Mooing cattle and cellphones

2010-09-08 00:00

IN the Okhombe community hall Siphiwe Dubuzane welcomes a group of research students from the University of KwaZulu-Natal by displaying the words — in English and Zulu — on the back of his blue shirt: “Keeping cattle in a changing rural landscape”.

It is the name of a research initiative undertaken by the Centre for Environment, Agriculture and Development (CEAD) at UKZN that grew out of a participatory livestock management project in the area. Okhombe is a ward close to the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site where 4 000 people live in six villages that fall under the jurisdiction of the Amazizi Traditional Administrative Council and the Okhahlamba Local Municipality.

When a communal grazing system, based on rotational resting of grazing camps, failed to take off in the area, it was decided to investigate more closely the relationships between cattle, people and landscape in order to find out why. Monique­ Salomon, a researcher at CEAD, heads up the initiative which consists of an interdisciplinary research team from UKZN and seven community members, including Dubuzane, cattle herder Madodo Zondo and induna Mandla Xaba.

Findings so far indicate that stock theft has emerged as a key determining factor in dictating where people graze their cattle. Dubuzane has first-hand experience of it, as he has had nearly 30 of his animals stolen. “They stole three or four animals at a time. Thirteen cattle, 10 goats, and five horses.”

But stock theft is not the only driver. Over time a number of factors have changed cattle-grazing patterns, including, in the sixties, a “betterment­” programme that saw people scattered among the Drakensberg­ foothills gathered together in villages. “So once, where homesteads grew crops around them and grazed cattle, people now have to take cattle long distances to grazing,” says Salomon.

A large dam constructed in the seventies also led to more people being concentrated on less land restricting livestock mobility.

“This period saw the end of traditional cattle herding,” says Salomon. “In the past herding was the entry point into Zulu culture for young boys and men, but now boys go to school and the men go to work in urban­ centres. Cattle herding has become the domain of those left behind, often the elderly. They tend to just take them up into the hills and leave them. At weekends they send children to check if the cattle are still there.

“Most cattle keepers let their cattle graze on the lower hill slopes instead of higher up on the mountain because of stock theft,” says Salomon. “They want to be able to keep an eye on their cattle. Although we had expected to generate recommendations for improved communal grazing, stock theft emerged as a key issue for community action.”

Of the 148 households in the village of Enlanokhombe in Okhombe only nine have full-time paid cattle herders. “They sleep with the cattle overnight as that is the best time for stock theft,” says Salomon, “but during the day they go back to the village. There is no longer day-and-night herding as in the past.”

For the people of Okhombe, stock theft — mainly cattle, but also horses­, sheep and goats — has become a major issue. “When we were still boys in the fifties there was not much stock theft,” says induna Mandla­ Xaba. “And then people only stole animals to eat — they stole chickens and goats. This was still the case up to the nineties. When I came back from Johannesburg in 1999 it was much the same, but from 2000 it has become a huge problem. So many cattle are taken, and not just in the mountains, but from our homestead kraals.”

Who are the cattle thieves? “People usually say it’s the Basotho,” says Xaba. “But we also find cows in the surrounding areas. So people who live in the area are also involved.”

Asked why people steal cattle, Xaba­ rubs thumb and forefinger together: money. “People are not stealing to eat these days — they steal cows to buy cars,” he says. “People steal and sell cattle to buy taxis. There is a new saying in Zulu: ‘you take taxis from here and bring them to the mountains and leave them to sleep’.”

Most commonly, the “taxis” stolen from Okhombe are herded up the passes into Lesotho and are then taken­ to be sold at auctions in Qwa Qwa where they fetch higher prices, ranging from R5 000 to R6 000 an animal.

Zondo, who is a paid herder, says that he knows of animals being sold for R7 000 and has heard of someone asking R10 000 for an animal. Zondo has been involved in recovering cows from Lesotho on several occasions. “They were worn out and thin; they had been walking for a month. They had been eating dung. The sheep and the goats had died and the cattle­ ate the skin. You can’t just walk them back down again.”

But taking them back is an expensive business: R500 per animal to get them across the nearest border by truck to Qwa Qwa and then the hire of another truck to take them back to Okhombe. “The police don’t provide transport,” says Zondo.

But stock theft is also a two-way traffic. “Sheep get stolen in Lesotho and brought here,” says Xaba. “The animals get sheared and the wool is sold. The owners come from Lesotho and find their sheep standing around naked. They have spoken to us and said that they would like to co-operate with people here to bring stock theft to an end.”

A community organisation has recently been set up in a bid to combat stock theft — it’s called AmaVimbela, which means “the blockers”, from the Zulu verb vimbela meaning to block the way or to prevent. Members can be contacted via cellphone if cattle are stolen.

”We formed AmaVimbela to stop cattle being stolen,” says Xaba. “Or, if they are stolen, to get them back before the thieves get over the border. If they are found in Lesotho we have to pay so much to get them back.”

There is no fee to become a member of AmaVimbela, but people who get cattle back have to pay the expenses of those who went to look for them and they also have to provide food. “Currently our members are people who have had cattle stolen,” says Xaba.

They rarely find the thieves as stolen cattle are taken to valleys and left to graze, according to Dubuzane. “We get to hear via word of mouth,” he says. “If people see people with cattle who are not from around here they ask them why they have these cattle, and they often get scared and run away leaving the cattle.”

Currently there are only eight members of AmaVimbela. “People are afraid,” says Xaba, “and they also want to see if it works before they join.”

Xaba is confident that AmaVimbela will expand its membership and, working with the local SAPF Stock Theft Unit, it will begin to reverse the crime trend that is the main threat to their community and way of life. “All over cattle theft is on the rise,” says Xaba. “If you wake in the night and hear cattle mooing you call around. We have to do something.”

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