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Small farmers in the highest south-african mountains

In the highest mountain range in Southern Africa, subsistence farmers struggle to make a living and get out of poverty, while dealing with a land distribution inherited from colonialism and apartheid, a hard environment and degraded land.


10 / 2006

A new nation with old challenges

South Africa is in its 12th year of democracy after decades of apartheid. During this time, the country has seen social and economical stability and growth and it is one of the few African countries classified as upper middle income country. Despite this, South Africa remains a highly unequal society, where statistics often hide extreme differences in incomes and wealth between the white and non-white populations. Inequality is particularly evident in rural areas, where the racially skewed distribution of land inherited from the apartheid era remains practically unchanged. Today, 85% of the land is still under white ownership, and around 70% of people in rural areas live in extreme poverty. The former regime created a dual system with some highly skilled white commercial farmers and thousands of small subsistence farmers producing mainly for household consumption and survival on very small allotments in the communal areas, this system persists today.

The Drakensberg Mountains, also called uKhahlamba in isiZulu, and Maluti in Sesotho, are the highest in Southern Africa, rising up to 3,482 meters at the highest peak. They are in the eastern part of South Africa, in the Province of KwaZulu Natal, and run for 1,000 km along the border with Lesotho. These mountains constitute an attraction for tourists that go there to hike and relax. This contrasts with the difficult life for subsistence farmers in the area who, with small plots of land, face serious constraints due to a severe climate, little resources and limited access to markets.

Initiatives like the Farmer Support Group (FSG), backed up by the University of KwaZulu Natal and the government, are providing training and support to the rural communities in the Drakensberg so they can improve their farming techniques, preserving their environment and increasing and diversifying their production. Mr Ndaba and Mr Hadebe are two farmers that represent the communities in these mountains and their struggle. Michael Malinga and Senzo Methethwa are students that work as community facilitators for FSG; during the interview they helped translating to and from isiZulu and brought in some valuable information.

The difficult life in the mountains: hard environment and land encroachment

Life is not easy for people living in the Drakensberg. The majority practice subsistence farming that often does not produce enough to supply the households, and even less to generate income. There are various reasons for this.

On the one hand, farmers have small plots of land for their individual use, and they take the livestock to graze in the high communal lands in the mountains during the summer. During colonial times, white settlers took ownership of the best quality land on the plains of this region, pushing the black population to the mountains, where land was less fertile and more difficult to farm. Later on, during the apartheid regime, the South African government implemented policies to protect the highest part of the mountains from degradation due to overgrazing and pressure of people living there and farming, so communities living in the mountains were pushed down the mountains, although land on the plains was already taken by white commercial farmers. The resulting situation was that black population living from subsistence farming in the higher areas of the mountains was forced to go down and settle on the skirts, crowded together, farming on steep poor soils and without enough land to feed their families. This is the context of farmers in the Drakensberg today.

On the other hand and, in some way deriving from the above, the farming and land management techniques practised by smallholders are not appropriate. Soil is rapidly degrading due to overgrazing and non-sustainable practices and fertility is being lost, then yields are getting lower and lower. Besides, the severe climate in the mountains and the risk of frost and snow conditions the whole farming system, so smallholders have to combine planting and harvesting of crops with the stay of livestock up on the mountains during the summer. Lack of innovative and conservation skills and resources for equipment are keeping small farmers in these mountains in poverty, struggling to produce enough to raise their families.

An example of the vulnerability of these communities is the problem of livestock theft. In the past children used to spend the summer up in the mountains as shepherds, but today they go to school, and old farmers can not resist the conditions on the highlands. Then, animals stay on their own during the summer, and stealing is happening more and more often. This is becoming a very sensitive issue in the area, creating conflicts with farmers on the other side of the mountains (in Lesotho) and a tense atmosphere. Innocent people have been accused and even aggressions have taken place. The reason: livestock is the main source of food and income for these mountain communities, so they can not afford to loose any of them.

“Making land work for rural people”

The Farmer Support Group was established in 1985 in the Department of Plant Pathology of the University of KwaZulu Natal, with the aim of making scientific knowledge relevant to smallholder farmers. Today they have evolved to be the Community Development and Outreach Division of the Centre for Environment, Agriculture and Development (CEAD), also within the University, and working with rural communities in the Province of KwaZulu Natal.

As their motto states, the FSG provides “training, advice and project support” to resource constrained farmers and other land users in sustainable and productive natural resource management, institutional development and entrepreneurship. Its staff acts as development facilitators and intermediaries between the farmers and the researchers, for a mutual benefit. FSG also trains development practitioners and students in participatory approaches in research and extension. All projects are designed with community members, and implemented in partnership with other service providers, including government extension staff and scientists.

FSG implements diverse projects promoted by the government. One example was the Land Care Project, finished in 2003, that was run by a partnership between the Ministry of Agriculture and diverse research institutions. This project focussed on the conservation of the natural resources through sustainable utilisation, soil conservation techniques and land rehabilitation. In addition, it aimed at the creation of a conservation ethic through education and awareness and addressed rural poverty by creating jobs for the people in the area. After the end of this project, there are new ones continuing the work started by the Land Care, such as the Maluti Drakensberg Transfrontier Project (MDTP) or the Integrated Sustainable Agriculture Project (ISA), also implemented by FSG in the Province.

In Okhombe village, Berguille town, a group of twenty farmers represented by Mr Ndaba works with the ISA project. They have received training on sustainable practices and started a communal garden where they grow vegetables for their own consumption and the local market. Also in Berguille town, but in Emmaüs village, Mr Hadebe and his eleven fellow elder farmers of the Sakhisizwe Group, working with FSG as well, managed to acquire some good land and established a large vegetable garden; the land also gives space for a communal grazing area, so they can keep the livestock there and reduce the risk of theft. As the production is increasing, they are finding their own markets, started supplying some shops and formed a cooperative.

One of the major achievements of these initiatives, according to Michael Malinga, community facilitator with FSG, is “the togetherness that these farmers have developed, working and getting land communally”. They feel stronger now, and despite still being illiterate and poor, are starting to see the improvement in their livelihoods and to be aware of their capability to reach and influence decision-making grounds.


agriculture vivrière, redistribution des terres, agriculture durable, éducation, renforcement des groupes de base

, Malawi


Les peuples de montagne dans le monde


Still a long way to go, but now support and motivation are in place

Life continues being difficult for small farmers in the Drakensberg, land issues are still a major constraint and very few small farmers are having access to the plots that the government is reallocating through a market-led land reform. This is why a lot of work and lobbying still needs to be done, capacitating farmers and empowering them to be able to influence policies that affect them as directly as the land distribution.

The difference is that now, experiences like that of the FSG are focusing on the mountain communities, their interests and development, providing them with the skills to run their farms successfully and sustainably, and empowering them to, one day, be able to change the rules.


This interview has been realized by ALMEDIO Consultores with the support of the Charles-Léopold Mayer Fondation during the regional meeting organised by the World Mountain People Association - APMM.


Multiple interview to:

Jabulani J. Ndaba, participant in the Integrated Sustainable Agriculture Project, Okhombe Village, Berguille Town, Republic of South Africa

Phelezela Alson Hadebe, member of Sakhisizwe Farmer Group, Emmaüs Village, Berguille Town, Republic of South Africa

Michael Malinga, student and Community Facilitator for Farmer Support Group, University of KwaZulu Natal, Pietermaritzburg, Republic of South Africa

Senzo Methethwa, student and Community-Based Natural Resources Manager for Farmer Support Group, University of KwaZulu Natal, Pietermaritzburg, Republic of South Africa

ALMEDIO - 2, traverse Baussenque, 13002 Marseille, FRANCE Almedio Consultores. Norma 233, Maitencillo. Comuna de Puchuncaví. Va Región, CHILI - Fono: (56)32 277 2231 - Chili - - info (@)

APMM (Association des Populations des Montagnes du Monde) - 50 boulevard Malesherbes, 75008 Paris, FRANCE - Tel:+ – Fax:+ - France - - contact (@)

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