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SA Canegrowers development manager inspires hope

Using the story of her life growing up in the poverty-stricken rural valleys of southern KwaZulu-Natal, SA Canegrowers’ development manager Makhosazana Gxumisa (nee Dlamini) says she is committed to South Africa’s sugar industry and to promoting the opportunities it offers, particularly to the country’s young people.

With two-thirds of South Africa’s under 34s unable to find work and with some insurmountable difficulties facing many rural youngsters, SA Canegrowers’ Gxumisa says one of her many goals is to use her life story to provide direction to those who may have given up hope.

At a Youth Day event sponsored by SA Canegrowers near Umfolozi in northern KwaZulu-Natal, Gxumisa, who recently achieved her master’s degree in Agricultural Economics at the University of the Free State, tells of her achievements and how they came at great personal cost.

“The sacrifices I made,” she said, “were often not of my choosing and sometimes they left me feeling angry and disappointed, but I never gave up hope, I never stopped working hard and I never stopped believing that one day I would reach the goals I had set for myself.

“I have made a huge contribution to the sugar industry since I started working at SA Canegrowers five years ago, but I am still learning, and I still have big goals and so should all of you have big dreams and big goals. Anything is possible if you work hard,” she told the Youth Day gathering.

High youth unemployment

In the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) for the first quarter of 2022, 63.9% of South Africans between the ages of 15 and 24 were unemployed and 42.1% of those between the ages of 25 and 34 years were out of work.

Gxumisa (36) and her siblings, Sbusiso, Gamelihle and Zamaswazi, were born and raised in southern KwaZulu-Natal. Their mother, a teacher at a farm school near Harding, used every cent of her earnings to support her children and provide for their education.

“We lived with my grandmother, Elizabeth MaCele Dlamini. She was very, very strict and wasn’t averse to giving us a good beating if she felt we weren’t doing what we should. But she loved us. That love and the love of my mother, Khumbuzile Dlamini has sustained me throughout my life,” she said.

Love and knowledge of the soil

One of the non-negotiables in Elizabeth’s rural home was going to school. “We had to walk about 4km to school and 4km back again each day. On the journey we had to cross a river, which in winter was freezing cold. But my grandmother never relented. She was educated and was determined that we would be educated as well. When we got home from school, we all had chores such as weeding the vegetable garden and planting the fields where my grandmother grew maize and potatoes. My love and knowledge of the soil started there. In fact, there is a saying in our language: ‘hlonipha umhlabathi’. When directly translated it means ‘respect the soil’. What it really means, though, is the soil is our home, our family, it gives us our food, health and wealth.”

Life was tough, she said, but very happy.

At the start of her Grade 9 year, Gxumisa and her brothers was uprooted from their remote home and placed in the farm school outside Harding where their mother was teaching.

“When my mother came home at the end of each month to bring us food and supplies, she would test us on our schoolwork. She realised we were way behind and made the decision to take us to back to Harding with her.”

Gxumisa’s high school education at Sehole High – a Catholic school in the vicinity – was where she cemented herself as a high achiever. “I excelled at mathematics and the sciences. I was the first student at the school to take higher grade mathematics.”

Dashed dreams

Dreaming of becoming a pharmacist, Gxumisa applied to the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. “I was accepted at Wits and UKZN to study pharmacy but without financial assistance. The University of KwaZulu-Natal also accepted me on my fourth subject choice, Agricultural Economics. They also offered me a bursary. Sbusiso – who although younger than me – finished matric at the same time as I did. He was accepted to study for a diploma in Information Technology at the Durban University of Technology. My mother didn’t have the money to support both of us. I had to accept the UKZN offer.

There was never any question in our family that we shouldn’t look after each other,” she said.

During her university years, Gxumisa was also fortunate to receive funding from the Land Bank of which she would give R500 of the monthly R1 200 stipend towards her brother’s education, keeping the remaining R700 to support herself.

Finishing his diploma in three years, however, Sbusiso was soon employed and earning a good wage. “When I graduated a year later, I started working at the LIMA Rural Development Foundation based in Umtata. Things were looking so much better for us. As a result, after two years I made the decision to resign my position and apply to study pharmacy,” she said.

But in 2011, tragedy struck. “My brother was killed in an accident. I had to go back to LIMA and ask for my job back. I realised then that pharmacy was not going to be for me.”

Gxumisa speaks of her mother as a pillar of strength in her life. A woman who fought her own demons and physical illness such as a heart condition and diabetes, while having to live with the immense pressure of raising her children on her own with very little money to support them. Her grandmother, she describes as a woman of great wisdom and discipline who loved them all greatly.

And of her brother, taken too soon, she speaks of a friend, a teammate, and a confidant. “Although he was younger than I was, we were in the same grade. We studied together, I used to help him with maths and science, and he would help me with my English and Zulu literature. He loved to read, I hated reading.”

Love and support

And now, mother-of-three Gxumisa says she is committed to providing similar love and support to her own children as well as the youngsters with whom she interacts daily in her position as the SA Canegrowers’ development manager.

“The area in which we grew up is poverty stricken. There are so many areas in our country just like that. I want to inspire young people, and my children, to work hard, to take advantage of opportunities that come their way and to never give up despite the hurdles they might face,” she said.

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