‘Just the guy next door’ fixing crises

James Martin delivers a video message about labour relations from his Karkloof farm. Picture: Supplied.

James Martin delivers a video message about labour relations from his Karkloof farm. Picture: Supplied.

Published Jan 21, 2023


There’s a trouble shooter who keeps pitching up with solutions at problem spots in the province.

During the 2021 riots and looting, James Martin was in the thick of talks between taxi owners and security personnel to end the mayhem. Last year he got traffic officials to do their job properly on Town Hill, the stretch of the N3 that had become notorious for truck crashes, causing losses of life.

Currently, he is spearheading a project to get independent power producers to supplement the local Midlands grids during load shedding to save jobs and attract investment.

And now, as South Africa drops into a new level of crisis, he is looking at the beleaguered agricultural sector and has spoken about one small thing everyone can do to build stronger relationship.

The Karkloof farmer and head of the Umgungundlovu Municipality’s economic recovery unit believes that now, more than ever, farmers need to work together with those who work and live on their farms.

“What has become more and more evident is that unless we start to interact at another level, at a slightly more respectful level, the tensions I have been seeing over the last couple of years have started, possibly, to develop and rise,” he said in a video on social media this week.

He has suggested three “really simple interventions many of us, including myself, would benefit from, as well as the communities”.

Firstly, the use of the words “Nkosana” and “Nkosazana”.

“In Zulu culture, an Nkosana is the oldest son and the oldest child.

“In my case, I was the youngest son and yet I was called Nkosana. When I raised it with some of my friends in the commercial agricultural space they confirmed that it’s because of my superior education that I was bestowed the title Nkosana.”

Martin said he thought about when he was given that title: “When I was six months old.”

He said he was called that by people ranging from hitch-hikers he picked up to workers he employed.

“I believe the unnecessary use of a racially charged historically abusive relationship, under the name of Nkosana, has allowed us as commercial farmers to perpetuate a blanket of tension and power dynamics on farms that is no longer appropriate.”

But if it’s not Nkosana, then what is it?

“In my case, because I am English, it’s perfectly normal to call us by our first names. In Zulu culture that’s not the case.”

He said it took six years for employee Bheki Zondi to change from calling him Nkosana and taking his hat off to calling him James.

Secondly, there was the issue of shifting from calling his workers by their first names.

“The use of first names for adult men and adult women in Zulu culture is insulting, especially by someone younger than themselves.

“It’s unheard of that in any Zulu gathering or social function that a younger person would refer to someone senior to them by their first name. It’s either they are the father of somebody’s child, or the mother, or by their surname.”

Martin called on farmers to consider making a shift from using first names in the workplace.

“I know it’s something we’re accustomed to but I have watched it. It makes such a difference to refer to people by their surnames because, when they go to a function and they are the most senior person there, they are treated with that level of respect.

“They come to work on Monday morning, work on the dairy floor, and they are one up from a boy because they are being called ‘Bheki’ by someone in his 20s. That dynamic is an unnecessary pain many Zulu workers feel because it is so misaligned to what they experience in their cultural norms.”

Thirdly, there is the issue of praise names, said Martin.

“Many of us are not familiar with how important praise names are in Zulu culture. They can go back several generations and, in many cases, refer to the nuances of what a family was doing.

“They are integrated into the pride of that person’s surname. It’s like pudding on the top of your surname.”

He suggested farmers use them to acknowledge someone for doing something good.

“To use that publicly is showing the group and it’s showing that person that you are acknowledging them in the highest way.

“Instead of saying ‘Bheki, what a great job you’ve done’, you say ‘Mr Zondi, Nondaba’. All of a sudden you will see such an amazing shift in the way that person responds to you.”

So, who is this do-er who emerges during times of trouble?

“I’m really just the guy next door,” said Martin, 56.

Next door, though, has been where one has a foot in both the white English and black Zulu worlds, having grown up a farm kid in Karkloof.

“Growing up on the farm I was part of the farm soccer team. We grew up in a very rural environment. My Zulu was not bad,” he said.

The environment, and his liberal-minded parents, were instrumental in removing racial prejudice held by many of his contemporaries, “clearly upsetting some teachers” at Linpark High School during apartheid.

He is moving back to the farm, making his commute into Pietermaritzburg longer.

A BSc Agriculture graduate, his career has spanned from entrepreneurial ventures to agricultural and business development work, being on the national executive of the taxi organisation, Santaco, and training newly-elected councillors.

“I have a passion for supporting local issues and to redress the economic imbalance of apartheid,” he said.

He said his was one of the first farms to give land to workers and people who lived there, “turning them into neighbours”. It has gone well, going from a power relationship to an adult relationship.

He questioned whether “overprivileged people wake up in the morning on a 2 000-acre farm and ask – what did I do to deserve this? Too much privilege for a race group to sustain and not acknowledge.”

Martin’s involvement in Town Hill came from his leading the local community policing forum (CPF), in which he started taking an interest after a home invasion eight years ago.

His area included the notorious stretch of road.

“When people started dying in our precinct on the N3, it became a very personal matter..

“Why allow people to die in our own suburb – even if they were visitors? One death is one too many,” said Martin.

“Through our influence we put a lot of pressure on authorities to speed up safety interventions.”

He said CPFs had limited authority.

“We often don’t exercise it to the extent we could. We managed and, if necessary, we shall do it again.”

The Independent on Saturday