Groutville sugarcane grower Kiki Mzoneli has taken up her new position as Vice-Chair at SA Canegrowers determined to restore and promote a rich legacy in which growing sugarcane on a small-scale secures the existence of stable and prosperous communities in and around thriving rural towns.
Recently appointed SA Canegrowers’ Vice-Chair Kiki Mzoneli says being in a leadership role is an opportunity for her to drive innovation through scientific research and development to help increase profitability and wellbeing for thousands of small-scale sugarcane growers whose history in the industry goes back for almost a century.
These growers, Mzoneli says, played a part in the anti-apartheid struggle, promoted the education of women, and provided the means for rural communities to thrive up and down the country’s eastern seaboard as a direct result of being able to grow sugarcane.
But now, as the sector faces collapse due to a flood of cheap imports since 2012, a crippling drought and the ill-advised introduction of a Health Promotions Levy on sugary drinks by the South African government in 2018, Mzoneli warns that diversification is not necessarily the answer for these growers and believes their legacy offers practical lessons and a solution for an invigorated and inclusive industry into the future.
While she is not keen to dwell too long on how she developed dysfunction of the peripheral nerves due to neuropathy as a teenager resulting in the loss of the full use of her legs, she does want to tell the story of her community and how for five generations her family have grown sugarcane on the hills overlooking the historic town of Groutville in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
She applauds the South African government’s attempt to rescue the country’s declining sugar industry as detailed in the Sugarcane Value Chain Masterplan to 2030. However, she fears the plan is linear and too focused on production diversification at a commercial scale rather than using scientific research and technology to develop innovative answers based on how the industry is embedded in the small-scale grower lifestyle and culture.
“For example, during my grandmother’s time the women of Groutville experimented with a rice-growing project on the banks of the Umvoti River. The project was called Emfundeni, which means in the field. Innovation was part of our culture all those years ago, it is nothing new,” Mzoneli says.
The former beauty therapist says by using a voice – her voice – to tell these important stories she will have honoured and protected the legacy of her ancestors and paved the way for diversity beyond crop production for the survival of the sector.
In the living room of her Groutville home, Mzoneli points to a browning photograph hanging high on the wall. Women in hats and men in suits and ties – some seated, some standing – gaze out sternly from the heavy frame. Their names are recorded in faded script embellished with flourishes and curlicues. The folk in the picture are members of the 1967/68 Groutville Bantu Cane Planters Association and their surnames – including Luthuli, Dube and Gumede– read like a Who’s Who of the anti-apartheid struggle personalities in the country.
Smiling broadly and lifting one of her crutches to indicate, Mzoneli asks for another picture to be taken down.
“This one makes me very proud,” she says. Signed at 16h00 on June 24, 1936, the certificate was awarded to Gideon Mzoneli Msomi for the completion of a three-year course in motor mechanics at the Edwaleni Industrial School.
“He was my grandfather – those were the sort of things my family was doing all those years ago – and my grandfather served on the Groutville Bantu Cane Planters’ Association for many years while my father, Langalakhe Dennis Mzoneli, was on the SA Canegrowers’ board for five years before he died in 2019.
“Did you know Groutville used to have its own sugar mill, the Mellville sugar mill? It was once a very prosperous town and we had lots of manufacturing and thriving businesses. Our blood is sweet, sugarcane runs through our veins,” she said.
However, the broad smile leaves Mzoneli’s face as she laments how the town has declined into a place cursed with crime, poverty, and desperation – the “rich legacy” of its history almost buried. “No-one seems to remember. It wasn’t always like this. And the idea that all black farmers want to become commercial producers, and that is the future – it’s not correct. Diversification into vegetable farming or macadamias for small-scale growers is not necessarily sustainable as some would have us to believe. Yes, a vegetable patch for home consumption, a few cows and perhaps a small maize crop, that is what we know and what works for us, but not crop diversification on a commercial scale,” she says.
As if to emphasise her point, Mzoneli highlights the role of South Africa’s well known Luthuli family, speaking about them not only in the context of their involvement in the African National Congress (ANC) but also in the history of sugarcane production in and around Groutville.
“Albert Luthuli was not only Africa’s first Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and a struggle icon against apartheid, but he was also a sugarcane farmer and the very first consignment of seedcane sent to Eswatini came from his farm here in Groutville. As you can see, we were innovating way back then. Eswatini would not be exporting sugar to South Africa today if it wasn’t for that sugarcane seed that was sent to them all those years ago!”
Mzonli believes it is this enduring spirit that offers solutions for the embattled industry and particularly for small-scale growers who are struggling.
“Alternative energies, bio-fuels, bio-refining and the production of plastics using sugarcane biomass offer hope. The development of different varieties of sugarcane particularly bred for these types of markets is now urgent. This, I believe, is the future for small-scale growers, not crop diversification, and the reason I believe this is because to my mind agriculture as an economy involves a whole range of aspects which can range from soil types, weather, terrain and then the people who are farming those soils and are living in that terrain. All these aspects offer a whole economy that cannot be separated one from another,” she says.
Sugarcane empowered women
Leaning on her crutches as she looks out over the hills of sugarcane on the 150ha family farm, Mzoneli speaks with purpose: “Those individuals you saw in the picture on my wall, they were vested in the empowerment and education of young people and women. They used the proceeds from their sugarcane crop to send their daughters to the renowned Inanda Seminary School from where they went on to become nurses and teachers.
“My great-grandmother was one of the first nurses to train at the famous McCord’s Missionary Hospital in Durban – I was born there. This is not a new thing for us, although we hear people talking about it as if we have never heard of it before. I believe growing sugarcane does have a future, Groutville has a future, but we need to get back to the basics – that is why I am very proud to be a woman, and a disabled one at that, who can now use my leadership position to promote small-scale growers, their love of innovation and to promote the growing of sugarcane among our young people. If we want to make agriculture attractive as a profession for our young people, we must make sure they can make a decent living. The reason they no longer want to grow sugarcane is it is very, very hard work with little or no return. “I intend to use my position to promote this legacy, our history, this very important story of our ancestors who were small-scale growers, using their crop to provide for their families and to educate their children. Working the land provided for healthy and thriving communities and for individuals who contributed so much to the freedom, we all enjoy to this day.”