Urban farm brings hope, but it’s a daily battle

Members of a farming cooperative in Thembisa are trying to change their impoverished circumstances by turning unused land into a thriving agricultural project.

An initiative meant to fight hunger in Thembisa, Gauteng, is struggling to realise its goal amid the many socioeconomic challenges that prevail in townships and shack settlements in South Africa.   

The Hlanganani Agricultural Cooperative, which was formed in November 2021, uses a large plot of land in the township to grow vegetables that it sells locally. But next to the neat rows of produce are weeds, shrubs and tall grass. Side by side, they are a perfect example of the potential of the cooperative and the obstacles it has to overcome to be successful. 

John Dlongolo, 52, says the whole plot was filled with weeds and in a bad state when the eight members of Hlanganani originally started cultivating it in 2011. They cleared the land manually, which Dlongolo says made the process slow and less productive. This is but one of the problems they still face. 

2 February 2022: John Dlongolo pushes a wheelbarrow as he and other members of the Hlanganani Agricultural Cooperative go about their farming tasks.

“We need a tractor to remove the shrubs. We also don’t have any water here, so we store [rainwater] in Jojo tanks and that is not enough. This is a huge plot of land, so using watering cans makes it difficult to properly water the vegetables,” says Dlongolo, who has more than 20 years’ farming experience.

Hlanganani shares this land with seven other cooperatives. Their members are mostly residents of Thembisa who were already planting vegetables and fruit in their backyards or on strips of land between the shack settlements. They grow cabbages, lettuce, spinach, beans, carrots and tomatoes.

Fighting hunger

Gauteng is the smallest but most populated province in the country with about 15.5 million people. A large number of them have come to the province in search of work and a better life as it is also the economic hub of South Africa. But the job market has shrunk considerably in recent years, forcing urban residents to come up with plans to mitigate exorbitant food prices and high levels of unemployment. 

Hlanganani member Nora Matshaya, 55, is on the executive committee that oversees all eight cooperatives. She was one of the first people who identified the previously unused municipal land for farming in 2011. She believes “the gold is in the land”.  

Matshaya became a speech therapist in 1992, an unusual occupation for Black women, who had far fewer choices than their male counterparts at the time. But a car accident caused injury to her spinal cord and she could never return to work. After that she looked into what she could do in her community.

2 February 2022: A member of the cooperative with her baby strapped to her back works the land in Thembisa. 

“The main reason I farm is that I want to alleviate poverty,” said Matshaya. “If you plant, you have food for life. Most people here are unemployed and have no income, so this helps people put something in their families’ tummies, to fight going to bed hungry.” 

The cooperatives are taking part in an Ekurhuleni municipality incubation programme that will run for five years. The members of Hlanganani, most of whom are shack dwellers, say they hope to leave the programme armed with knowledge and the practical skills to be self-reliant and lift their families out of poverty.

Finding a purpose

Amanda Luvalo, 36, whose seven-month old daughter accompanies her when she is working on the plot, is not the only mother who brings her child along. Luvalo says she has found a purpose in agriculture after years of looking for work. 

“I am unemployed and when I look at my age I feel opportunities to get hired are gone. They always ask for people between the ages of 18 and 35. Being in the garden is so calming. If I’m stressed I communicate with the plants and I love seeing them grow and realising I did that with my own hands.”

Luvalo says she approached Matshaya and asked that she teach her how to grow vegetables even before the cooperative was formed. She wishes more young people would get involved in agricultural activities. 

2 February 2022: From left, John Dlongolo and Johannes Maphanga, an elderly member of the Hlanganani Agricultural Cooperative.

Despite their optimism, the members of the cooperative say the problems of running it daily can be disheartening. Most of them spend about R30 a day to get to the farm and they have to bring their own water to drink as they don’t trust that the water in the tanks is safe for drinking. Another obstacle is theft because the plot has no security guards or measures other than a fence to protect their crops. Dlongolo says Hlanganani’s members support each other as much as they can, including sharing lunches. 

Matshaya says her dream is that the life of each person involved in the cooperative is changed for the better. “If they were living in a shack, the dream is for them to be able to build themselves the house of their dreams. We are working hard so that our lives will no longer be the same.”  

Naledi Sikhakhane is the 2022 Eugene Saldanha Fellow in social justice journalism.

Correction, 24 May 2022: The Eugene Saldanha Memorial fellowship is supported by the SET. It was incorrectly referred to as a fund.

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