OPINION | Kiki Mzoneli: Albert Luthuli’s Groutville, cane growing and preserving our heritage

OPINION | Kiki Mzoneli: Albert Luthuli’s Groutville, cane growing and preserving our heritage


Over the past year, government, the sugar industry, and stakeholders throughout the value chain have been focusing on implementing the Sugar Industry Value Chain Masterplan. The shared interest underpinning the plan is to safeguard and sustain the one million livelihoods that depend on the industry. But as the country celebrates Heritage Day, there is another reason we should all take an interest in the industry’s survival: cane farming is a part of our heritage, with a little-known but profound role in our history. 

I am a fifth-generation canegrower. My father was a board member at SA Canegrowers for five years until his death in 2019. Before that, in my youth, he had been the chairperson of the Groutville Cane Growers Association. His father before him had been a member. Our family’s journey in the sugarcane industry began in Groutville at the turn of the last century.

In 1846, American missionary Aldin Grout built a sugar mill at Melville, near Stanger. After his death, the Umvoti Mission Reserve would be named Groutville in his honour. That is where my forefathers were introduced to cane farming in the early 1900’s. The mill would thrive for more than 100 years as cane farming grew in the region.

A remarkable place

Groutville was a remarkable place to grow up. For one thing, gender discrimination was less pervasive than in many other parts of the country or even the province. Women had agency in our community. My great-grandmother was one of the first nurses to train at the McCord’s Missionary Hospital in Durban, where I was born. My cousin was one of the first women to graduate from the Owen Sithole College of Agriculture. The Groutville Cane Growers Association had women serving on its committee. For a young girl, exposure to this dynamic community gave me the confidence to become the leader I am.

Living in a farming community also taught me valuable life lessons. For one thing, farming teaches one consistency, discipline, and patience. If you do not plant, you will not eat. At the same time, after planting, there are extended periods when it looks like nothing is happening; but something is constantly growing. We did our best, then went to rest as we waited for our work to bear fruit – the perfect metaphor for many aspects of human life.

The community in Groutville embodied the spirit of ubuntu. Whatever the season and its crop, when we sowed our fields, we always shared our seeds with our neighbours so they could plant too. This generosity led to abundance in our community. This spirit has stayed with me, reminding me of the need to share not only seeds, but knowledge and skills too. 

But Groutville was also unique for the freedom we enjoyed. While many South Africans laboured under oppressive taskmasters in spaces where segregation was brutally enforced, as a young girl, I had the privilege of growing up in a community of independent farmers. Rather than dread the day, people loved their work. The upside of the early mornings was that the hardest part was done by noon, giving us time to pursue other interests and passions. However complex the work, we valued the reward: freedom.

This special, dynamic environment in Groutville at that time explains how our small town produced Africa’s first Nobel Laureate, Albert Luthuli. 

Groutville’s role in history

Chief Luthuli embodied the best of Groutville: a commitment to freedom and equality, diligent service, and a spirit of generosity. After attending school in Groutville, he would go on to enrol at a boarding school run by the founding President of the South African Native National Council, John Langalibalele Dube. Along with this serendipitous relationship, I suspect that the freedom he saw in Groutville played a part in his devotion to the struggle for liberation.

But the town itself is not Chief Luthuli’s sole tie to the cane industry. He returned to Groutville and became chief in 1935. When the apartheid government enacted the Sugar Act which disproportionately hurt black growers, Chief Luthuli led the revival of the Groutville Bantu Cane Growers’ Association, the entity my grandfather and father would go on to join, and then lead. Chief Luthuli’s ties to both the Groutville cane growers and the liberation movement connected the local farmers’ struggles to the broader movement, forever inserting the story of tiny Groutville into our national history. 

Groutville is now home to the Official Luthuli Museum. Along with my treasured memories of my own forefathers’ contribution, the museum serves as a frequent reminder of the farmers who fought for our freedom and prompts me to question what I am doing to secure a better future for the next generation.

As time passed, Groutville lost the energy that used to characterise it. The Melville sugar mill closed in 1978 when the big millers began rationalising the industry and cementing their place in it. Our once-prosperous town is marked by crime, poverty, and desperation. 

Preserving our heritage 

Today the sugar industry itself faces decline unless we can address the threats posed by cheap imports and the ill-advised Health Promotions Levy, among others. My commitment to finding solutions to these problems is why I serve as vice-chairperson of the SA Canegrowers Association – to help our celebrated industry realise its full potential. We knew abundance before, and we can again by evoking the same spirit that animated Chief Luthuli and the enterprising cane growers who came before us.

We need to tackle our challenges with ruthless determination if the industry is going to continue to create jobs and opportunities in rural communities. This is the primary purpose behind SA Canegrowers Association’s Home Sweet Home campaign, which encourages South African consumers to buy local sugar. But a secondary and significant benefit of saving the industry would be the preservation of our heritage. Like the generations before us, we now have a duty to leave future generations a thriving sector so that they too can teach future generations about its place of pride in South Africa’s history.

 Kiki Mzoneli is a small-scale cane grower and the vice-chairperson of the SA Canegrowers Association. 

Statutes of SA's Nobel laureates. The writer argues that Albert Luthuli's hometown of Groutville needs to be preserved. (Photo: Ethan Van DIemen)

Statutes of SA’s Nobel laureates. The writer argues that Albert Luthuli’s hometown of Groutville needs to be preserved. (Photo: Ethan Van DIemen)

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