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WORLD FOOD DAY

Defiant joy in Montagu – women smallholder farmers hand out seedlings and a little hope in fight against hunger

Defiant joy in Montagu – women smallholder farmers hand out seedlings and a little hope in fight against hunger
In Montagu, smallholder farmer Reinette Heunis hands out vegetable seedlings she helped grow, on 28 October 2023. (Photo: An Wentzel)

Hunger is a growing problem in South Africa and women smallholder farmers are fighting to be part of the solution. World Food Day earlier this month shone a spotlight on a growing problem.

Daily Maverick headed out to the town of Montagu at the weekend – about a two-hour drive from Cape Town – which feels like almost another country. Approaching the toll gate which signals the Huguenot Tunnel on the N1, the world starts to change and the buildings and suburbs beside the highway fall back.  

Baboon troops and families cluster at the edge of the road, climbing up the pass in the early morning, intently and efficiently picking grubs out of the gravel – and sometimes out of each other’s hair. 

Once you emerge from the 4km efficiently chiselled hole in the Du Toitskloof mountain, you may have a slight carbon monoxide buzz if you left the windows open even slightly. But you forget this as the sky opens up and seems to pull back; higher and bluer than city eyes are used to.

women smallholder farmers

Passing Robertson to get to Montagu, mountain vistas and shadecloth. (Photo: An Wentzel)

You drive on, skirting the Robertson wine valley, passing beautiful vineyards, manicured farmlands and brooding mountains looking over it all. Turn left onto Long Street and then another left, then right, followed by a hard left, which turns you into the King Edward Stadion. Here, on Saturday, 28 October, you are brought face to face with the defiant joy and sense of community, embodied by about 500 people, mostly women and almost all in the economic lower middle class, in a daily fight to survive. But today they are doing a little celebrating.

women smallholder farmers

About 500 people, mainly women, gather in Montagu to commemorate World Food Day and assist and support each other in fighting hunger. (Photo: An Wentzel)

The Trust for Community Outreach and Education (TCOE), based in Mowbray, is a nonprofit which works towards transforming the agrarian sector, looking at issues of land and democracy and access to land – specifically land as a means and source of food production. This work is especially poignant in South Africa and Africa where research has proven that women produce most of the food but own very little of the land. 

And while in sub-Saharan Africa, 60% to 80% of smallholder farmers are women, only 15% to 20% of women are landholders, with female-headed households on average having 45% less land than male-headed households, according to the UN’s Regional Outlook on Gender and Agrifood Systems. Reviewing statistics and gender audits of agricultural investment plans in 40 countries, it revealed that women not only lacked ownership of land, they also usually held land that was not easy to farm and also often had a difficult time accessing water. 

These issues were raised in Montagu on Saturday, but the focus of the gathering was more on solutions than problems. The Rural Women’s Assembly (RWA) had organised the event to “commemorate both the International Day of Rural Women and World Food Day”.

Opening speaker, the RWA’s Denia Jansen, told the assembled women and children and a handful of men that there would be no waiting for government assistance or resources because, “they don’t have any for us – they only have what they stole… so as women we must be serious about our issues and we have to stand together.”

This led into an Afrikaans song in which all joined heartily; “nie een-een-een nie, nie twee-twee-twee… almal tesaam (not one-one-one or two-two-two but all together)”. This summed up the mood of the movements and people present – they were serious but hopeful, energised and most of all united and working towards solutions.

Read more in Daily Maverick: World Food Day – South Africa’s runaway hunger problem

TCOE co-director Lungisa Huna addressed the gathering by calling for a moment of silence to:

“Remember what is happening in the Middle East, but also a moment of silence for all the human lives lost – also in all the wars in Africa.”

However, while there was hope and unity among the women, there was not much to celebrate:

“We cannot celebrate Women’s Day and Rural Women’s Day when there is so much hunger… Even in this area, on the one side of the road riches, and on the other side poverty. Our government has failed us and we have to hold government and municipalities to account.

“Climate change affects us, floods washed away soil, gardens – we are facing a climate crisis. We are nearing 30 years of South African democracy, but what has changed? So we have to stand together.” 

TCOE co-director Lungisa Huna addresses the gathering, surrounded by her colleagues, at King Edward Stadium in Montagu on 28 October 2023. (Photo: An Wentzel)

A young local female poet, in a stirring reading of one of her poems, said people had lost “die true meaning van life” in the pursuit of capitalism:

so gaan aan, gat maar aan met
die gejag en baklei vir moola

(go on, keep doing what you’re doing/chasing and fighting for money)

The only male speaker was Brian Ashley of the Alternative Information and Development Centre, who said one of the things society in general needs to do is stop talking about climate change and start talking about a climate emergency.

Ashley said everyone should have a decent life but:

“Our people are going hungry because ownership of the land is in a few hands… seeds are owned by big corporations and water is controlled by big farm owners. The reason eight million children go to bed hungry every night is because some people have taken all the wealth – they produce for profit and not for need.”

He also said that climate change was being felt most by women and small farmers who did not have the means or resources to recover from floods and droughts. He called on people to come together “like we did in apartheid… we all stood together and the government could not stand against us.”

A female farmer from Nigeria also said that women in Africa face the same issues and must unite as women, “as sisters”. She mentioned access to water specifically – “How do you live without water, how do you wash or cook” – adding that you needed it to grow your own food, and encouraged people to have even a tiny garden on a balcony or rooftop, because a small garden is “sometimes the difference between life and death”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Not so fast — targeted strategies to stop hunger fail to reach one in six children

Speakers stood together under a blue and white marquee against a cloudy sky threatening to break into rain at any moment. Also under the marquee, off to the side of the speakers, was a long table covered in seedlings. With seedlings also on the ground, around the table.

Reinette Heunis was one of the smallholder farmers based in Suurbraak who are part of the RWA and who had supplied the seedlings. She was not a speaker, but told Daily Maverick that she leased five hectares of land, which she worked with one or two other women. At the moment, she said, “one of the hectares is planted and the other four are being prepared for summer crops”.

Smallholder farmer Reinette Heunis explains how to grow the vegetable seedlings at King Edward Stadium in Montagu on 28 October 2023. (Photo: An Wentzel)

The seedlings being handed out were “butternut, pumpkin, spinach, cucumber and beetroot, so that the women can grow their own food – even if they just have a little backyard garden – and feed the children”.  

Some farmers brought some of their produce to sell – carrots, nectarines, apples, spinach and beetroot were on display, as were some fruit jams and preserved goods like olives. There were also some craft goods, including decorative stone owls with large glass eyes, covered notebooks, knitted items and homemade snacks for sale.

Khunji Mayekiso contemplates buying some of the organic produce being sold by the smallholder farmers in Montagu on 28 October 2023. (Photo: An Wentzel)

Little children played nearby under the watchful eyes of their mothers and some “aunties” – older women not related by blood but just as keen in their caretaking. A group of young girls danced and got everyone on their feet and moving, laughing and clapping.

This was a community in action, standing up for their rights and their dignity, fighting to feed themselves and give their children a better life. Some of the groups represented include TCOE, Tusimame Wanawake (movement of immigrant women on farms), Women on Farms, the union CSAAWU, Imbumbu and the Environmental Monitoring Group, 

While cries of “Amandla” peppered the speeches, and the famous Struggle song “my mother was a kitchen girl, my father was a garden boy, that’s why I’m a (socialist/feminist)…” rang out at least twice – many were stoic but all were moving forward. 

Like the Struggle songs and chants, their attitude of helping each other is encompassing “each one teach one”, and including feeding as many as you can – not waiting for the government to help, these women are intent on helping themselves. DM

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