It’s raining soot, hallelujah

2009-05-08 00:00

FROM time to time, black particles or umlotha fall from the sky over Pietermaritzburg, sooty reminders that the shimmering green on the surrounding hills is not just any grass, but a particular grass— sugar cane plantations.

Sugar cane takes two years to reach maturity. Before it can be harvested, the build-up of dry leaves and cane must be removed, either by burning or by hand, which is called “trashing”. Burning is the preferred method locally because trashing by hand is physically demanding work and makes harvesting slower.

On Donovale Farm in the Table Mountain area, cane is harvested from March to December. As they reach maturity, sections of cane are burned in preparation for harvesting. Ant Edmonds, one of the farm management company shareholders and managers, explained that the best conditions for burning are mild dew, which helps protect the surrounding cane from catching alight, and a westerly wind, which directs the fallout away from the city.

The quality of sugar in the cane begins to deteriorate once the trash has been burned so they burn only as much cane as they can harvest in two days. “An experienced cane cutter can harvest 100 metres of cane a day, cutting clumps of cane off at the bottom and removing the top section where the fresh growth is.”

Donovale is a member of the Noodsburg Cane Growers Association so the farm’s cane is transported to the Noodsburg mill that is owned by Illovo Sugar. It was still dark the morning I went to witness cane harvesting, hitching a ride on an essential part of the equipment required — a water tanker pulled by a tractor. It stands ready in case the fire jumps to a section not designated for burning. Water is also sprayed around sections before and after burning, first to act as a firebreak, and then to damp down any last embers. The driver and spray operator are vigilant, constantly keeping watch as the fire progresses.

And progress it does. From the first friendly, almost domestic-looking flames, welcome warmth in the early morning cold, it is soon a popping, roaring, red and orange storm devouring the dry cane and spitting sparks and black soot high into the glowing sky. It is so intense that the lookouts on the tractor shield their faces against the heat. After venturing closer to take pictures, I retreat to the safety of the tanker, stunned and awed by the ferocity of the inferno and the apparent nonchalance of the workers seemingly unworried by the rampant beast they have let loose.

Some of the workers are cane cutters who live on the farm, the blades of their cane knives flashing and glinting as they catch the flame light.

The sun rises, bleeding and oozing red across the horizon, as though challenging the fire for dominance of the sky. The flames surrender, and as quickly as they had raged they are quiet, their final assaults damped down by the tanker spray.

The smoke rolls and lingers over the fields as though reluctant to leave, and new sounds swell to fill the morning as 40 or so cane cutters have arrived from Copesville, hurrying to stake out their turf for the day’s work. Laughter and banter rise and the mlungu with the camera is a source of interest. Young men pose and call out: “Shoota! shoota!”, women show me their ochre face paint-cum-sunscreen, whooping as I try some on my face.

They wield their cane knives like swords, grabbing armfuls of cane and cutting it just above the roots like surgeons slicing through tendons. Some work alone, some in pairs and others in groups. It is physically difficult, repetitive and dirty work. Chopping sounds echo rhythmically: bend, grab, slash, throw; bend, grab, slash, throw ... the pattern repeats itself endlessly as they work through their designated sections. At the end of the day their output will be measured as they are rewarded for their productivity in addition to a basic wage.

They will still be here long after I leave. Bend, grab, slash, throw ... I am awed again, not by nature this time, but by humanity. My notebook and I bear the marks of the two essential elements that come together in this startling event – fire and water. I drive back to town slowly, subdued, soot-blackened and smelling of smoke, feeling as though I have witnessed something almost holy, a ritual as ancient as it is new every time it is performed.


The 850-hectare farm has been in the Edmonds family since 1916. With the assistance of the Department of Land Affairs, it is now the site of a pioneering experiment in agriculture and farm management. The land is owned by a farm workers’ trust that also has 49% of the shares in the Donovale Farming Company Pty Ltd. Brothers Ant and Chris Edmonds own 51% of the shares and manage the farm. It produces sugar cane, citrus for the local and export markets, and is experimenting with cut flowers.

The project is an attempt to address the issue of land ownership, Ant Edmonds said, and its success will depend on “managing relationships and expectations”.

He and Chris visited farms in the Western Cape to see other models of worker participation in farm ownership and management. However, Donovale is unique in that the workers not only share in the profits, but also own the land.

“Our vision is to get to a point one day where we have ‘managed ourselves out of a job’ and a younger, qualified farm manager can take over from us.”

The farm practises a sustainable farm management system developed and endorsed by the Mondi Wetlands Project and the WWF and has a comprehensive skills development plan and an adult basic education programme.

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