Mzansi’s ‘oldest farmer’ defied immeasurable trials

The late Mahlomelane Mthembu (98) was a life-time farmer who began actively engaging on burning issues in the agricultural sector in the early 1990’s. Photo: Funiwe Ngwenya/Food For Mzansi

The late Mahlomelane Mthembu was a life-time farmer who began actively engaging on burning issues in the agricultural sector in the early 1990s. Photo: Funiwe Ngwenya/Food For Mzansi

In this moving piece, Magnificent Mndebele and photographer Funiwe Ngwenya reflect on the life of one of South Africa’s oldest farmers who died aged 96. Mahlomelane Mthembu defied all odds to persue his passion for the love of the land.

Mahlomelane Johannes Mthembu was a life-time farmer. Even when his love for the land and farming was unrequited, he opened wide his heart and soul to his passion of farming. Mthembu’s perspective and ideals unveiled a deeper layer of what land truly symbolises for a farmer.

He lived in a three-roomed shack in his 8.5-hectare farm at 80 Sweetwater Street in Doornkuil, just outside De Deur in Gauteng. He was 96 years old when he died on 3 March 2021.

His health had deteriorated over the years due to hard labour. He had excess fluid in his lungs causing his heart to swell. He finally succumbed to frail health.

It was around May 2019 when he afforded me the opportunity to deeply understand the kind of a farmer he was. His farming journey, documented by Food For Mzansi, revealed experience of trauma associated with land dispossession and forced labour. This is also aptly reflected in For the love of the land, a book by Ivor Price and Kobus Louwrens which featured diverse farmers across the country.

So, how did he acquaint himself with agriculture? He was born in Emangusi, north-east of KwaZulu-Natal. His father had six wives, and his mother being the last wife, Mthembu was the last-born child to his parents. His father had 40 children, 17 of whom were girls and 23 of whom were boys, including him.

“I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I started herding my father’s cattle, since age was not something we really cared about then,” he told me. Later, he left home to look for a job. “I started my first job on a sugarcane plantation at Empangeni. I worked there for two years and then moved back home.”

“As my life draws to an end, I know that I have used everything I can to protect my land,” said the 96-year-old Mahlomelane Mthembu in his last interview with Food For Mzansi. Photo: Funiwe Ngwenya/Food For Mzansi

A pan-Africanist farmer

In October 1948, he left KwaZulu-Natal for Gauteng to work in the mines. “I must have been about 19 years when I decided to look for a job outside KwaZulu-Natal,” he said, adding that after a couple of years, his employment ended. Remember, this was during apartheid where African people had to carry passes.

“I had to stay illegally closer to the City of Gold at Thobi Street in Sophiatown. My papers were outdated because I owed a pass tax to the apartheid government,” he said, adding that the tax was ipondo (R2) for a year, “which I had failed to pay, and the debt had accumulated to eight pondos as I stayed longer and longer”.

These outstanding pondos are at the heart of what brought him back to agriculture. But this time, in a different context. When the police arrested him for failure to produce a pass and work permit, a suitable repayment was to sell him as a slave labourer to different white farmers across the country. He resented such brutality and eventually joined the fight to reclaim the rights of displaced and landless people.

When the country transitioned into democracy, Mthembu began to actively engage on issues that were at the heart of agriculture.

“Through my organisation, the Sizanani Agricultural Community Development Project, I conducted intensive agricultural training in partnership with the Gauteng Provincial Farmers’ Union,” he told me, adding that his admirable work led him to be recognised as the organiser of the year in 2001.

His solidary also influenced the kind of crops he’d produce on his farm. “On this farm…I only plough African vegetables,” he explained, adding that he mostly specialised in organic African vegetables such as Zimbabwean onion, spinach from Zambia, Mozambican beans and other vegetables such as potatoes, chillies, green pepper, sweet potatoes, carrots and tomatoes.

“My love for pan-Africanism developed during my activism era and I plough these vegetables to honour the heroes and heroines whose lives became a sacrifice for our land,” he said.

No financial assistance

For the most part, he ran his farm without any financial support. “When I received the farm from the government, I was promised financial assistance, which never happened,” he told me his frustrations about land reform policies.

And, of course, there are many up-and-coming farmers – in terms of scale of land and access to market – whose farms usually collapse because of lack of financial capitalisation. Mthembu was no different. Mthembu’s frustrations were not misplaced. Despite the lack of support from all fronts, it’s his perseverance that made him an extraordinary farmer.

“Most of the space on my farm has been colonised by weeds and grass. I know that I am no longer strong. I struggle to walk, so now I plough while seated on a crate. I have decided to find two workers to assist me,” he told me.

“Since I do not earn much, I give them whatever I have. I cook for them and pay their salaries with my pension money. Often, this leaves me without any money to sustain myself. I improvise and sometimes eat some of the produce from the farm.”

Despite repeated promises, the late Mahlomelane Mthembu never received any financial support from government to run his farm. Photo: Funiwe Ngwenya/Food For Mzansi

‘I have so much love for the land’

Besides the government’s unwillingness to assist him financially, he surpassed immeasurable levels of sabotage. For example, not far from his farm lies a township called Kanana or Thulamntwana. Due to high levels of unemployment, many of the youth survive by engaging in criminal activities.

“In 2009, I planned to establish a poultry business, but my dreams were cut short when criminals came at gunpoint and stole all the corrugated iron used to cover the poultry shed,” he said, adding that criminals only spared two corrugated iron sheets on the shed.

The criminals did not stop there. Others came to steal two JoJo tanks, each with a capacity of 5 000 litres, which helped him to irrigate his crops.

“I was torn apart,” he said with a heavy heart. “With the proceeds from my produce, I saved up to R7 000 in order to request the municipality to put a metered box on the farm so that I could irrigate my vegetables.”

Again, the criminals returned to break into his shack. They stole all his food, the produce he kept in the house, and the ploughing and harvesting tools he used on the farm.

“I am a farmer, and I don’t want my farm to die,” he said emotionally.

“Though I have very little of great value, I consider myself very wealthy. I am at peace because I own land, which represents life to me. Without it, I am nothing. My farm is on the verge of collapse. I have every reason to leave and live elsewhere but I have so much love for the land.”

It is these anecdotes that have come to define Mthembu’s character. “Umhlaba is the beginning and an end of life,” he said, adding that although he couldn’t achieve all his aspirations, he’d have died trying. Indeed, he’s unashamedly stood for what he believed in – the love of farming.

Hamba kahle, Mkhul’Mthembu.

“As my life draws to an end, I know that I have used everything I can to protect my land, even when crime has hit me hard and obliterated all my ambitions and dreams. I do know that this land is mine, which is the most important and greatest asset on earth. As I prepare to part from my physical being and return to the soil, my great hope is that the land…continue to be kind and sustain life.”

ALSO READ: Former Umkhonto we Sizwe soldier finds solace in the soil

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