The Story of South African Farming is a Women’s Story

The story of South African farming, especially small hold or small scale, independent, subsistence, emerging or peasant farming is a women’s story, and not peripherally or secondarily. It always has been and continues to be.

But you wouldn’t know it from reports on farming. Take the case of Kenalemang Kgoroeadira. In 2009, Kenalemang Kgoroeadira founded the Thojane Organic Farm. Last month, Kgoroeadira was awarded the title of Best Subsistence Producer in South Africa. Congratulations to her! Here’s how the Mail & Guardian covered Kgoroeadira’s accomplishments:

Kenalemang Kgoroeadira combined two passions — empowering women and farming — when she founded Thojane Organic Farm in 2009. This partnership has been a resounding success and has earned Kgoroeadira the title of best female subsistence farmer in South Africa. The 61-year-old started the project on a hectare of land as a cooperative of six members. Just three years later the farm produces tons of green beans, spinach and tomatoes, which is sold to local markets and school feeding schemes around Boekenhout village near Rustenburg, North West. Some of the produce is donated to hospices. The produce is healthy and environmentally sound because it is grown without the aid of chemicals, which can strip the soil of its nutrients. Instead, the farmers use fertilisers that are found naturally, such as chicken manure. This forms part of the co-operative’s commitment to maintaining agricultural systems that are similar to those found in natural ecosystems. The cooperative recently started a herb garden with rosemary, thyme, lemon grass, mint, lavender and garlic. Kgoroeadira says they plan to extract essential oils from these herbs to protect their crops. They also aim to supply retailers that sell organic produce, such as Woolworths. ‘Our mission is to train women and young people to become food producers,’ says Kgoroeadira.

It’s a good story. But somehow, when the focus shifts from Kenalemang Kgoroeadira to ‘farming’, the empowerment of women drops by the wayside. In fact, women drop by the wayside. That’s what happened in a recent piece focusing on “South Africa’s farming failings”.

The multi-media multi-panel exposé of the ways in which the apartheid legacy haunts South African farms and farming opens with a powerful interview of Kenalemang Kgoroeadira being her powerful self, and talking directly about women farming:

I used to go and till the land because that’s where we got food. Our grandmothers and our mothers used to pay school fees with a basket of eggs, and that means farming was very important to them. Because the history of this country, because of migrant labor, our parents, our fathers, were pushed to Johannesburg and all over to come and work, and the women remained in the rural areas and they tilled the land. And they raised their children, and they tended to the cattle, to the sheep, to the goats, to the chickens. They kept the home fires burning. I thought it is time for me to go back home, for me to re-Africanize Phokeng.

And that’s what she did, because it was the right thing to do, because it was time, and because the memories, the spirits, of ‘our grandmothers and our mothers’ inspired and compelled her.

The interview with Kgoroeadira is the longest interview of the six video interviews. It offers the most impassioned and insightful analysis about the State’s failures to support subsistence farmers appropriately. And hers is the single most powerful voice to be heard among the otherwise all male speakers.

And it is the first, last and only explicit reference to women. As Govan Mbeki wrote, so many decades ago, the women who engaged in the peasants’ revolt did so partly because they were targeted in particular ways by apartheid policies and practices. As the men were pushed here and there, the women tilled the land. Apartheid haunts the South African subsistence farm. Ask Kenalemang Kgoroeadira. She’ll tell you. The struggle continues.

Further Reading

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