One brick at a time

2012-06-16 09:14

A group of gogos from Newcastle show us how to build a future

A booming brickmaking industry in Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal, is proving right the lyrics of a 1980s pop song: sisters are doing it for themselves.

That’s because the brickmaking businesses, called emgodini (meaning holes, but also informal businesses), around Newcastle are run largely by women, many of whom are in their 50s or well past retirement age.

The money they earn from brickmaking has been used to put scores of children and grandchildren through school and into university.

There are four mgodis (big holes) in Newcastle’s Blaauwbosch township.

The plots where they are found were initially used for coal mining, but now it’s the special soil here that gives brick makers their secret ingredient.

“I cannot tell you when or how this started, my child, but all I know is that when I joined in the 1980s, this business was already booming,” says 58-year-old Thandekile Makhaza.

Makhaza says the business helped put her three children through tertiary studies. With the money she makes from selling bricks, she also funds and runs a chicken business.

Business is so good that she’s now roped in her husband as a partner and obtained three new plots of land from which to produce bricks.

She and others rent their plots from property owners, known as o-mastende.

She also gives jobs to younger boys and men from the Blaauwbosch area. (Her eyes are failing, she explains, and she’s not strong enough to dig and push wheelbarrows any more.)

The number of emgodini, also called “firms” by the locals, run by women vastly outnumber those run by men.

“I won’t lie to you, this business has money. I charge about R400 for 100 of these big-sized bricks,” Makhaza says, gesturing to ceiling-high stacks of bricks all around her.

She’s been so successful that she’s been able to sublet the land she rents from a mastende to other women, among them Thoko Kubheka (67).

Kubheka started her “firm” only two years ago. One day she hopes to have enough money to employ hired hands.

For now, though, Kubheka does all the hard work herself. Five days a week she climbs into a hole and shovels out soil.

She then carefully sorts out stones and rocks, using a sieve the women make themselves.

Then she mixes the soil with clay and a soft rock substance called idwala. This is poured into a mould to ensure that it’s the right size.

“I use about 60 wheelbarrows of the dark soil. We usually mix that with clay and idwala. I personally use about 20 wheelbarrows of clay and 30 of idwala in the mixture. I mix that with about 30 barrels of water.”

This mixture yields 1 800 bricks at a time.

After the bricks have been carefully levelled and shaped, ash is sprayed on to them using an onion sack. This prevents them from cracking.

Then the bricks need to dry – a process that, depending on the weather, takes about three days. Finally, they are baked.

Until recently, Kubheka was the sole provider for 15 people: her children, their children and her sons’ girlfriends.

“This work is hard and it can take its toll on someone as old as I am, but it is a matter of life and death for me. If I don’t work, we don’t eat. In a way it has also become a form of therapy for me.”

Busisiwe Kunene (66) says she takes arthritis medication and immune boosters to cope with the tough physical work.

She has been making bricks for 10 years. Kunene supports her four grandchildren, two of whom are still at school. All four of her sons have died.

“I get a pension, but it is not enough. This gives me an option to offer my grandchildren a better education by sending them to schools in town. But as soon as the last two get matric, I am done. I can feel that I am tired.”

Sometimes the firms are a family business, giving youngsters in the area a chance to get involved and work.

Sakhile Nkosi (21) joined his mother, Thandi, in her firm a year ago. Before that he abused drugs and didn’t work.

His mother looked after him and her six other children on her own after her husband died.
Thandi (53) has been in the business for 26 years.

Her profits have allowed her to build the family a six-room home.

Sakhile says it is sometimes embarrassing to be seen covered in mud and carting dirt, especially by more successful former schoolmates.

But he says he has never felt cleaner.

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