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Fieldtrip 2015: The Graves of Development

Monday, September 28, 2015

This trip could not have come at more opportune moment. In the middle of an exhausting first semester, it was a welcome reprieve to participate in a special field trip that followed our Agriculture and Rural Development module. Our lecturer Dr. Ngcoya said he wanted us to “see, smell, and taste the issues we covered in class.” The positive mood, the excitement and the ecstasy of exploring Mtubatuba had gathered from the day it was announced that the Special Module II would take the format of a trip to a project in Mtubatuba.  

The Graves of Development

Fieldtrip to Mtubatuba an eye-opener for Development Studies students 

This trip could not have come at more opportune moment. In the middle of an exhausting first semester, it was a welcome reprieve to participate in a special field trip that followed our Agriculture and Rural Development module. Our lecturer Dr. Ngcoya said he wanted us to “see, smell, and taste the issues we covered in class.” The positive mood, the excitement and the ecstasy of exploring Mtubatuba had gathered from the day it was announced that the Special Module II would take the format of a trip to a project in Mtubatuba.  

For some, it was not new, especially those who are indigenous to KwaZulu-Natal, but for those like me, coming from Lesotho, it was an eye-popping study trip, turned exploration. Mtubatuba is a small town north of Richards Bay, close to the entrance of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in KwaZulu-Natal. It is some 55 km south-south-west of Hluhluwe and 28 km west of St Lucia.

The town derives its name from the name of iNkosi Mtubatuba who was the leader of the Mkhwanazi people until his departure in 1954. According to witnesses, iNkosi Mtubatuba was wealthy and flamboyant. He owned hundreds of cattle and legend has it that when he bought his Pontiac in 1939, he called upon his closest followers to his money (hundreds of cases, bags and tins filled with pound notes). He bought the car cash. He also attempted to buy into the railway line that was built by the Hulett family sugar company but they rejected his move. The historian J.C. van der Walt says the local people argue that Mtubatuba means “he who was pummelled out” or “to strike repeatedly”. Part of our excursion also involved “striking repeatedly” as we visited many places in the town and surrounding area.

We first visited the informal market in the center of town, then a cooperative agricultural project, the local health services, a community around a coal mine, and concluded the trip with a visit to the local Department of Agriculture.

The informal market is in the center of town and is similar to bustling commercial areas across the African continent. Yet we also witnessed the harsh realities that market traders face – the near impossibility of squeezing out profit from hard and unforgiving concrete of the market. They trade against and along the dominant supermarkets like Spar, Boxer, Pick and Pay, etc.  

The costs of production, transport, and lack of buying power make their lives difficult. Traders sell all kinds of wares, products, and services: shoemending, fruit and vegetables, household goods, traditional medicines, etc. A heart-rending story was of a granny who has 12 grandchildren and uses her old age pension to care for them while also taking part of the money to sponsor her business enterprise, in order to feed the extended families. She works with her unemployed daughters who also have children. She said: “I use my pension to feed 12 grandchildren who stay with me. I also use the pension to buy stock for this business, but profit is not forthcoming as we only make business during month-end to the first days of the following month when people have earned their salaries.”Of this phenomenon, my colleague Sibahle put it thus during our reflection session: “The visit provided great insight on farming in rural areas and how the informal market is the efficient system to sell crops that are harvested. However, the informal markert showed gender disparities as more women were found selling vegetables. This provides an interest picture of the gendered roles in society where women have been assigned the role of securing food which is reflected in the informal market.”

We spent the second half of the day with a jack-of-all-trades entrepreneur, Mr Thomas Khanyile, champion of the Kukhalisela Cooperative outside Mtubatuba. We got to understand measures taken by the rural people who are pushed to the margins of society. He revealed that they produce cassava, pumpkins, and vegetables for the market as well as for consumption.

 The concept of popular economies was laid bare: bee-keeping, processing chillies, training of a group of drummers as well as a registered agricultural cooperative that farms on the banks of the Nyalazi River. Yet, thanks to lack of a generator, they lost much of their produce to the drought that has devasted Mtubatuba in the last few years. The sad irony is that the water is a mere 100 metres from the fields but they cannot access it. He laments that a generator would help him pump water and the project would make a breakthrough. Amid the challenges of drought, his produce still survives the odds. His hopes are further shattered by absence of any assistance from the government, except for a green water tank provided by the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs. This was a typical example of the challenges that farmers in rural area often face – poverty amidst plenty.

In the struggles of the cooperative, we witnessed the challenges of an organised formal structure which were different from what we saw at the end of the day when we visited a singular small-scale farmer who produces organic indigenous crops.


Mrs. Mthethwa, or Gogo Qho as she is famously known, is an extraordinary woman who practices permaculture.

She takes pride in producing rare indigenous crops and fruit and converts them into cakes and muffins as well. Gogo Qho’s permaculture is enlivened by her sentimental attachment to doing things her own way, the original and traditional style.

She scoffs at the so-called genetically modified foods (GMOs), which she says is not good for health. She cooks her own pot, which is distinct from that of the rest of the family and claims she keeps fit and healthy. She has two plots, one in the yard and another one a few meters from the home. It is from these plots where she grows 184 natural herbs. Gogo Qho is unique in that she does not follow the conventional agricultural practices of growing crops.

We ate all our lunches at her house. One of my classmates was alarmed that such delicious food is not available in the regular markets and restaurants. It was easy to relate her efforts to the idea of food regimes and the dominance of the corporate food system.

If we were buoyed up by the visits to Mr. Khanyile and Mrs. Mthethwa, but the following day was deflating. We headed to the Somkhele coal mine in the Machibini area to meet a group of women who are victims of the mining activities. The nine-year old coalmine rides roughshod on the rights of the people residing in the nearby villages and caught the ire of the students. A group of desperate women who have taken it upon themselves to fight the oppression of the mine does not mince its words when it unfolds the incidences of oppression inflicted upon them by the mine’s authority. Surprisingly, the mining operations have been blessed by the chief of the area, who acted in cahoots with mine authorities to cheat and exploit villagers. It was the negative ramifications of the mine – coal dust that has changed the outlook of the village, the blasting that has left houses for many household cracked, and the culturally insensitive relocation of the graveyard.

The chorus of our hosts was that the mine has wreaked havoc in the village, as it has corrupted the police, the chief and councillors who are only infamous for unfulfilled promises. A more frightening episode is the one where the mine’s disrespect for the cultural norms and values of the community manifested in the reckless relocation of a graveyard to a nearby village. The new cemetery is in a sloppy area, which exposes the graves, which is abominable in the area due to cultural sensitivities attached to the deceased. We visited these “graves of development” and what we saw was appalling as some of them have caved in, thanks to flooding. An immeasurable pain was carved on the faces of the women who showed us around.

Even more disheartening is the fact that there is no substantial social responsibility done by the mine for the benefit of the community, while it is harvesting millions in proceeds. While we were standing opposite the road of into the mine, we counted over 50 trucks line up outside the mine ready to transport the wealth from the village to financial capitals of the world, leaving a trail of black soot, dust, sickness and death behind. There was the resource curse in movement!

Another stop was to a clinic in the village, it became apparent that though it is a government-owned health facility, it faces great challenges of non-availability of medication to the patients, such that the nurse who spoke with us said she sometimes has to fork out money from her own pockets to support the system. She noted something that impressed us a great deal, however. She says there is now notable change in the mind-set of the community so that she now sees more and more men  taking responsibility for caring for their children, debunking the myth that men are immune and phobic towards child care and family nurturing.

All these issues in Mtubatuba take place against the backdrop of a political crisis. The Municipality is riddled with infighting as the two parties that joined forces to form a coalition government at the municipal level – African National congress (ANC) and the National Freedom Party (NFP) could not come to terms on a number of issues. The coalition was a result of an election that bore no outright winner, forcing a coalition.

Last year, the Mayor and Speaker were recalled and the municipality is in limbo. We interviewed a senior official who confessed that the fracas to political immaturity and lack of leadership. Service delivery to the Mtubatuba area is at its lowest ebb while political bickering takes its toll at the expense of the people.

We concluded this informative trip with a visit was to the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs where the senior officials introduced the department’s functions to the Mtubatuba area in as far as agricultural and environmental issues are concerned. It was good to hear government’s perspective on the issues we saw in the gardens. The officials sited lack of resources and personnel to cover the vast area under their administration.

We hope Development Studies will continue this field trip in years to come and that more of these opportunities will be offered. As our lecturer Dr. Ngcoya said, “These visits are extremely important for me as a teacher and researcher and I learn from the students and the people we interview. It is challenging to pull off a programme like this but I think that students gain a lot more from discussing deep conceptual stuff in the real world. Our serious reflections and discussions were very informal and often went late into the night. Surely, this is superior to pontificating about things in some dry, detached and airconditioned seminar room.”

By Mzimkhulu Sithetho: MA Student, Development Studies

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