Msinga is a place synonymous with disease, deprivation, murderous faction fights, cattle rustling and dagga cultivation. It is reputedly the poorest region in South Africa: a barren, overpopulated, overgrazed dumping ground for poor people.
Bone dry in winter, its harsh landscape is characterised by boulders, red dust and ravines rutted by soil erosion. It is probably as close as you can get to the geographic centre of KwaZulu-Natal, prompting an academic writing for the Carnegie inquiry into poverty in the mid-1980s to describe Msinga as the region’s “diseased heart”.
Thirty-five years on and Msinga isn’t the hellhole it used to be. But it isn’t the poster child for post-apartheid South Africa either.
Sitting on a grass mat in the neatly swept yard of her Msinga homestead, an 85-year-old grandmother recalled the best day of her life. In the shade of an acacia tree in April, it was still a sweltering 30°C. MaMchunu Ngtheni Yengwa took a deep breath, sighed slowly and smiled. The best day of her life was when a government minister visited her home.
Yengwa is the matriarch of a family of three children and five grandchildren. Most of her brood live in rondavels in Ncunjane, deep in the boulder-strewn mountains on a plateau 880m above sea level overlooking the Nomoya Valley and Tugela River.
Her home is a source of pride. One of the six rondavels is spruced up for guests. While it has no running water and a pit latrine, it is posh by local standards, with a polished cow dung floor, a bed, a small table with two chairs and a wardrobe.
At night, a single light bulb dimly illuminates a bucket and an enamel wash basin, and of course, the family’s prized glass display cabinet housing the special crockery.
According to Stats SA, Msinga has one of South Africa’s lowest literacy rates, the most traditional dwellings and the fewest flushing toilets, cars and telephones. The legacy of the migrant labour system means Msinga also has the lowest male-to-female ratio in KwaZulu-Natal.
Cows vs goats
The minister came to honour the goat farming project in which Yengwa and 3 400 other farmers take part. Her herd of 50 is part of a pilot project that could double KwaZulu-Natal’s annual R4 billion goat industry and help millions of subsistence farmers stay above the breadline.
The plan is a bit counterintuitive. It only works on a small scale.
Indigenous Msinga goats are cheaper to purchase than cows, reproduce faster, are hardier and need less medicine. Goats are also integral to Zulu culture. Any slaughter, be it to mourn a death, honour an ancestor or celebrate a marriage, birth, new job or engagement involves a goat.
Gugu Mbatha is the manager of the Mdukatshani Rural Development Project. She says Zulu men traditionally make decisions about livestock. But about 70% of Msinga’s men work in Johannesburg or Durban, which makes managing the herd difficult as women have to call their menfolk for the go-ahead to sell or slaughter a cow.
During a drought, cows perish quicker than goats. And it takes longer and is more expensive to re-established a herd of cows, whereas women can farm goats without the input of men. A cow reaches maturity in six years and can be sold for R15 000. A goat matures in a year and fetches R1 000.
Widow’s way out
A year after Yengwa’s husband died, she bought two goats and her herd has sustained her family. “I am so well because of these goats. My son had seven cows, but they died in the drought. The goats survived better. I met Makhonya and he gave me the knowledge about medicine, dipping and feeding.”
Makhonya is Mbatha’s colleague and the director of Mdukatshani, Rauri Alcock, was raised on the banks of the nearby Tugela River where his parents, Neil and Creina, started radical development work in the 1960s.
Every year, Yengwa spends about R1 000 on medicine and feed. But she makes about R4 000 a month selling her goats. The herd increased by 20 last year.
Goats aren’t invulnerable. In winter, kids die, either from the cold or because the scarcity of water and food at this time of year makes them more susceptible to disease. But born in spring, they generally develop fast enough to survive the following winter.
Their diet is 75% browsing the leaves of acacia thorn trees, with the balance made up of sweetveld grasses.
Women and youth
Mbatha says what started out as a project to empower women has extended to unemployed youth. She and her colleagues reduced kid mortality by 60% by training 280 youngsters (with the assistance of the Department of Agriculture and veterinary supply companies) to become community animal health workers.
They visit goat farmers like Yengwa to advise on treatment, sell them medicine and publicise goat auctions. “The workers are paid by the farmers. They make a small mark-up on the medicines they sell,” says Mbatha, who has lived in Msinga most her life.
The rise in goat production has seen profound social changes, empowering youth and women in a patriarchal society.
“Normally we meet under a tree and the goat farmers share their experiences. Before the goats, women hardly made decisions. Now they are emerging with confidence. Of course, people had goats before, but we helped farmers keep more kids alive, by dealing with tick-borne disease and making feed blocks to supplement the diet in winter. It gets dry here, very dry. The trees are bare and there is no grass. The stress kills the kids if they are not ready.”
Mbatha and Alcock employ eight people, among them Thokozani Xulu, whose job includes extending the supply of veterinary medicines to trading stores.
Interventions like the feed licks, compact blocks of molasses and protein, have made a big impact. And improvements to people’s lives have reduced the potential for easily agitated blood feuds that fester in impoverished Msinga.
Xulu says the last serious faction fight was in 2003. “Those days were terrible,” he says, lowering his head. “Every man had to be part of the war. If you didn’t have a gun, they would get you a gun and make you fight.”
The grim-faced Mchunu brothers who live a few kilometres from Yengwa would probably get into a dust-up at the drop of a hat. They are three of nine siblings whose mother also started raising goats after her husband died.
Mvezelwa, 36, is the eldest brother and left a job in Krugersdorp when the factory he worked in closed down. “The job opportunities were small, so I came home.” His stern look softens as he strokes a kid.
Then Mvezelwa barks gruffly at his brothers, Lucky and Nkosinathi, to attend to tasks associated with their 200-strong herd. “Cows take too long to grow. Goats are quick. I feel very well that I am not relying on anyone for a job. When I was in Johannesburg, I didn’t realise the money factory was at home with the goats.”
Mbatha says about 5 000 people have taken part in the goat project in the nine years it has been running. And the Department of Agriculture and the European Union have committed R70 million to extend the pilot programme in Msinga to four more districts. This should create 7 000 farmers, 600 jobs for the youth and R100 million in goat sales.
Alcock has spent his life in Msinga and successfully increased poultry production through the use of vaccinations a few years ago. He realised that chickens don’t provide an income for women-headed households, but saw that women who amassed enough chickens sold them to buy goats.
“Goats have huge potential,” he says, but adds that there is no silver bullet for the millions of subsistence farmers in South Africa.
He and Mbatha work with scientists to research and improve the goat industry. They have done dip tank censuses, but say there is a dearth of data in this area. What they did observe was how the 2014-2015 drought knocked cow herds by 20%, but goat production rose by 64% in the same period.
Alcock says the South African goat population is 7.8 million and small-scale black farmers own 5.8 million of these. And yet South Africa still imports 1 million goats from Namibia every year.
Idiosyncrasies and benefits
Goats aren’t as commercially viable as other livestock and aren’t suited to big numbers in fenced fields. The saturation point for a goat herd is 200 (100 adults and 100 kids). Thereafter, it has to be split or it will swamp the environment.
Goats are fascinating creatures. They self-herd and are led by alpha females. They wander into the bush without shepherds in the morning and return on their own at dusk. The carrying capacity (the area needed to support a herd) of a 100-adult goats is a feeding corridor 6km long and 2km wide.
Kids need to be kept in the kraal for the first three months so they can be weaned off their mother’s milk and aren’t weakened by walking.
Interestingly, ecologists are now celebrating goats as a tool to stem bush encroachment on indigenous Savanna grasslands. In a nutshell, thorn trees are thriving on increased carbon dioxide and crowding out the grass that allows biodiversity to thrive. But goat browsing keeps the thorn trees in check.
Alcock is not one for hyperbole but says there is a potential revolution in goats. “Rural youth don’t want to be farmers, but the only way out for many is servicing goat farmers as community animal health workers or trading. “And farmers need help. They don’t change easily.”
Rural problems need pragmatic solutions. “What people have in their backyard is the best to work with. Goats don’t involve government systems, a local councillor or a tenderpreneur.”
Yengwa doesn’t need any convincing. “The minister came here with Makhonya and Gugu. I was very proud. I will never forget that day,” she says, covering her face and shy smile with her hand. “Yes, it seems to me that I am special.”