drought. The women date the onset of regular thefts to about 2010. These are certainly linked to deepening unemployment and poverty. Happily, theft hasn’t been an issue since a nighttime security guard was hired two years ago (one use of funds from Canada). Drought, on the other hand, is an increasingly frequent threat. Drip irrigation is the saviour here.
What I haven’t said in response to the question about economic sustainability, until now, is that few farmers anywhere flourish without assistance. Farming at any scale is a risky operation. Governments recognize this fact and routinely provide credit, crop insurance, and a range of other supports. Big industrial farmers in the Global North have long enjoyed government support at levels that many view as excessive. In Canada, where farm subsidies aren’t particularly large by global standards, OECD figures show that between 1986 and 2010 subsidies to Canadian farmers varied between $6-$8 billion per year. Dairy, poultry, and egg producers are the biggest beneficiaries (with benefits tilted heavily toward the largest producers). Canadian farmers today have access to farm credit programs and various insurance programs to help them through crises like drought, pests, or spikes in the cost of inputs. Subsidies and indirect support from government accounted for, on average, 12 percent of gross farm income in Canada in 2014.
That’s a sizeable proportion of farmer income from subsidies, but well less than the 18 percent average for the OECD. Meanwhile, more than half the money farmers earn in Norway, Switzerland, Japan, and South Korea comes from government. US farmers pull in at least $20 billion in subsidies a year (some of the most infamous and globally unfair subsidies have been abolished in recent years, but the figure stands. Today most help comes in the form of income stabilization payments when crop prices fall). It’s important to underscore that what is subsidized is not the small or mid-size family farm. Subsidies have focused on vast industrial operations producing and marketing things like soybeans and corn. As author Michael Pollan puts it, “we subsidize high-fructose corn syrup [and ethanol] … not carrots.”
It seems “economic sustainability” in agriculture is a complicated question. In wealthier countries the biggest farmers receive assistance that, for many years, seriously distorted global production and hampered market access for farmers from the Global South.
Sub-Saharan African governments committed over a decade ago to allocate 10 percent of national budgets to agriculture with the aim of increasing food security and reducing poverty. So far fourteen countries have reached or exceeded the target. With exceptions (see Rwanda’s story in Sources, below), much of the increased expenditure has not reached smallholder farmers. Little has been targeted to women. Spending has focused on expensive inputs like chemical fertilizers and pesticides, or hybrid seeds bought from agribusiness companies. Small farmers often can’t afford these inputs, nor is the political will to assist them (or the agriculture sector more generally) much in evidence in countries like South Africa.
Women, as noted, have a particularly hard time getting their hands on support. “It seems like they don’t want us to apply.” In the context of government neglect and increasing local risks – hotter winters, growing pest pressures, more frequent drought, deepening unemployment and poverty – small, no-strings transfers have been crucial. Unlike a lot of government and agency support, the transfers come in the form of funds the women can invest as they see fit. So far that’s meant drip irrigation, security, and the addition of two younger farmers. So far, it’s working.
Action Aid (2013), Fair Shares: Is CAADP Working?
Gordon Conway, ‘Food for thought from the land of a thousand hills (Rwanda),’ The Conversation June 27, 2016
Mail and Guardian (2015), On Africa’s Farms – e-book
Barrie McKenna, Taxpayers oblivious to the cost of farm subsidies, Globe and Mail July 7, 2013
OECD (2017), Agricultural Support; (2015), Agricultural Policy Monitoring and Evaluation
Oxfam, Fight Hunger: Invest in Women Farmers
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Sara MM, Josephine M, and Mphephu M, interview May 2017
Tor Tolhurst et al, Are Governments of the Right Leviathan for Agriculture?
E. Vibert and A. Perez Pinan, "The View from the Farm: Gendered Contradictions in Global Goal Setting," (in review)
World Bank, Series: Turn Down the Heat
World Bank (2014), Levelling the Field: Improving Opportunities for Women Farmers in Africa
WWF (2015), Farming Facts and Figures: South Africa
Once a year I get to spend a month or so in rural South Africa, sitting in the shade listening to the life stories of older women. The privilege is not lost on me. I listen to the women's stories, ruminate on their challenges. Then I come home to my middle-class house in my cosy seaside city and write about their lives.
Little by little I’m learning to accept the lessons these women teach. The one that keeps floating to the surface is resilience. Ordinarily ‘resilient’ is not the first word I’d use to describe myself. I might start at the other end of the spectrum, somewhere around sensitive, occasionally depressive. I’m learning.
An early lesson in resilience came in an African-style traffic jam. I’d driven Mphephu, Josephine, and Rosina on a fool’s errand to the market town. The women, who run a community vegetable farm, had a meeting with a businessman who was offering to deliver the farm’s paperwork to a government office in Pretoria. For a modest price he would get the papers under the nose of the civil servant with the power to register the farm as a cooperative. Without this man’s help the paperwork would collect dust on a desk – ‘for three years,’ Rosina predicted.
I was incensed when this fellow – whose business practice ran to holding meetings at curbside in the centre of town – admitted that he actually had no connections in the office that certifies cooperatives. I couldn’t understand the women’s response. They shook his hand politely, retrieved their money, and headed for my car. Errand complete. Weren’t they angry? Didn’t they want to tell him how they felt about wasting half a farming day on a fruitless trip to town?
‘It happens,’ Mphephu said. ‘Sometimes things work.’
On the way back to the farm we landed in the traffic jam. A young man in a police uniform made random, futile gestures while trucks and minivan taxis dodged around him. After sitting on the shoulder for the better part of an hour I’d had it. ‘Doesn’t anyone around here know how to direct traffic? It’s total chaos!’
Rosina reached over and patted my shoulder. ‘It’s ok, Lizzie. It will be alright.’ The farmers carried on with their conversation while I swallowed my First World pride.
The next spring, in 2014, I returned to the farm to find things in a bad state. Most of the irrigation infrastructure had been stolen months earlier. Pumps, pipes, taps – even the electrical cables had been pinched. There are many layers of disadvantage in these villages, many people in need. Someone needed the money, the women told me. Likely they came from another village. Maybe they were part of a gang.
Little time was spent discussing causes. The thefts had come at a fortunate time, if there can be a fortunate moment for massive theft. Southern summer rains were just around the corner. The farmers made a plan. With no irrigation they would have to forego beetroot, tomatoes, and the other exotics that have become their specialty. They went back to the traditional vegetables – maize, squash, and groundnuts sown from seed they save from year to year, indigenous guxe encouraged between the rows. Twenty farmers planted the full six hectares just in time for the rains. By the time I arrived they were harvesting the last of the groundnuts, carefully plucking every kernel from the soil. At 30 rand (C$3) for a coffee can full, nuts are a precious commodity.
To my fresh-from-Canada eyes the farm was a disaster. Desiccated maize stubble is not picturesque. Mildewed, picked-over squash vines do not suggest prosperity. Rosina set me straight, as is her way.
‘We got a full crop of maize,’ she said. ‘We will start again.’
Start again, as they’ve done so many times in the past twenty-five years. The women set up the farm in the midst of a drought in the early nineties, when their children and grandchildren were ill from malnutrition. Then, as now, they had to make a plan. If they got together, they reasoned, maybe they could get support from government or the local chief and build a well. Neighbours thought they were unrealistic, if not crazy. ‘Vegetables like tomatoes, onions, they were for the white people down by the river [with irrigation],’ Rosina said.
I don’t know the source of this kind of resilience. My partner may be on to something when he says the women don’t have the luxury of giving up. But that’s not enough. Many people around them have given up. In a place where half the population is officially out of work, giving up seems like a rational choice.
The farmers’ explanation is that working together makes them strong.
The farm is a community of women; it’s like a ‘big, a very big family.’ This is a message I find both hopeful and distressing. Of course working in a team can bring strength and its own pleasures. But it’s a model that has trouble gaining traction in our acquisitive, individualist society. We’re a culture of self-reliant individuals. We’re supposed to do it ourselves.
It dawns on me that this has been my challenge. For much of my working life I’ve been trying to prove myself as an autonomous individual. Alone, fragile. The women at the farm have taught me otherwise.