Farmworkers reaping rich pickings from donated land
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FOR many decades, generations of farm workers inhabiting a Free State rural village, set near the foothills of the Maluti Mountains, yearned for ownership of their own land.
Present day residents of the Naledi village, 33kms away from Ficksburg, living without tap water, a supply of electricity and other necessary infrastructure, the hope of a better life became a daily prayer.
Their plight worsened when the previous owner of the farm that incorporated their village, Rustlers Valley Farm, died in 2008 and the area became fallow ground.
But through a helping hand from three well-known former Durban struggle activists, corporate businesses and government departments, the hopes of the nearly 50 families living in Naledi village were rekindled and they are now full of ambition.
Gino Govender, a former trade union education officer, Kumi Naidoo, a human rights activist, and Jay Naidoo, a minister in former president Nelson Mandela’s cabinet, were the founding members of the Earthrise Trust that bought the 273 hectare Rustlers Valley Farm in 2013.
Ever since the trust weighed-up a bid for the farm, life for the Naledi villagers took a turn for the better.
As part of the purchase and sale agreement, the trustees committed in writing their donation of 42ha of the property to the families of the Naledi Village to call their own.
The trust’s donation of farmland was seen as a groundbreaking gesture.
Farmers donating land to rural communities has been a much-talked-about subject, but few have gone all the way and signed on dotted lines.
While the residents of Naledi patiently wait for the legal processes to be completed and receive their respective title deeds, they have in the meantime, been at the forefront of having Naledi rehabilitated and upgraded by leading the thought processes and working to build a “farm of the future”.
The latest upgrade was the installation of solar powered lighting around Naledi and into a neighbouring area, which was made possible by international lighting giants Signify, better known by its brand name, Philips Lighting.
An official handover of the lighting system, which includes over 200 solar lights dotted around key points of operation in the Naledi and on the local soccer field where night fixtures can now be played, was done last weekend.
Over six years ago, only a few of Naledi’s people had jobs on neighbouring farms. State grants, goodwill gestures from family and the odd sale of cattle were the main sources of income for local households.
But through the assistance from Earthrise trustees, the government departments and others, and their own dynamism, Naledi now has a water infrastructure comprising two boreholes and a pump house.
The area’s electricity infrastructure ensures every home is connected to the national grid.
After doing much spadework at planning and production workshops, with assistance from the trust, on running cooperatives, Naledi has its own range of enterprises.
Financial aid from the Old Mutual Foundation, infrastructure assistance from the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and Afrigrow’s technical support has resulted in Naledi now having a twenty-member owned and registered enterprise, which produces vegetables and other products on the additional 28ha of land that was leased to them free of charge from Earthrise.
This has resulted in the majority of their people engaged, either full-time or part-time, in one or more of the locally-owned enterprises.
With education also a priority, Naledi has a primary school, and a few years ago, their working women, with help from friends of the trust, established a crèche.
This year, eight Naledi youngsters will sit for the upcoming matric exams, which is a first for this community.
In government circles, Rustlers Valley Farm and Naledi Village was looked at not only as a land donation case study, but also as a farming and non-farming enterprise development.
One official said Earthrise and Naledi were “ahead of the times”.
Anton Chaka, Naledi Village Committee’s chairman said they were very excited about Naledi’s developments and believed that it was the beginning of many good things to come.
“Soon we will celebrate the building of permanent houses.”
Chaka was referring to the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform’s plans for a community-build housing project, on which Naledi residents will also work.
Chaka said the transformation made Naledi the envy of neighbouring villages, who have asked how they did it.
“It is great that we have been able to hold the hands of the Earthrise Trust to achieve what we have. The trustees thought about the people of Naledi when they made the purchase, now the changes and progress is before everyone’s eyes.
He recalled how they relied on the previous owner for survival, especially the musical festivals that were staged at the farm during Easter, from the 1990’s. As it grew in prominence, it used to draw about 5 000 people.
Chaka said many of them worked on the farm, and during Easter they were able to earn more from the visitors through the assistance they provided.
But when a veld fire caused extensive damage to the farm in 2007, followed by the farmer’s death, a year later, nothing happened at Rustlers Valley. “Nature took over” until the trust made the purchase in 2013.
When Govender visited the farm, he asked Chaka what the community would like to happen if the trust purchased the farm.
“Would you give us a piece of land?”
Chaka was not not sure what response he would get to this question.
“I was a stranger to them and I've seen how other farmworkers were moved out of farms when the new owners took over.
“It was a great relief when they agreed to give us land.”
When Govender said they required the assistance of farm workers to upgrade Naledi and improve its infrastructure, as they had no farming experience, it warmed Chaka’s heart.
They moved away from the old farm owner – farmworker social relations and built a partnership which became known as the Rustlers Valley Development Initiative, adopted after many hours of conversations and consultations between the village committee and the trust. Today the committee has become an owner and property manager.
He said they were also grateful for being granted free use of a further 28ha, which was close to the local dam, to do their farming, and that they were also permitted to graze their livestock on another 110ha of the trust’s land.
About the solar lights that were installed recently, Chaka said, at night the area was covered in complete darkness, but the lighting system meant they could be productive for longer in a day and move safely at night.
However, days after Signify confirmed their investment in Naledi, the company reconsidered the viability of their donation when news of the looting in Durban and Johannesburg, during July, gained global attention.
Chaka said the looting put pressure on Signify and left them wondering whether their equipment would also be damaged or stolen.
“But we as a community previously signed an anti-crime petition, which we sent to the government and local authorities after our local bee-keeper (Molefi Ralebenya), was murdered last year. ”
It was signed by all the over 18s in community who stated they don’t do crime, hated crime, and it hindered them as they were attempting to progress in life.
The petition played a big role in convincing Signify’s heads in the Netherlands that the people of Naledi were peace-loving, and they recommitted to the project .
Chaka said they now eagerly await their title deeds from the government, which was not a straightforward process.
Despite this, Chaka says, he and his people are glad to be on the road to a village of the future, where the children can grow in freedom and dignity. ”We are building the road as we walk it”.
Working boots and all to uplift a poor rural community
GINO Govender, a founding member of the Earthrise Trust, had hands-on involvement in the acquisition of Rustlers Valley Farm and worked “with his boots to the ground” to improve Naledi, in Ficksburg, and its people.
Govender said the trust, which was formed in 2013, was in the market for space in the countryside to build a conference centre – a place where people from around the world could congregate to talk about the problems humanity faced.
It led them to Rustlers Valley Farm, which was much more than they needed.
They met Anton Chaka on site and when he took them around, they noticed the burnt out and dilapidated farm was without infrastructure.
Govender said Chaka’s request for land for the people of Naledi was to ensure they could never be evicted from the village, and they also wanted jobs.
“The first commitment we made in the title deed was to register every resident of Naledi as authorised occupants so that they could have legal tenure. We wrote it in the sale agreement for the people to have ’permission to occupy’. This was our first act of saying to the people that you will not be evicted, you belong here, and their fears of eviction were allayed.
“The government never had a policy then to allow farm owners to donate land free of charge to farmworkers. We helped the government to make a draft policy.
“Govender said they met with government officials to get legal and technical assistance for residents to effect ownership of the donated land,” said Govender.
This led to the Naledi being included in the system of land reform processes, which was handled by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform.
This entitled Naledi to government’s assistance, free of charge. They obliged by installing water and electricity infrastructure.
More developments sprouted in Naledi with time, including the local crèche which was named the Nelson Mandela Centre of Learning, with his foundation’s blessings.
Govender said he grew as a civic organiser in Chatsworth, before becoming a union organiser in the labour movement and joining the education sector.
“All my life I was an organiser, but I was never an organiser in a rural context.
“Naledi is such a beautiful community, they have been through so much historically. When Anto asked me as a perfect stranger if we would give them a piece of land, that was the question that got the ball rolling.
“The people have been very kind, warm, hospitable. We were outsiders and they shared all their knowledge about the farmland’s history and infrastructure.
“It has been a wonderful experience.”
Corporate giant gives light and hope to a farm village
Sherwin Phekun, Signify’s export manager for sub-Saharan and West Africa, said it was the mandate of their Signify Foundation to “light up the lives” of people who had no access to electricity.
Their local team identified Naledi and realised the impact lighting up this village would have on its people, which resulted in their solar portfolio and the Signify Foundation deciding to invest in Naledi.
“We donated over 200 over solar lights to light up the entire village in all the key areas of operation and the soccer field.
“We realised there would be many positive spin-offs like increased productivity on the farms and people could work till later. We also noticed that safety and security was something to consider and lighting up the village would enable women and children to walk around freely without the fear of being attacked.
“Children could leave school later, which meant more time for education. Overall, it has improved the quality of life in the village, and we have seen the appreciation on the faces of the people and its leaders.”
Phekun said the project was driven from the headquarters in the Netherlands and when the looting broke out in Durban and Johannesburg, the brakes were put on the intended investment.
But Signify did an about-turn when they learnt that the people of Naledi pledged to keep their community crime-free and take ownership of the sponsored equipment.
“By working with the community, we got more results and that was an important aspect of this venture,” said Phekun.