Its name conjures up images of lush green fields, maize blades bristling in the summer breeze. Born in the same year as the ANC, Cornfields, a village outside Estcourt in KwaZulu-Natal, was a place of hope where black people were meant to develop themselves socio-economically. But it soon became a place where black people sought refuge from the harshness of farm labour.

Illustrative of the hopes they had, the first families to buy plots of land in Cornfields from Reverend William Cullen Wilcox, the Baptist Church missionary, called the area imishini edla amafutha (the mission of fat). Wilcox bought a 1 483-hectare farm and subdivided it into 276 plots, which he sold to Africans. Wilcox had earlier played a key role in the education in the US of John Dube, the first president of the ANC. The two were of the same mind about the role of land, education and the Bible in improving the lot of Africans. Cornfields and Thembalihle would be the last of the communities that Wilcox midwifed before returning to the US, feeling defeated as his debts mounted.

Cornfields, just like earlier experiments in Edendale and Driefontein, was meant to be much more than just about land-ownership. It was a place where African Christians would carve out a new beginning, grow crops, educate their kids and attend to the needs of the soul.

As the residents of Cornfields sought to better themselves, Afrikaners were doing the same. On February 17, 1938, about the same time that my grandfather moved his family off a farm to Cornfields, Afrikaners met on the banks of the Blaauwkrantz River, the same spot where Zulu king Dingaan’s army killed Afrikaners in 1838. To get to Cornfields from the old national road between Durban and Joburg, you drive past the monument.

The main speaker at the congregation was JD Kestell – Vader Kestell, as he was fondly referred to. The theme of his speech was My Nation in Peril.

“Before us there arises a multitude of unhappy ones who, in spite of themselves, have been cast into misery,” Kestell told the gathering. His words inspired cultural and political leaders of the Afrikaners to hold the Economic Congress of the People a month after the start of World War II. Ten years later, Afrikaners gained political power, a platform they used to augment their economic power.

Cornfields has always been a tough environment – poor soil and low rainfall. Yet the early settlers managed to grow crops (maize, pumpkins, watermelons and more) and raise cattle and goats. Most landowners had orchards (figs, white peaches, pomegranates).

For the first 50-odd years of its existence, Cornfields was a tight-knit community. This was partly because access to the area was restricted: new tenants were screened by a committee of landowners. Anyone seeking tenancy had to produce a letter from where they had come as proof they were not running away from the law. You also had to be a Christian. For many years you would not be allowed to pass through brandishing your traditional shield and weapons.

The festive season was very special. On December 26, residents would congregate on Timothy Moloi’s 4-hectare property, where celebrations in the church hall included a concert. The Molois had a piano that Mkesi Moloi would play. Among the favourites was In the Mood, a tune made popular by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, over which Mkesi sang improvised lyrics, “Mr What-you-call wishes to see you tonight…”

Mkesi’s real name, I later learnt, was Moeketsi, but the Zulus could not get their tongues around his name. So they did what they have done throughout the ages – they resorted to phonetics. Among the more famous conversions are Joburg’s Commissioner Street, which is known as Unkomishana and Von Wielligh, Umfan’uvelaphi (Where does the boy come from?). Murchison Street in Ladysmith becomes much easier on the Zulu tongue as uMashisoni, the word amalgamated as emagam’ antethe.

And then there is the issue of nicknames. Everybody got one. Peers would observe one’s mannerisms, listen carefully to one’s favourite phrases or words, and study one’s body features. What was unique about your features or behaviour became your nickname.

When he first arrived in the area, Meshack Mbatha, my grandfather’s neighbour, waxed lyrical about the area. “Isethafeni, kwangcede omhlophe (It is a level country, the land of the white warbler),” he would mutter. So Meshack was nicknamed the white warbler.

Among Cornfields’ citizens were Unteth’ Inezoso (even a locust has braai chops), a reference to his lean frame. Umabonel’ emvini (the one who copied a sheep) got so named because of her pencil-thin legs. Farmers got nicknames too, partly because it allowed farmworkers to gossip about them but also because Africans did not want to waste time getting their tongues around the farmers’ English, Afrikaans or German names. Among farmers in the area were Uzibukwana (small spectacles), Usisu siyaduma (rumbling stomach), Umgoqozi (the stirrer) and Umak’fili (Mark Field).

Cornfields, a much bigger community today, turns 100 years old next year. It remains a dream defeated. This is despite the huge investments in infrastructure since 1994. It now has a clinic, primary and high schools, and a community hall.

Roads are graded regularly (before 1994, only the portion of the road from the national highway to the Blaauwkrantz monument would be graded). All rivers and streams now have bridges.

On the negative column is high unemployment and crime; there are more deaths today than when I grew up. Subsistence farming has all but disappeared. Poverty is high and funerals and traditional feasts have become the biggest poverty relief measures.

What was once a socially cohesive community, where one celebrated Christmas together, has been torn apart by the societal ills of crime, poverty and unemployment.

It remains a place of refuge, but nobody checks, or even dares ask, what the refugees are running away from.

Despite its beautiful clinic and schools, the Cornfields of today is in peril and the do-it-for-yourself spirit of its founders lies buried with them.