From August 23 to September 4, Shared Interest’s25th anniversary delegation traveled to South Africa and Malawi to take stock of the countries’ progress and challenges, and a quarter-century of Shared Interest’s work. In additional to historic sites such as Robben Island, they visited Shared Interest program partners and gathered input for the organization’s new strategic plan for the next five years.
The trip began in Cape Town, where the group met with former Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs and other thought-leaders. Reflecting on Shared Interest’s history, Justice Sachs noted, “Our long connection with Shared Interest doesn’t wane. There is a sense of continuity…Shared Interest is a kind of Ubuntu…There are lots of people who helped us. But it is your focus, style of work and relationships with people on the ground that I find special. It’s literally ground up. The world is aching for that.”
Land and Livelihoods
The first trip to the field took delegates to Piketberg, to visit Shared Interest’s two guarantee partner cooperatives on Rietkloof and Mont Pique farms, now owned, operated and managed by black farmworkers employing a total of 805 people. Walking in the fields and having lunch with coop members, the group collected moving accounts of the transformation the new owners have experienced since the government purchased the farm and gave it to them to run for themselves, with technical support and the help of a Shared Interest guarantee for working capital.
Petro Pieters, a founding coop member at Mont Piquet farm, described arriving there as a seasonal worker in 1997 with her small son, and pregnant with the next baby. After her second child was born, she found employment on the farm and, within a year, became a supervisor responsible for a 25-woman team. After six years, she was promoted to a higher-level supervisor – learning by doing. She described how the farm’s conversion to a worker-owned cooperative changed her daily life, noting, “Before, there was only ‘You must listen to what the boss says.’ Now you can do it yourself...And we managers explain why we do things. Now, together, we decide how to cultivate the fruit. It is not just cutting for the boss. Now we can plant.”
Aninka Claasens, of the Land and Accountability Research Centre, and University of Cape Town’s Lungisile Ntsebeza analyzed South Africa’s complex land issues and reform measures – and the long road the country has yet to travel to restore land equitably to the black families and communities dispossessed during colonial and apartheid rule. At the University of Stellenbosch, former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela emphasized the role of the constitution, legal structures and civil society in pursuing the country’s justice agenda. Updating the group on issues that top the country’s priority list, including South Africa’s dramatic campaign against corruption, she emphasized that “Justice is done when people know what is done in their names and with their resources.”
Rooting Out Conflict
In Durban, delegates met with Ashwin Desai of the University of Johannesburg and Simange Sithebe, director of the conflict-resolution organization Sinani, who examined the turbulent history, dynamics and challenges of the province and South Africa itself –setting the stage for delegates’ visit to the Sihlangene Bus Company. Sihlangene took the group on one of its busses’ daily routes from Richards Bay, affording delegates the chance to chat with riders and see their communities. In most, the company provides one of the only sources of safe and dependable transportation. “And the price is right,” declared George, who boarded the bus with cans and brush to paint houses in neighboring communities in order to feed his wife and five children.
Formed by the partnership of two black-owned taxi associations and a small black-owned bus company serving rural routes near Richards Bay, the cooperative stands in sharp relief against a background of communities historically battered by taxi wars. Sihlangene administrator Mpume Cele explained, “Other towns had issues between taxi associations and between busses and taxis – unlike us. We are integrated and have no issues. We are part of them and they are part of us. The people go a long way.”
The group learned that Sihlangene has been so successful that it has renegotiated its Shared Interest-guaranteed loan, convincing the lender, ABSA Bank, to lower its interest rate by 7.5 percentage points.
Looking Back. Looking Forward
Next stop: Johannesburg. Delegates celebrated renowned playwright and actor Dr. John Kani’s birthday with him, and enjoyed tea at the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens with anti-apartheid luminaries Max and Elinor Sisulu. They also toured the Apartheid Museum and visited the Hector Pietersen Museum, commemorating the Soweto Rebellion, with Antoinette Sithole, sister of Hector Pietersen – the first child killed in the apartheid police attack on peaceful student protesters of 1976. Acting Constitutional Court Justice Margaret Victor and activist scholar Mzwanele Mayekiso wrapped up the South Africa program with retrospective analyses of the contributions of the courts and civil society to the first 25 years of the country’s democracy. They also highlighted achievements and challenges to be addressed – with the help of South Africa’s international partners – during the country’s ongoing struggle for justice.
Malawi: Women Tackle Hunger and Climate Change
Finally, seven of the 11 delegates continued on to Malawi to meet with representatives of the Ministries of Finance and Agriculture and UN Women Malawi, and to visit African Women in Agribusiness (AWAB), an organization of women seed entrepreneurs catalyzed by the Graça MachelTrust. With AWAB members, the group boarded a minivan and traveled deep into the Malawian countryside to meet with farmers growing cowpea and protein-maize for the winter season. Proud community members showed the group the irrigation ditch it had taken them four years of determined digging (without shovels!) to carve into their land – a channel that now waters their fields. Delegates watched as Dr. Grace Malindi, AWAB’s president, delivered new seed for the next planting season, and “starter” sweet potato vines for the community to begin to grow in their own fields.
The AWAB women provide smallholder farmers with technical support, quality tools and seeds, and access to markets. Dr. Malindi reported on women farmers’ multi-faceted challenges: “They lack good seed, markets, extension services, information and technical support…and women are not allowed to travel long distances. Their husbands are jealous. The inputs need to come to them in their own areas.”
Access to finance, with the help of Shared Interest’s guarantee, has opened doors that are enabling AWAB to scale and purchase more farmers’ harvests. “Before, the bank was a no-go zone,” recalled Dr. Malindi. “After Shared Interest came in, we got access to finance.” AWAB member Martha Nkhoma added, “Empowerment starts with ourselves. As we go up, we will take others.”