We are in KwaMbonambi to meet a group of small-scale sugarcane farmers who have formed a cooperative with the assistance of the South African Sugar Association and provincial government. It is a hot day here and the meeting is taking place in a garage. The heat permeates the air as we wait for the start of the formal proceedings. The Chairperson of the uMhlana Cooperative, Sfiso Mngomezulu, 41, welcomes representatives from the sugar industry and government to the meeting. He is with fellow members of the cooperative.
Established in 2011, it has not been easy for this cooperative. They had 73 members with at least 200 hectares of land but things have changed drastically since then. Today there are 13 members remaining, with combined 27 hectares of sugarcane! The burning question is what happened. Well, some aspects of the tale of this cooperative reads like a soapie or movie script. Apart from internal squabbles, Mngomezulu says some of those who left the cooperative hired a hitman to get rid of him. Mngomezulu and two of his colleagues were once subjected to a vicious beating which landed them in a clinic while others had to seek medical attention from private doctors. They were numerous attempts to sabotage the work of the cooperative. The drought also almost destroyed them.
Through sheer dedication and commitment to their cause, the remaining members have decided to soldier on. With the help of the sugar industry and provincial government, they now have 72 hectares of sugarcane. They leased the land from other community members. They have tractors and a workforce of 47. “We are working very well with the current members. Many are old people who have entrusted a young person like me with a leadership position. We are going to succeed,” says Mngomezulu.
The meeting comes to an end and we drive in a convoy to inspect the sugarcane fields. What we find is impressive work. There is no doubt that the intervention of the industry and government is bearing fruit.