About 23km from Ficksburg in the Free State lives a working-class community of about 100 residents in a village called Naledi.
In 2014 nonprofit social activist initiative Earthrise Trust purchased a farm and transferred ownership of some of the land to the villagers.
Of the 273 hectare farm, which Earthrise owns, 130 hectares is arable and 143 hectares is suitable for grazing. After a series of meetings with residents, Earthrise transferred 42 hectares into the community trust for the building of homes and other social infrastructure, such as sports fields.
In addition, Earthrise reserved 28 hectares for the Naledi farming co-operative and another 110 hectares for the cattle owners’ association, created by Naledi residents who own livestock, for grazing.
Since then, the residents have created a self-sustaining village and other small community-based enterprises, eradicating unemployment. Some of the profit from these enterprises is used to build and invest in infrastructure, and development programmes to meet their needs.
Naledi, which means star, falls under the local municipality of Setsoto, which is characterised by the natural beauty of the Thabo Mofutsanyana district. Farm workers and tenants who sought accommodation closer to their places of work within the scenic mountains and valleys built the village in the late 1970s.
Although Earthrise transferred ownership of the land in 2014, the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform has failed to make the transfer official. The village is still in short supply of basic services such as sanitation, electricity and proper housing.
On 14 September 2014, Earthrise sent a letter to the department saying the trustees had conducted research that found “the most important asset on the farm was the people and the most important asset of the people, beyond their knowledge and skills, was property they could call theirs”.
“People in the past were always looking for employment, but now the people work for themselves,” says Anton Chaka, 55, a village leader and chairperson of Naledi’s farming co-op, which employs at least 20 people.
Chaka started working as a ‘garden boy’ in 1981 and became the assistant manager of Rustlers Valley Farm, where a well-regarded annual music festival used to take place. He says his managerial position came about because Frik Grobbelaar spent most of his time away from the farm, which was owned by a company called Rustlers Valley. Grobbelaar was the company’s majority shareholder from the 1980s until 2008, when he died of a heart attack. The year before, a fire had engulfed the farm and killed all the livestock.
According to a document seen by New Frame, the farm was no longer being used for commercial purposes and, in August 2013, the smaller shareholders in the company decided to sell it.
Earthrise Trust was the preferred buyer because of its “vision outlined by the trustees to use the land to develop an integrated participatory partnership approach to building sustainable rural communities and a commitment to transfer a portion of the land over to the residents of Naledi village,” according to Earthrise.
Hope and permanence
Following a successful bid and conveyancing process, the sale was registered in December 2013.
Residents such as Chaka and the village elders say life was uncertain because of the threat of evictions, caused by lack of ownership of the land.
Most of the roofs in the village are not nailed down but kept in place by stones, a symbol of the previously temporary nature of life there and of unpredictable evictions. But now that they own the land, a number of the residents hope to build permanent brick houses.
The struggle for liberation did not end in 1994, says Earthrise executive director Gino Govender. People are still oppressed in various ways, through a lack of land ownership and economic opportunities, he adds.
Govender says the government has created a dependent citizenry by forgetting that “people are agency of liberation and [are capable of] leading their own transformation, which is an ongoing process … Naledi becomes a centre of what’s possible when you have a democratic governance of the commons … We practise ancient wisdom that our ancestors taught us, and it makes life worth living.’’
‘Farming in a different way’
The co-op grows vegetables such as tomatoes, cabbages, sugar beans and pumpkins. Since it started in 2015, it has received funding from a number of organisations and companies. “We are looking at farming in a different way and this land is not for sale. It is for our children,” says Chaka.
Old Mutual gave the co-op R1.5 million in 2015. Chaka says most of this money was spent on input costs, irrigation and the monthly stipends each co-op member is entitled to get. This funding lasted a year and a half.
A year later, hailstorms threatened the co-op’s crops. “We needed to get a shade net and our cabbages had pests,” says Chaka.
They approached Tsebo Foundation, an organisation that “specialise in initiatives that enable people to support themselves, employ others, build community roots and create economic stability”, and in 2016 the foundation agreed to donate R1.3 million to build tunnels in which vegetables could be grown year-round.
Last year, the Industrial Development Corporation gave them R4.9 million. According to Chaka, the government dragged its feet but eventually donated R2.13 million.
The father of two says they look out for one another in the village. “Naledi is different from other villages. Here, we educate our own children and we make sure that every child is well taken care of … No one should be left behind and go hungry. We make sure that at least one person in each family is working.”
‘I want to go back to the farm’
Jappie Lephatsi, 56, is the chairperson of the adjacent Franshoek village and works as a manager at the Earthrise Mountain Lodge. In 1979, after completing standard 4, Lephatsi went to work on a gold mine in Welkom in northern Free State.
“At the mine, I went underground for a month … I did not like the underground work because there is nothing meaningful you could possibly do afterwards due to health-related issues that a mine creates.”
Fed up with being underground, he wanted to move to the mine’s workshop, where he could do maintenance-related work. In 1999, the mine stopped producing gold, leading to a sizeable number of retrenchments.
Lephatsi was not retrenched. Instead, the mine asked him to move with them to their new regional offices in Welkom because of his outstanding work performance.
“I said to them, no, I want to go back to the farm. They gave me 14 days to think carefully about my decision.” Lephatsi says he never looked back to the mines, a decision over which he has no regret.
He said that during his upbringing, no one really cared for his education. Now he has committed himself to making sure young Naledis have a better future.
“In 2016, we spent three months building a crèche for the little children and I was in charge of that construction from the beginning until to the end,” says Lephatsi.
The Nelson Mandela Centre of Learning, which cost R320 000 to build, “is a Canadian-style building and if the weather is hot, the crèche gets cooler insider and when it is cold outside, it gets warmer inside”.
It was built to improve the children’s literacy so that they transition smoothly into primary school.
Masontaya Mokhonatsi, 40, is a teacher at the crèche. She told New Frame that they named the centre after the former president of South Africa “because he earnestly liked children to be educated”.
The mother of three enjoys being a foundational teacher. “I love these children more than my biological children … it is nice playing with the kids,” she smiles. “When school closes, I sometimes dream of the noise they make when playing.”
The children love her, too. “During recess, when the children see that the crèche is still not opening, they come to my house to tell me that the crèche must open now because they don’t want their school to have recess.”
Lephatsi says the village’s residents are working tirelessly to make sure all the children’s needs are covered. He has mobilised the community to contribute money to make sure no child is deprived of an education or other school necessities, such as a school uniform, simply because their parents do not have money.
Lephatsi says so much has been and is still being done to better the village. But there are still critical modern skills that need to be instilled.
“Of the 20 people Chaka works with, none of them can fluently operate a computer. Now there is a need to educate them and be familiar with modern gadgets.”
Molefe Ralebenya, 22, hopes to continue the legacy of Chaka, Lephatsi, Mokhonatsi and others in the village. But the revolution of the born-frees like Relebenya will require new skill sets and new ways of thinking, along the lines of digitisation and technology.
In 2009, he received a scholarship from Poloafrica, which sought “to help us to succeed in schools”. In 2011, while doing grade 10, Ralebenya learned about beekeeping. Now he runs a beekeeping enterprise with 27 hives, each of which holds at least 10kg of honey.
“What I like about bees is that they do not have ibhabhalazi, they work every day and it is not expensive to maintain a beekeeping business,” he says. “Bees are very important because if there are no bees, there would not be food since they pollinate flowers to bear fruits.”
One hive, he says, is equal to at least 50 bottles of honey. He charges R90 for a 500g bottle of honey but the local people buy the honey at a R20 discount.
Naledi is a village that will no doubt produce more citizens of a high calibre, simply because the village elders and other role players are relentlessly laying a solid foundation for its younger residents. And of course, there will be writers and poets who document and pass on wisdom and knowledge to future generations.