Growing Communities in South Durban

Teddy Govender with refinery in background

Farms don’t just grow food – they grow communities. You don’t have to go far to be part of these communities, either. In South Durban, urban farmers have long been supporting the local economy, and the surrounding neighbourhoods. And they’re under threat.

Teddy Govender (43, pictured above) has a ten hectare farm in Reunion, in the shadow of the BP and Shell refinery, South of the airport. On it, he grows marigolds, turnips, leeks, mint, thyme and brinjal. When the produce leaves Teddy’s farm, it goes to local markets in Wentworth, the Bangladesh market in Chatsworth, to Clairwood and Verulam.

From there, local traders sell his fresh products, cheaply, throughout their neighbourhoods. His food and flowers end up in the temples and on the tables of families in Merebank, Wentworth, Chatsworth, and as far away as Amanzimtoti and Umlazi.

As well as being fresh, Teddy Govender’s food is a vital part of the local economy. His farm employs ten people, whose families are dependent on the income. The food grown by urban farmers also supports the traders in
Durban’s vibrant local markets. At the Natraj market in Merebank, Govender’s food and flowers are sold by traders who also support their families, and who form a tight-knit and caring community.

Shoppers come to the Natraj market from beyond Merebank, only because the produce is fresh and healthy, and because they feel they belong there, but because it’s cheaper than the supermarket. At Natraj market, a large, fresh and crisp bunch of coriander costs R2(US $0.30). At supermarkets in Musgrave, a substantially smaller and more wilted looking box of coriander costs R5 (US $0.75).

The farmers are, however, under threat. The land owners, the Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA), want to evict Govender, and over a dozen farmers like him. They have proposed to replace the farms with a Toyota
parts storage facility and a Checkers warehouse.

“If they succeed in throwing us off the land, I don’t know what we’ll do,” said Govender. “My father was a farmer, and so was his. This is the only life I know, the only income we’ve got.” Govender supports his two children and wife with the farm’s revenues. His workers are under similar pressures. “What will they do? What will their families do? They’re experts at farming. But who will give them jobs if there is no farm?”

Teddy’s family are no strangers to eviction. Govender’s father was evicted from farmland in Merebank, to make way for what is now the Mondi Business Paper factory. Teddy himself was evicted from the Sasol Fibres Factory in Reunion in 1992. The factory closed in 2003.

“Now they want to move us again”, said Govender. “Some of us have been here for 17 years. And now they want to destroy us.” The fourteen farmers involved collectively have 158 hectares, on which they employ over 100
people. At the moment, they have a month-to-month lease on the land from ACSA. The company has proposed removing them to an area of 29 hectares – approximately 2 hectares per farmer.

The farmers wonder why they haven’t been given first option to use the land. “At the moment, we’re on a month-to-month lease. What we really want is to have this land, but if we can’t get it, we can at least get a 99 year lease,” said Govender. ACSA spokesperson Colin Naidoo, responded by saying “ACSA’s position is that all projects are done in consultative manner and due process and if this development has to occur, the farmers will be accommodated.”

“But if this development has to occur, then they won’t be able to get the land. Instead, they’ll be accommodated by moving them from their 158 hectares to the 29 hectare lot,” said Des D’Sa, of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance. “If this is going to be done consultatively, then why can’t the farmers get the land? It’s hypocritical.
White farmers were enjoying protection for their land under Apartheid, while Durban’s black farmers were being kicked off their land. Now the black farmers here are being kicked off their land for the white business.”

Not all the land in the proposed development is scheduled for reallocation. Some of it is home to a small population of black-headed Dwarf Chameleon. As an endangered species, it is offered some degree of protection from the proposed development. “If you’re a black headed chameleon, it’s okay,” said D’sa. “But if you’re black, and you’re poor, you’re in trouble. Aren’t black farmers an endangered species too?”

The environmental tension between farmers and wildlife is one reason they’ve been told to move. On the way to the farm, we passed a large troupe of monkeys on the roadside. “Yes, they eat some of the food,” confirmed Govender. “And we can’t plant lettuce because the animals and birds eat them. But what are you going to do? It’s nature. Everything has to live. Everything has to eat. We live in harmony with nature.”

According to traders at Natraj market, the forced removal of farmers will hurt them badly, too. One worker at the Moonlight Superette told of his concerns: “It’s all about supply and demand. If the farmers don’t bring us the goods, there will be less supply. Prices will go up, and some might be
forced out of business.”

Shoppers will be affected too. In the words of Mrs Perumal (43), a local shopper, “my father was a farmer, once. He used to farm by the graveyard, before they were kicked off. But I still come to the market. Why must we go to the supermarket? Will the Megacity have dhanya [coriander] this cheap?
Marigolds like this? I can’t get there if I walk. So must I buy a Toyota so that I can eat?”

This is no idle concern. South African levels of obesity are as high as in
the United States. Experts agree that healthy food and exercise are vital, and walking to the market for fresh vegetables is an important way for many South Africans to get both. The alternative, with big supermarkets accessible only by car or taxi, means that the price of weekly shopping goes up. “If we pay R5 for a taxi into town, it’s much more expensive, and takes much longer,” observed one shopper.

In cities around the world, the rise in obesity in poorer communities has been linked to the lack of availability of fresh food, and the decline in availability of green space within these communities. The gradual extinguishing of local markets has, experts have noted, been the first stage
in the development of unsustainable urban environments. Although these environments tend to be justified in the name of increasing choice to consumers, not everyone is happy about the prospect.

“Megacity is all about profits, but markets like these, they care about us”, said Mrs Perumal. She pointed to the entrance to Natraj Market. “This is a real non-racial place. One day I was walking into the market and my sandals broke. Within a minute, an Indian man from one of the shops came to me and said he would glue my shoes for me. And then an African lady from one of the stalls said I could use her sandals while the glue was drying. Do you think they would do that at Checkers?”

[Note: I wrote this piece last year, when it appeared in the 29 July 2006 issue of The Sunday Tribune. Rereading it, I’m reminded of the other ongoing struggle between the automotive industry and farmers, in Singur.]