It is happening. This is the meaning of our struggle for freedom. What we wanted when we celebrated our democracy in 1994 when our founding President, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, promised a better life to our people. It’s finally happening in Naledi, a beautiful village nestled in the picturesque Maluti Mountains of the eastern Free State, near Ficksburg.
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
There, a community of 180 people, a third of them young children, have built themselves, brick by brick, a unique crèche and multipurpose facility, with assistance from the Earthrise Trust and its partners, including friends abroad, who came to transfer their knowledge in the science of insulation. The result is a beautifully built crèche of Basotho construction on the outside and insulation expertise from Canada on the inside. The crèche, built in only three months, is also is a world-class eco-friendly centre being launched on July 27 in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, in honour of his lasting memory to building our democracy, one village at a time.
It was built to last because unlike all the other buildings, shacks rather, with roofs held down with rocks, this crèche is the first to baptise the new beginning of building the village of their dreams on land that they finally own.
But the crèche is but a small part of a larger, beautiful story.
Through its partnership with the Earthrise Trust, a non-profit organisation that owns the Eagle Valley Farm (formerly Rustlers Valley Farm), they will never again face the prospect of eviction. (Disclosure: I, Jay Naidoo, am part of the Earthrise Trust and this is where I have been for the last two-and-a-half-years.) They have land title. This was, after all, the basis of citizenship. Not living at the mercy of farm owners ever again. Now they can begin imagining building a home, and not just a shelter. EarthRise Trust donated the 42ha on which sits the village; this represents a third of the arable land that the Trust owns. The Naledi community are now growing their own crops, building their own livelihoods and raising their cattle on the rest of the land. They will never fall asleep with an empty stomach again.
Imagine if the farmers of this country would give not a third, but 5% or 10% of their land to those workers who help built up their wealth over generations?
There is a farmer nearby who owns 3,000ha. He is wondering how to end the trouble and to work with farmworkers on his land. What if he gave 200ha, or even just 100? What difference would it make in his life to live with 2,900ha instead of 3,000? None. And he told me he is willing. But what does it mean to the life of the workers? It means the world! It means they can grow their own food, care for their own children, construct their own homes. They will protect what they own. Land ownership will bring them and our country bread, peace, hope and a livelihood.
Take for example what Anton Chaka, Chair of the Naledi Village Committee, did – something everyone in Naledi village thought crazy; years ago, he built himself a house on Rustlers Valley farm. He knew he could be bulldozed off it at any moment, and he’d get away with only the windows and the zinc roof. But he was willing to take that risk, because he didn’t want to spend his life in a shack. Now, over 20 years later, the village owns the land on which Chaka built his house. “It ended up being a good bet,” he told me.
Having land is one thing: what to do with it is another. So EarthRise Trust and Naledi Village first asked: What problem were we wanting to solve? Whose problem were we wanting to solve? How were we going to solve it? Who was going to solve it?
Our starting point was the community. We listened carefully. We talked and discussed over months. These were lessons we had learnt over our decades of involvement in organising workers, learning to listen and to engage without imposing solutions from the top.
The community decided that its first construction project would be the building of a crèche and multi-purpose centre that would provide a pathway of hope, education and learning for their children, out of the poverty and marginalisation they lived in. It would include a computer learning centre and be used for community meetings in the evenings and at weekends.
What has changed for communities like Naledi in 22 years of democracy? Here was a community, like thousands of others across our country, without land tenure rights, no water, electricity, sanitation and a school that was dilapidated and children from toddlers up whiling their way watching the cars pass their village and leaving them behind in poverty and social deprivation.
To make matter even worse, a neighbouring white farmer had cut off the water to the village because he had accused someone there of theft. It meant dealing with the brash negligence of local Ficksburg Municipality which, while sending in a water tanker with drinking water, has spent hundreds of thousands of rand in two botched attempts to drill a borehole. Its failure is largely its refusal to consult the local community and wide-spread corruption.
But nevertheless the Naledi community battled its way forward, united by its vision of building a village of the 21st century. The Earthrise Trust/Naledi Village partnership agreed to formulate an understanding of what skills already existed in the village. We said we didn’t want “workers” but people to build the vision. We didn’t want to take them back to the old system.
Our shared vision was to build a beautiful community, working with beautiful people, building pathways of hope and opportunity for the beautiful children who made up a third of the village. The school, built by the community years before, was falling to pieces. A single dedicated teacher, Justine Rapulumo, had spent 20 years as the principal, teacher, social worker, psychologist and general administrator, teaching across six grades in two basic classrooms. Her annual budget for resources was the equivalent of what we pay a professional plumber in a city for two or three hours’ work.
Her plea echoed in my mind: “Ntate Jay”, she said, “Most of the children arrive here for grade one, not knowing how to even use a pencil. We have to have a crèche where basic reading, writing, logical and play skills can be taught. This is the only way our children could succeed.”
Another village elder is Jappie Lephatsi, the manager of the Earthrise Mountain Lodge, a social enterprise whose profits are pumped into the development of the village and community agricultural co-operative. I marvel at his generosity even towards those who have abused him in the past. His smile and good humour are unshakeable. He revels in sharing his skills. All electrical work has been done by Jappie and he has already trained others.
The team under him were all given contracts and job descriptions were spelt out which agreed with compliance to the wage determination for the area. It sparked a huge discussion across many villages. Others asked why they couldn’t have the same rights. Eventually general wages and compliance with labour standards in the district rose. Unlike in many other parts of the country, there were no strikes, violence or even formalised negotiations.
I look around and see how land lies idle in the hands of absentee landlords while huge shanty towns surround even rural towns. We could have insisted, just like in Naledi Village, that land be shared with farmworkers, who could be mentored by the farmers to become entrepreneurs and benefit from the food value chain, including access to the market. Government could regulate that the retail sector pays a fair price for the produce of smallholder farmers. At present I know that the Naledi Village Co-op is screwed every time it tries to sell to the commercial retail sector.
We would by today have created millions of community-driven livelihoods in agriculture, secured household food security, eliminated malnutrition and made a huge dent on poverty. I know that there is nothing in our Constitution that stops us from achieving this goal.
Naledi Village has shown that we do not need to wait for government or laws or even unrest and violence to act. We know that if people own the piece of land they live on, they can build a life. We are told we are a food secure country. But 14-million people go hungry every day in South Africa alone. A community driven farming model would make hunger a thing of the past and create millions of livelihoods.
We could, if we really wanted to, walk hand in hand onto a peaceful path. The only requirement is to share a little piece of land. I promise you, it will make a huge difference in your life and in the country’s life. Ask Naledi villagers. They are the living proof. And what is more, this model based on circular economy is scalable, completely self-sustaining and replicable. What are we waiting for? DM
Earthrise Trust, a non-profit trust, was set up in December 2013 with the purchase of the Rustlers valley farm by three comrades, Jay Naidoo, Kumi Naidoo and Gino Govender, who had worked together as social activists over decades.
This Op-Ed is based on a book written by Jay Naidoo on “Organising Change in the 21st Century”, to be released shortly.
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