Her late father sowed the seeds of farming in Lindiwe “Lee” Hlubi. Not only has she become a sugarcane farmer, she has booked herself a place in the annals of history as she is the first woman and first ever black female Vice-Chairperson of the South African Sugar Association (SASA), a statutory body representing the country’s sugar industry.
Coincidentally, Hlubi’s dad (Mduduzi Hlubi) passed away at the age of 51 and Hlubi would become vice-chairperson at the age of 51! Or is it fate? In a one-on-one interview with the SA Sugar Journal, she reveals that while growing up in the township of Lamontville she observed with keen interest how her late dad, Mdu (as he was fondly known), went about farming. “My father was into pig and chicken farming. He also grew vegetables such as cabbage, sweet potato, maize and amadumbe (yams),” she says. Her dad excelled in farming and would always produce a surplus of vegetables. A kind-hearted soul, he gave the extra vegetables to crèches and hospices in the area.
“My dad planted a seed. I was inspired by him to pursue farming,” she says. Hlubi owns a 196-hectare farm in Nkwalini, Eshowe. She grows sugarcane, vegetables and has recently added livestock (cattle and goats). However, never in her wildest dreams did she ever think she would feature prominently in the country’s transformation journey by becoming the first ever black female vice-chairperson of SASA since it was established. “This is exhilarating. I must say I am a little bit nervous, but absolutely certain I will rise to the occasion. This means a lot for the acknowledgement and recognition of women’s leadership abilities, capabilities and skills. It is an affirmation that women can do it. Society as a whole has denied us as women opportunities. This, indeed, is a great development,” she says, smiling from ear to ear.
The new SASA leadership comprises Hans Hackmann as the Chairperson and Suresh Naidoo as the other Vice-Chairperson. Hackmann is from the milling sector while Naidoo is a sugarcane farmer from the South African Cane Growers’ Association (SACGA). Hlubi wears another hat as the vice-chairperson of the South African Farmers Development Association (SAFDA). The new industry structure is as the result of the gazette by Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies on 9 October 2018. The gazette effectively amended the SASA Constitution and the Sugar Industry Agreement to ensure more inclusiveness. As per the gazette, the transitional period commenced on 1 April 2018 and ends on 31 March 2020. But “After consultation with the Association (SASA), the Minister (Davies) may extend the Transitional Period whenever necessary by publishing notice of each extension in the Government Gazette by the date on which the Transitional Period is due to expire”.
What are her pressing objectives during her term of office in the new position? “As it is my first time in this role, my priority is to learn from those who have more knowledge. I have previously held vice-chairperson roles, for example at SAFDA, however the needs from an industry level are a bit different. You know in the US, a new president generally gets 100 days in office where he is advised not to make any major decisions. During these first 100 days it is necessary to first get an understanding of processes and reasons that things are done in the way that they are – in this way, it helps the president to understand the potential consequences and get to know the people behind the decisions as well. So, I think I would like to take a leaf from that tested method and spend some time just learning.”
She intends to be an unapologetic proponent of transformation in the industry. “I think the issue of transformation as well as diversity are very important topics that the entire industry and all its stakeholders need to start focusing on. I hope that I will be able to add a different perspective to the new leadership team with the chair and vice-chair and that together we can drive transformation to ensure that the South African sugar industry becomes a leader in this area.” She adds: “Fortunately, the industry has taken the first steps in this journey of transformation, with the inclusion of SAFDA as another farmer representative organisation, the R172 million immediate transformation interventions initiative, as well as the five-year transformation plan. This was done with a lot of support by government, the Department of Trade and Industry in particular, with the intention to uplift the black farmer.”
Hlubi has a corporate world background. She holds a business science in administration degree. Prior to entering the farming world, she was in human resources development at the then Hillside Smelter in Richards Bay. As fate would have it, she ended up in farming, following in the footsteps of her late dad. She has now inculcated the culture of farming in her only child, Mbongeni, with whom she co-runs the farm. From generation to generation, as they say. Farming has become the DNA of the Hlubi family. She has been farming since 2007. Her farm makes a meaningful job creation in a country with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. She employs a total of 38 people. A born leader, she has always led from the front since becoming part of the farming fraternity. She used to lead land reform farmers (the reference group called NAREG) in the province and South Africa as a whole.
Hlubi is a workaholic and a strong woman who derives most of her traits from her mother, Sulekile – a prayer warrior who has been the glue of the family. Her mom is a retired health educator, but she still volunteers her time and skills in service of the elderly… driving long distances to help those in need of home-based care in some remotest places of the province. It is said that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so does Hlubi have any hobbies? Not really! Her life is all about farming, farming, farming! And, of course, she spends as much time as possible with her grandchildren, Mmeli and Solami. As much as she is extremely passionate about sugarcane farming, she loves her family to the moon and back! So sweet!