Khomo e kopanya lichaba: Exhibition reads Soweto’s livestock farming as a form of resistance

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A herdsman gather his cattle together on an open field in Soweto. (Photo: Kabelo Mokoena)
A herdsman gather his cattle together on an open field in Soweto. (Photo: Kabelo Mokoena)
  • The rearing of livestock in urban settings can be traced back to the 1980s. 
  • As more people from "the homelands" came to the city looking for jobs, those who were unable to gain employment returned to their birth right: livestock ownership.
  • Under another light, livestock farming in the township is a form of resistance against the apartheid system which tried to strip black people of their humanity.

It was a typical scene in Soweto, like in many other townships across South Africa, along the main road next to Orlando Stadium. The cars were bustling with cars and people were walking to and from work, school or errands. Taxi drivers honked their horn in melody. Passengers signalled an assortment of destinations: index finger pointed down meant a local trip; index finger pointed up meant a trip to the Johannesburg CBD.

Kabelo approached the busy intersection where Klipspruit Valley Road and Martha Louw Street met. He was coming from Pimville and was headed to his mother's house in Meadowlands but had to make a sudden stop.

"I couldn't believe it. Cows in the middle of a township," he remembered. "Who do they belong to? What are they for? Who looks after them? And where are they being ushered to?"

A man - presumably a herdsman – was directing the cattle across the busy intersection. Bewildered at the sight of cattle in the middle of Orlando — a first sighting for the native Sowetan — he drove off that day with a lingering feeling. Seeing the cattle gnawed at his desire for his home. That feeling was more than just the curiosity of seeing cattle in the township. It would lead him on a journey of coming home to himself. His longing for home — not the one in Soweto that he's known all his life — but the one he constructed in his imagination from years of witnessing friends and neighbours leave the township during the December festive season to visit family ko hae. The great Gauteng migration of Dezemba, as amagoduka trek back to areas previously classified as apartheid bantustans.

"I wanted a home outside of Soweto," Kabelo explains. "My mother is from Meadowlands and my father settled in Soweto decades ago with no ties to his family back in eNquthu in KwaZulu-Natal because of unresolved family conflicts, he cannot bring himself to talk about it."


The Dlomo Farming Project is situated on a wetland of the Klip River that flows parallel to the Klipspruit Valley Road, walking distance from the intersection where Kabelo encountered the cattle. The livestock: cows, sheep, goats as well as a flourishing spinach garden reside among a few kraals and small shacks. A couple of other farmers also own livestock in the area, but the Dlomos' business — a collaboration between a father and his sons — is the most noticeable because they own a significant portion of the domesticated animals. Kabelo realised that the Dlomos have a story to tell, one that dates back generations and goes beyond the streets of Soweto. Two years since his first encounter with the cattle, he has now formed lifelong relationships with the Dlomo brothers, their herdsmen and the livestock.

Bab'Dlomo left his home eHluhluwe, in KwaZulu-Natal, at the height of apartheid to look for work in Johannesburg and eventually found work at the illustrious Mariston Hotel, a 32-storey skyscraper in the Johannesburg city centre.

People like him were the invisible shoulders that held up South Africa's apartheid economy that contributed to the vast inequalities that exist today. Migrant labour was the bedrock of this oppressive system. Women and men were forced to leave their homes and children in the hopes of finding meagre jobs to support their families emakhaya. The inhumane migrant labour system was designed to exploit black people by paying them a pittance to work in the mines and big cities where they were also not allowed to make a home for themselves and their families.  Migrant labourers lived in compounds if they worked as miners and in hostels if they worked in the city - as in Bab'Dlomo's case. Single-sex hostels, where he lived in Dube, were not just accommodation, but these hostels were tools of the domestication of apartheid that live on today as sites of violence, poverty and the fragmentation of the black family.

In February 1997, Bab'Dlomo was retrenched and contemplated what he would do with his retrenchment package. "Wacabanga ukuthi into angayenza than ahambe ayofuna umsebenzi. Yini enye angayenza ukuthi akwazi ukuziphilisa? Wa cabanga itaxi ngoba during that time iaccess yamataxi yayiseningi. Kodwa ekhaya ivote la mudla ngoba kuya bulawana emataxini," explains Themba, one of Bab'Dlomo's sons.

When Bab'Dlomo first arrived on the land where his family business is situated, there was only a handful of shacks and two kraals.

"Bekune sibaya, kuthiwa esamaXhosa, kuna banye ba bizwa oNzama." Once Bab'Dlomo was granted permission to start his own kraal, he bought five Holstein-Friesland calves for R50 each. Holstein-Friesland cows are one of six major dairy cow breeds in the country, known for being the most popular and producing the highest milk quantities[1]. Was this the reason Bab'Dlomo chose this breed? Themba doesn't quite know, but considering the breed's general popularity, Holstein-Friesland breeds would not be a surprising choice.

Themba joined the business in August 2006 after he completed high school and struggled to find employment. While Bab'Dlomo is still active in the business to this day, Themba oversees the day-to-day running.

Bab'Dlomo leaving his family in Hluhluwe seeking greener pastures and ending up farming livestock is him also coming home to himself because he had reared and farmed cattle and goats back home. From the time that Themba and all his brothers were boys, they learned how to herd their father’s cattle and goats in Hluhluwe. At first Bab'Dlomo had no intentions of farming cattle in Soweto.

"Wa khulisa amacalf and then wawa thengisa, then wathenga imbuzi. Nayo imbuzi ayithenga, wayithengisa," Themba points out. He only started livestock farming in Soweto after buying two pregnant goats at an auction in Kimberley, which he could not sell. "Lezo mbuzi zam'fosta ukuthi azifuye, that's where aqala ukufuya."

Over the years, more of Bab'Dlomo's sons would also join. "Maba phuma eskolweni be base joina, but ngaleso skhathi leso sabo2011uBaba ebesekwazi ukuthi abafundise mabe qeda iskolo. Ubese nestocko esithe xa xa, esiningi."

Themba says his father prioritised educating his daughters while his sons joined the business. "Amantombazane akawafakanga ebhizinisini, uyabafundisa. They choose icareer yabo and now some are nurses and teachers. Thina uBaba usifundisa ibhizinisi ngoba if asiwutholi umsebenzi, masikwazi ukupatha inkomo nembuzi, sizo kwazi ukuphila."


The rearing of livestock in urban settings, particularly in Soweto, can be traced back to as early as the 1980s. As more people from "the homelands" came to the city looking for jobs, those who are unable to gain employment — or were retrenched like Bab'Dlomo — returned to their ancestral calling, their birth right: livestock ownership. Cattle and goat farming in Soweto is directly tied to hostel residents' rural roots. Seen under another light, livestock farming in the township is a form of resistance and defiance of the apartheid system which tried to strip black people of their humanity. Through urban agriculture, livestock owners asserted a part of their black identity into the surrounding areas of hostels across Soweto. The urban agriculture along the Klip River wetlands enable livestock owners, and perhaps their herders most of who have been herding since they were little boys, to bring parts of their home with them. Themba says all his father was concerned with was providing for him and his 25 siblings, as did the other cattle owners.

The dawn of democracy in South Africa did not fully guarantee urban farmers their right to continue livestock rearing. Black people need to continue their resistance, but now against a black government, such as the City of Johannesburg's continuing environmental apartheid. The City's paternalistic approach to determining what can be considered an ecological space and who gets to set the terms in which these spaces come to being has resulted in a fraught relationship between livestock owners and the local government.  The City officially recognises parts of the open fields along the Klip River and its wetlands as grazing land for livestock, which was hard won by farmers.

In 2004, the City of Johannesburg enacted public health by-laws that prohibit residents from keeping or allowing various domestic animals such as cattle, sheep and horses. Officials threatened to impound the animals and fine owners if they did not comply with the by-laws. Some of the reasons City officials provide for the implementation of by-laws that prohibit any kind of livestock rearing is because the Klipspruit open space is known as a "largely neglected green public space which is often a crime spot, carries health hazards and is appropriated informally by residents"[3].

"Umasipala wase Goli wazama ukusixosha ngenkathi kwakhiwa lelipaki," says Themba as he points to the Orlando West Regional Park which is next to his family's kraals. The City wanted to relocate the livestock farmers to build this park as part of the Greening Soweto Project and in preparation of the 2010 FIFA World Cup fan parks[4]. "Bonke abantu ba la babefuna sihambe – nom’phakathi wawu khalela kumakhansela, uthi imvuyo yethu ihamba izitrato futhi iyangcolisa. Sasi satshiswa um’phakathi nabaphathi, bonke bengasifuni lapha. Salwa kabi njengoba usibona sisekhona la."

Eventually, the farmers and their livestock were left alone, which created the precedent to design these parks as a shared space between park users and cattle-grazers to avoid any conflict with livestock owners[5]. About five kilometres from the Dlomo Farming Project, in Mofolo's former 18-hole golf course as recent as 2010, shepherds began herding livestock to the open space after which "informal settlers" were evacuated to build parks as part of the City of Johannesburg's initiative to modify the area into a green lung[6]. Bridging "the green divide" between the leafy suburbs of the North and Soweto congested streets to address the legacy of environmental apartheid was its intention. Although city officials claimed that cattle grazing was not prohibited, not much has been done to integrate the cattle grazers into the design and vision of the City's park and the livestock owners were not consulted in the park development process[7].


Bab'Qathi arrives at the Dlomo kraals at 8 o'clock every morning. He is rarely ever late. "Into yokuqala esiyenzayo kusasa ukusenga iinkomo ebuhlanti," he explains. Standing on the right side of the animal, he tugs on the teats until yellowish milk gushes into the bucket. The cow doesn't even flinch. "Ndineminyaka engama-21 ndisalusa iinkomo. Oku kuza ngokwendalo kum. Ayikho enye into endiyaziyo njengokukhathalela iinkomo." Bab'Qathi fills a couple of two-litre bottles with the raw milk, which he sells along the cattle’s grazing route in Orlando township for R30 per bottle. "Olu lubisi lokwenyani oluvela kumthombo," he proclaims. "Abantu bayaluthanda kakhulu." Once the milking is done, the cattle are marshalled to graze on the maize plant leaves scattered at the open end of the Orlando West Regional Park which is the closest to the kraal and wetlands.

"Abanini baqokelela amagqabi esityalo sombona kwabo bathengisa ezitalatweni erenki yeBhara," he explains. The Bara taxi rank about seven kilometres away from the kraals is where livestock owners collect leaves from vendors to supplement the cattle's grazing. This part of the park is visibly dilapidated and Bab'Qathi and the younger shepherds sit on a concrete surface that resembles a formerly functional piece of park architecture. Spider, the second most experienced herdsmen, spots Madlebe — an inquisitive and energetic young adult cow — as he drifts ever so slightly away from the rest of the herd.

He shouts: "Yeyi Madlebe! Buya! Uyaphi?!" as if speaking to another human. The naughty creature continues straying away forcing Spider to quickly jump to his feet and run in front of Madlebe to stop him dead in his tracks. A boy, no older than eight years, follows suit in the opposite direction to prevent other cattle from scattering. Spider and Madlebe continue their back and forth until the beast gives up.

Themba says he's grateful to have herdsmen he can completely trust who take good care of his family’s livestock. Shepherds are often exploited and underpaid by owners, says one herdsman who has been herding cattle since he was a little boy in Lesotho. "Mosebetsi ona ha ke o tswafe, se ke tlwaetse. O mo mmeleng," he told Kabelo. Being good at his job doesn't guarantee that his labour will be equitably rewarded.

"Ke ne ka thola mosebetsi ko Rustenburg, ka thola hore chelete ya teng e ya fokola ebe ke khutla ka kwano, ka thola mosebetsi o mongwe, ka sebetsa New Canada. Le ko teng, chelete ya teng ya nyoloha ebe e phahama selemo le selemo. Ka tlohela ka tla ka mona, mo Jabulani ka fihla ka ema straight. Le chelete ya teng e ntse e tletlebisa, ha e tletlebisi ha kalo."

He looks after different owners' cattle, and believes that owners are tight-fisted and don't see the amount of work that goes into rearing their cattle.

"Ho lla ke a lla, mare ha ke lle ha haholo. Hao tsoane ha ke dutse. Ba ba ngata batho ba naleng le dikhomo mare ba hana ka chelete. Ba rata dilo tse ntle mme ha ba re nahanele. Kana ntho e re tletseng Gauteng ke eng? Re tletse chelete hore re thuse batho ba ko hae. So e kare rona re tletse ho tlo etsetsa bona fela mali."


In most cultures, the slaughtering of sheep, goats and cattle is reserved and bestowed only on men. If girls were interested in learning how to slaughter they are relegated to snapping the necks of chickens and nothing else. I remember being 12 years old and playing with my father's Okapi when he would leave it unattended. I would run my fingers meticulously across the sharp edge and pretended to not have touched it when he came back. I remember asking my father questions about how to slaughter. Where he first pierces the animal and in what direction he cuts in. He would often let me carve the fur off the cow legs and he taught me how to cook ditlhakwatlhwana – parts of the cow that girls are forbidden to eat. My father, bless him, always indulged me and was amused by my intuitiveness – much to the shock of male relatives who would be helping him with the slaughtering.

But the kraals in Soweto are not my father's backyard. Masculinity seeps through all aspects of livestock farming. The dearth of women or any kind of feminine energy is too palpable to ignore. Kabelo acknowledges that the kraals are indeed masculine spaces and brushes off the lack of women in the space as a simple matter of interest – if women were interested in livestock then they'd be involved in it. Yet, as Themba explained, Bab'Dlomo's daughters were not given the opportunity to join the family business. The girls were sent to school.

Kabelo recently became a father for the first time. "I want my baby girl to know the ways of her ancestors, where they’re from but it will be difficult because nna self ha ke tsebe hore ke tswa kae." He says he won't be teaching his daughter how to slaughter, but it's important that she's deeply rooted in culture and knows the important customs. He plans to make sure that she never feels like ngwana wa ko kasi, like he did, that she can read and write both her parents' language and that his daughter doesn't find herself lost like he did.

"It felt like I had lost a part of my history and culture. I never learned to herd cattle or to slaughter, I felt incomplete." Through documenting these farmers, who have carried their customs into the peripheries of Soweto, Kabelo committed himself to making peace with being mfana wa ko kasi. But it's easier said than done. The growing embrace of African spirituality, the honouring of ancestors and learning about ukuphahla from black urban millennials and Generation Z — the first Model Cs, the so-called Rainbow Nation and ama2000 overturns the history of its demonisation. Cattle’s significance in communing with the ancestors and as a symbol of social status brought him and his father close in an unimaginable way. The journey Kabelo undertook with these farmers had spiritual motivations for him. It was more than just a photography project – the Dlomos, Spider, Bab'Qathi as well the farmers and herdsmen in Jabulani took Kabelo in and he was welcomed into a world he so desperately yearned for but had no way of finding.

In November 2020, Kabelo's family celebrated his brother who had just bought his first house. Ho bula ntlo is a traditional housewarming where a sheep or cow is slaughtered as a sign of gratitude to the ancestors. During ho bula ha ntlo, other rituals are also performed to bless the house. The task to slaughter the sheep presented itself.

"Funny enough, my brother ran away. It was just me and my father and my father was shocked when I told him I'd do it."

At the back of the house, under the fluorescence of the house light, Kabelo and his father held the sheep down. With his father's guiding voice, Kabelo aimed for the sheep's neck. He pierced through its fuzzy exterior and slashed the animal's neck right open. Blood came gushing out. Kabelo held unto the sheep until there was no longer life in its body. "I was confident. I was in it and I was calling the shots because I had seen this many times ko 'sibayeng. And my father couldn't believe I knew what I was doing because he had never taught me". Kabelo's father did show his son the delicate technique of removing nyoko from the sheep, which if it bursts would ruin the entire feast.

This is a moment that Kabelo will treasure. "We had umsebenzi at home and I slaughtered." His pride has stirred within him a desire to learn about his father's culture more than anything. "I love my Sesotho le Bosotho, my father’s side, more than my mother's side ya Setswana. I love the language and the culture." Ironically, his partner is Motswana like his mother.

But, "I have come home to myself," Kabelo says. "If you would have told me I'd be able to slaughter an animal or that I'd know so much about livestock farming on that day I first saw those cows crossing the street, I wouldn't have believed you."

This essay was originally published by Photoform Africa, a Market Photo Workshop initiative.

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