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Farmer takes sweet water to the people

Published Feb 16, 2001


Northern KwaZulu-Natal farmer Charl Senekal spends his day in khaki shorts, but this week he dusted off his only suit for a visit to parliament.

For as far as the eye can see, the land surrounding the town of Mkuze belongs to the Senekal family - but soon more than 200 000 people will be benefiting.

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Senekal, 52, is a shy man with a big heart and a determined personality. This week, dressed in his suit, he shyly waved at the parliament members, overwhelmed by the circumstances which brought him to this day.

"I came from a poor background. My father was a teacher in Pongola," he said.

He was 21 when he started working at a sugar mill, and spent 13 years learning as much as he could about the subject, while putting money aside.

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He then leased his first sugar cane farm. His father told him he was crazy.

"My father told me that we Senekals worked for others and not ourselves," he said.

But Senekal proved him wrong. By the end of the year he was able to buy his first farm. He then spent the next 21 years buying, developing and selling sugar cane farms in the Pongola area.

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Two years ago, Senekal, with his wife Elise and children Dreyer, Charl, Andre and Mari, moved to Mkuze and bought Mkuze Estates.

"We went from strength to strength and are now one of the largest producers of sugar," he explained modestly.

But Senekal saw the poverty of the area around him and became determined to put Mkuze on the map for something other than an area hit by floods.

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The Jozini Dam was just a few kilometres away, yet no water was being pumped for local use.

Instead, the surrounding communities had to contend with a trickle of dirty piped water, and often in the winter months the Bethesda Hospital had no water at all.

Senekal and his eldest son Dreyer, 22, decided to do their own feasibility studies. They discovered that for R20-million they could lay glass fibre piping, which would not only provide water for irrigating their own sugarcane fields, but also for their private game reserve and the 200 000-strong local community.

While the original studies quoted R40-million, using their own equipment and staff, the sugar barons had a plan which would cut costs by half. But they could not get permission to pump from the dam.

As the family sat watching Deputy President Jacob Zuma's 1999 New Year's Eve address on television, Senekal turned to his family and said: "That is the man I need to speak to."

Senekal contacted the deputy president's office and when Zuma was in the area a few months later, he granted Senekal 10 minutes of his time.

That was all it took for Zuma to tell him that he would like to see the man who would try to stop him. Ten days later Senekal had permission to draw the water.

Driving through the town on Friday, Dreyer pointed out 60 hectares of land on which a housing project is in the process of being completed.

"We gave that land for the housing, and that plot next to it," he said nonchalantly.

Further along, farm workers were busy laying the water system.

"We hope this will be completed and water flowing by April," he said.

He argues that the water will be the cleanest the area has seen, flowing right to taps in the community instead of the locals having to carry buckets of undrinkable water.

"We are so happy," said Phineas Hlatshwayo, who lives in the community.

Hlatshwayo said the residents had been worried about their health and the new water system would make their lives much easier.

Local Councillor Tim Moodley said this would be the first time the Mkuze area would be getting purified water, which was a basic need.

"The water was very limited and of a poor quality; it will be much better now," he added.

Senekal will not stop at the irrigation system. By the end of August he will have created and planted close on 30 plots of land complete with irrigation system for emerging farmers.

"Should these farmers be successful, they could earn R40 000 a year net profit," he said enthusiastically.

Dreyer explained that when his father set his mind on something, he demanded that it be done "yesterday".

"We have a lot of plans for this area," he added, grinning.

On Tuesday, on his way to a meeting, Senekal received "the call" from Water Affairs Minister Ronnie Kasrils, inviting him to Parliament.

"I just continued driving straight to the airport and climbed on the first plane," he added.

Kasrils pointed him out to the members of Parliament and Senekal slowly got to his feet as they all started clapping.

"I felt very small - but it was the greatest moment of my life," he said humbly.

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