A mother of two turned to cutting sugarcane – often more than 10 tons a day – to provide for her paralysed husband and small children. Today she holds a management position on a commercial sugarcane operation while at the same time overseeing her own livestock and vegetable farming operation at Table Mountain in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.
Around midnight, once sugarcane fires had cooled and the smoke began to clear, the shadowy figure of a lone woman could often be seen riding a bicycle by the light of the moon towards the blackened and smouldering cane fields at Donovale Farms outside Pietermaritzburg.
She would then take a sharpened cane knife from her bag, carefully setting aside her homemade mahewu – a traditional non-alcoholic drink made from fermented mielie meal – and start rhythmically cutting the charred crop.
Funeka Malevu (54) would bring the glinting knife down from high above her head in a wide arc, slicing at the sooty base of each stalk, stopping occasionally for a sip of her brew, working through dawn and into the day until the sun began to set.
My heart beats for sugarcane, Malevu says. “When I cut sugarcane, my heart is happy. When the sugarcane fields are clean, my heart is clean and when the sugarcane is growing well and looking good, then my heart feels good,” she said.
Born near Dalton in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, Malevu’s father worked on the gold mines in Johannesburg while her mother tended the family’s livestock and crops in the deep rural area, they called home.
At the age of 16 while taking their small herd of cattle to drink, the young woman met Fika Zachariah Malevu whom she married when she was 18 for the price (labola) of 11 cows!
In 1990, she gave birth to a daughter, Khanyisile, and two years later a son who died at three months.
“In 1993 my last was born, also a boy. I looked after the children and our home while my husband rode his bike looking for construction work.”
Tragedy struck when Fika was hit by a farm truck which left him a paraplegic.
“When my husband came home from hospital, I asked him if I could find work cutting sugarcane to earn money. I knew nothing about sugarcane then,” she says.
With her husband’s approval Malevu would take her children to a creche every day at 4am before taking transport to a nearby commercial sugarcane farm.
“I would return at about 4.30pm. Pick up the children, go home and tend first to my husband, cook food, clean the house and feed all the livestock before putting my children to bed.”
Soon, however, the family home became too crowded and the Malevu family moved to Table Mountain outside Pietermaritzburg where they set up home on a small plot of land under the tribal authority.
Malevu asked her neighbours if there was cane cutting work available – a job usually the domain of migrant men from the Eastern Cape.
Given directions to Donovale Farm, a commercial operation owned and run by SA Canegrowers’ members and brothers Chris and Ant Edmonds, Malevu caught a bus before walking the remaining distance to the farm.
“I was told I had to speak to the Induna (supervisor),” said Malevu
“First he said they didn’t hire women to cut cane. Then he said my hands were too soft. I told him I could wear gloves. He asked where I had cut cane before, I told him at Dalton, he said the cane there was very different from the cane at Donovale, I would struggle.”
Regardless, Malevu managed to convince him she was up to the task.
“There were 35 isiXhosa men and me,” she said.
“The first field they burnt was carry-over cane. It was very tall, thick with most of it lying on the ground.”
On the second day when she saw farm-owner Ant Edmonds arriving in the field she said her heart sank. “I was so sure he would say my work was no good. That he would tell me to go.” But, in fact, Edmonds praised her and encouraged her to keep on.
At the end of her first month, Malevu received a cheque for R1 000. “I had never seen so much money. I ran off the farm so fast. I thought perhaps, they had made a mistake,” she laughs.
Top cane cutter
Edmonds recalls how Malevu became the top cane cutter at Donovale Farms after her second season. “We award a prize at the end of each harvest for the top cutter for the year. She won it three years in a row. She is such an industrious woman. A real inspiration. She used to buy our reject export oranges and sell them on the bus on her way home. When we cut the cane in the fields which adjoin the Umsunduzi River – where the fields are irrigated – she would pick the watercress growing wild on the edges of the piping system, divide it into bunches and sell it to the passengers.”
However, it’s the story of her learning to ride her prize bicycle and then using it to get into the fields at midnight to start cutting cane, that is the most remarkable, Edmonds says.
With a view to advancing her work prospects Malevu then applied for a position at the neighbouring farm owned and run by commercial sugarcane grower and former SA Canegrowers’ Local Grower Council Chairman, Gary Behn.
To make sure she was in line for promotion to supervisor, Malevu started working towards a driver’s licence. While she managed to pass her learner’s licence after one or two attempts, getting the driving licence was another matter.
“I went for lessons in town, but they were expensive. So, I had to let it lapse a few times, but I passed eventually. It took me about four years.”
The real driving lessons started however, with Behn sitting beside her in the farm vehicle going about her daily routine. “I can tell you it was hair raising,” Behn laughs.
“But Funeka drives very well now. She is a supervisor in charge of our tea tree plantations and all our sugarcane operations,” he says.
When Malevu’s daughter, Khanyisile, is asked to describe her mother she is overcome with emotion. “I have no words. My mother is my role model.” And for Malevu life is as it should be. “I am working hard for my children and my husband. I don’t need anything more. I have my home, my livestock and vegetable garden and I have my work here. My heart is very happy,” she says.