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Mkhondo: The untold story of a town marred by racism

The Mpumalanga town of Mkhondo has been marred by past racial tensions, but both farm workers and owners are ready to heal the hurt of the past and unite

The 62-year-old Christina Nkosi has been living on the Mkhondo farm owned by Kurt Paul (55) since she was just five. Through an empowerment project, she was able to replace her mud house with a brick-and-mortar home with electricity and water. Photo: Noluthando Ngcakani/Food For Mzansi

Following the recent killings of two brothers, many South Africans have labelled white farmers in Mkhondo as racist and violent. In search of perspective, Food For Mzansi journalist Noluthando Ngcakani travelled to the Mpumalanga town and found hope in the midst of shocking news headlines.

Tommy Ferreira’s views on the future of agriculture are a sharp contrast to the often skewed perception of the white, commercial farmer in South Africa. With more than 20 years’ agriculture experience, he has no doubt that “the people who are living on the land, also have a right to that land”.

Living in the heart of Mkhondo in Mpumalanga, Ferreira has a long track record of trying to find common ground between farmers and workers in the troubled town.

Mpumalanga Agri chairperson and timber farmer, Tommy Ferreira (45). Photo: Supplied/Mpumalanga Agri

As a large-scale farmer, he knows all too well that perceptions are formed by the shocking news headlines engulfing farmers in recent years.

“Worker shot dead by farm owner for allegedly stealing tractor,” reported the Mail & Guardian in January 2018.

A few months later, IOL declared: “Farmer guilty of killing farmworker buried alive”. Fast-forward two years and News24 announced: “Five Free State farmers convicted for beating to death two farmworkers”.

Every headline lays bare the fragile relationships in farming communities across the country. Although he has no part in it, the 45-year-old Ferreira is committed to doing what he can to unite people across racial and other divides.

More recently, his hometown has been hit by the death of Zenzele (39) and Mgcini (36) Coka. The brothers were allegedly killed by four white farmers and a black farm manager.

Just as the flames died down over this incident in April 2021, another shocker hit the town. This time around eNCA reported: “Evidence shows Mkhondo murder victims were tortured.” The accused? A group of farmers and their employees.

It’s a long, long story…

In Mkhondo, previously known as Piet Retief, relationships between workers and farmers have always been contentious, Wilson Ngema told Food For Mzansi.

He is a traditional council headman and founder of Insika Yesizwe, a local foundation mending bridges between black and white people. He said, “We remember those dark days. Our people, both black and white, are still bleeding.”

Yet, like Ferreira, Ngema is quick to remind one that Mkhondo, and other farmers, cannot be tarred with the same brush.

After all, the goodwill of farmers in this timber town has long been an everyday occurence.

The goodwill of farmers

The 55-year-old Kurt Paul of KRC Farming are among those who have made it their mission to create sustainable projects that would see farmworkers and farm dwellers developed into farmers in Mkhondo.

Wilson Ngema (55) is traditional council headman and chairperson of the Insika Yesizwe, an organisation aimed at uniting black and white in Piet Retief. Photo: Food For Mzansi

They do this because they believe the key to overcoming agriculture’s many tragedies can be found in social cohesion, said Ferreira.

“I know the goodwill of farmers. I cannot see that if we build bridges like this that a situation like Pampoenkraal must happen.”

Due to its contentious past, it is easy to misjudge the town which was once named after a Boer leader.

Black and white in Mkhondo are now actively uniting to feed the nation and to work toward collective healing, added Heyshope farmworker Muzi Thabethe (45).

“It will help us see that we need each other, and we can live together.

“When you stay together, it is not always that it will be smooth. Sometimes you will fight but there is no need to kill each other. We can find resolve if we sit and talk about the problems that we have.”

Many souls, little opportunities

In 2014, Paul started the Taaibosch Driehoek project allocating 658 hectares of land to 100 farm-dweller households on his farm. “I am responsible for 1 000 souls on my property,” he said pensively.

Due to mechanisation of his forestry enterprise, Paul is, however, only able to offer employment to 68 of those living on his farm.

Kurt Paul is the owner of KRC Farming. Photo: Noluthando Ngcakani/Food For Mzansi

“Farmers are price takers not price makers,” he explained. “The ordinary South African farmer is in a battle of sustainability. They battle to sustain themselves because input costs keep rising.”

This prompted him to look toward developing those who are also dependent on his land.

“We initiated the project offering one hectare per household. Every human being has dreams and plans. You think the labourer who lives on a farm does not have dreams? He also wants to own a car, he also wants to own a farm, he also wants to own cattle.”

Christina Nkosi (62) has been living on the farm owned by Kurt Paul (55) since she was just five. Photo: Noluthando Ngcakani/Food For Mzansi

Building their own legacy

Using the land allocated to them, farm dwellers have transformed dilapidated mud houses into modern brick houses. They also run gardens producing maize and soybeans that are sold at local markets.

“Nobody wants to live in a mud house. Look how they are falling apart. Their crops for the last year have become so much that they do not use all of it for [own consumption]. They sell it. With that surplus, they built these houses.”

Seeing their small businesses grow has sparked a culture of empowerment amongst the dwellers, added Paul.

“They are motivated. They have even started to make their own bricks as well. We give them our equipment on Saturdays and then they take the tractor trailer and fetch sand. They tip it at their house, and they go and buy cement, and they make their own bricks.”

‘A town of its own’

With all the newly built houses, the farm dwellers’ land is beginning to resemble a small town.

Paul has a long-standing relationship with many of them, including Christina Nkosi (62) who has been living there since her childhood. “I must have been about five or six when I first came here,” she recalled.

Using money earned from selling soybeans and maize produced on her one-hectare plot, Nkosi was also able to build her own brick house. 

She said, “I worked for ISF then I was diagnosed with asthma. I could no longer work because of my condition. My children do not work. We depend on grants to survive. The project has helped us a lot.”

Linda Ngwenya (30) has built a home for his wife and four children on the land of KRC Farming. Photo: Noluthando Ngcakani/Food For Mzansi

Another of Paul’s employees, Linda Ngwenya (30), started working at the KRT farm 11 years ago. To an outsider, they looked more like friends than colleagues.

A father of four, Ngwenya is the breadwinner in his household.

“While the project has helped me a lot, I still need more resources. I need to finish my house; I am also struggling with water. When it rains, the water gets a little dirty. We hope one day we can see a water cleaning plant to purify our water.

“The project has taught us how to plough and plant. We now have the knowledge to sustain our own crops.”

Power in a title deed

Despite the many good deeds, Ferreira acknowledged that relationships between farmworkers and farmers are often prickly. After all, as the president of Mpumalanga Agriculture he deals with the bigger picture on a daily basis.

“Some farm dwellers think there is a hidden agenda from white farmers to get them off the land.

On KRC Farm, dwellers have transformed their mud huts into modern houses with running water and electricity. Photo: Noluthando Ngcakani/Food For Mzansi

“As soon as you acknowledge that they have rights and that you are in the process of getting them title deeds, then there is another dynamic.”

The key to sustainability for farm dwellers living in abject poverty, lies in the issuing of title deeds, said Ferreira.

“If you have a title deed, no one can tell you to move. You take your title deed, you go to the bank, you apply for a loan, and you start farming. Why can’t we give the farm dweller the opportunity to achieve some sense of ownership?”

Seeing his project 15 years in the making is heart-warming, although it is without any government support.

“I gave government the option to buy that land 15 years ago. If you can get title deeds, you can use it as collateral to do business and become fully functional in the economy. The biggest challenge is to get government to survey the land and to get people the title deeds.”

A sense of ownership

Ferreira is also in the process of securing title deeds for 37 households on the Heyshope farm of which he is the co-owner. Among those set to benefit from his large-scale initiative is Muzi Thabethe (45), a long-time employee.

Muzi Thabethe (45) is a long-time employee of Heyshope in Mpumalanga. Photo: Noluthando NgcakaniFood For Mzansi

Thabete dreams of a community poultry enterprise.

He said, “I think the project is going to bring a lot of work. We have plans to have a garden in each home where we can plant vegetables that can bring an income.

“Our children might get some work there or even be the owner of the farm one day. If they want to get their hands dirty, because when you farm you must get your hands dirty.”

Meanwhile, Ngema, as the Insika Yesizwe founder, is hopeful that initiatives like those of Paul and Ferreira will bring back a sense of ownership to farm dwellers and workers in Mkhondo.

“If we can go along these routes, I really foresee the best results for our people,” he said.

“Now they are happy. They know they are going to harvest. After the harvest, they are going to get something. It is not a lot of money but there is value in the sense of ownership that they get from such projects.”

ALSO READ: Mkhondo: ‘Our people, both black and white, are bleeding’

With roots in the Northern Cape, this Kimberley Diamond has had a passion for telling human interest stories since she could speak her first words. A foodie by heart, she began her journalistic career as an intern at the SABC where she discovered her love for telling agricultural, community and nature related stories. Not a stranger to a challenge Ngcakani will go above and beyond to tell your truth.
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