Back to farming

2009-02-18 00:00

The Mziki Agri-village in the rural area of Springvale near Ixopo covers an area of 190 hectares and will eventually provide the setting for 385 homes, each on a 2 000 square-metre plot. The size of the plot will allow homeowners to engage in subsistence farming and thus become self-sustaining.

“These people have got nothing,” says the driver of the project, Peter Cornelius. “There’s no point in just owning a house. We are training them to help themselves; to stop the migrations to towns and to make them self-sufficient.”

“The idea is to create as much open space as possible,” says Cornelius, “and all the arable areas will be put under cultivation. The housing plots will be used for subsistence farming and the communally owned land for commercial enterprise.”

Cornelius is the former owner of the farm South Hills on which Mziki — the Zulu name for reedbuck — is now growing. “It began in 1993 when I was approached by the now late Professor Ngomo from the Ugu Municipality and Robert Ntombela from the Department of Agriculture. There had been a terrific drought and they asked if I could help.

“People were in need and something had to be done. The idea of a self-supporting agriculture-based community seemed a good idea, otherwise what would happen to this community?” But Cornelius didn’t impose his idea on the local community. “We consulted with them. We spoke to people and found out what they wanted — it was not just a case of we are going to do this and do that.”

Initially, there was opposition to the venture from local farmers fearing the creation of a badly managed township, but they were won over to the concept and when it was put to the vote at a local farmers’ association it was supported by 17 votes to four. “The majority said go for it,” says Cornelius

In 2003, Cornelius sold his farm — with the exception of five hectares — to the Ubuhlebeze Municipality and was then employed by the municipality to act as the implementing agent for the construction of the houses.

Funding for the building of the houses was obtained from the Department of Housing, while the Netherlands-based Vebego Foundation funded extras, such as training, tools and other items that the department didn’t provide.

The first houses were built in 2006 by the people who would live in them. “A special training school was set up,” says Cornelius. “They were trained in bricklaying, carpentry and plumbing.”

So far, 141 houses have been built and phase two has just commenced to reach the total of 385 homes. All the houses that have been built are now occupied and owners have been found for the remainder. To qualify for a home, a person must be over 21, be a first-time homeowner, earn under R1 500 or, if that is not the case, have dependents. “Most people who apply are unemployed,” says Eunice Khumalo, secretary of the Mziki steering committee. Over 80% of current homeowners in Mziki are unemployed.

As well as houses, basic infrastructure has been put in place, including roads, a reservoir and a dam. Now that the first phase of houses are occupied, agricultural training will commence.

Six months ago, the Rural Women’s Movement (RWM), headed by Sizani Ngubane, became involved with Mziki. “We are coming here to provide business skills and lessons in permaculture,” she says. “We are also here as women’s rights activists to look at issues of gender equality and to see how there can be more benefit for the women.”

Ngubane recently facilitated a visit to the project by students from the Harvard Law School in the United States. “They turned their legal lenses on the project to see how they could assist,” she says. “In June, a different group will come from Harvard Law School, but this time they will be business students.”

Ngubane has organised for Food and Trees for Africa to give a 10-day course in permaculture. “We also have links with Cedara Agricultural College, which will help in teaching business skills,” she says.

Cornelius sees the Mziki model as one that addresses contemporary needs. “Mziki comes at the right time,” he says. “In a time of worldwide recession we’ve got to get back to basics. Lots of people are being retrenched and coming back to the rural areas.

“And we need to try to stop the migration to urban areas, because when they get there, there is nothing there for them.”

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