Charmaine Jacobs

Charmaine Jacobs

Age at interview: 55

Franschoek, South Africa

A shy Charmaine stands at her gate as we arrive. She smiles softly, and the ends of her mouth crinkle slightly. Mostly, she looks down or looks away. She is gentle and deliberate in her movements as she opens the gate. The house is impossible to miss. It is pale green and sits at the corner of a short street. The white burglar bars in front of the windows and door seem particularly thick. A small garden adorns the front of the house. In one corner there is a large tree surrounded by beautifully landscaped grass. The perimeter of the house is traced by a variety of brightly coloured flowers. Charmaine is nervous about talking, but after some reassurance, she becomes more relaxed and shares the story of her journey with and within the forestry community.

My name is Charmaine Jacobs. I was born on the sixth of April 1962, in Cape Town. I'm the treasurer of the Forestry Community Forum.[1] I am a mother of four—two boys and twin girls, all who are now married. The eldest of my children is called Shaun; he is 36 years old and has three daughters. The second is Justin; he is 31 years old and has one son. The last are a pair of twins, Yasmine and Fatima. Also, I adopted my cousin’s child, Bernita, when she was four. I’ve been divorced for 13 years.

I have raised many children: my own, my cousin’s child, and my husband’s child that he had after our divorce. I was concerned about the welfare of my husband’s son because he was growing up in a troubled home. So I welcomed him here in the hope of offering him some stability. His mother had issues with alcohol, and two of her children have drug problems. So this young boy had a troubled life.

To remain a part of my daughters’ lives

Both my daughters are married to Pakistani men and have converted to Islam. It was not an easy transition, because our whole household had to make adjustments since they all live here in this home. We now have a big responsibility, and so we as a family are in the process of learning a new language, Urdu. We have also ensured that the home is halal. Even though I remain Christian, I fast with my daughters and their husbands every year. My wish is to remain a part of my daughters’ lives and to be able to communicate and relate with my grandchildren. So learning Urdu and understanding Islam is an important part of that.

Yasmine is working now for the police as an administrator. Even though Fatima is educated in human resources and management, she preferred to look after my mother, who has been bedridden for the last 12 years. After my granddaughter Zarah was born to my daughter Yasmine, both my daughters and their husbands agreed that they would rather have Fatima look after Zarah at home to ensure she was being raised according to their religion. So Fatima does that, alongside looking after my mother. During the weekend, Fatima works in the takeaway shop jointly owned by her husband and her sister Yasmine’s husband.

The twins were very close right from the time they were children. When we were watching TV, even if there were many free seats, they would always squash together on one seat. If one was making tea, running an errand, or even going to the toilet, they always went together. Even if there is a disagreement between them, you would never see it.

When the men came into their lives, it created a challenge because Yasmine got married first. It was very hard on Fatima because it was like she was losing a part of herself. It was not a surprise that Fatima also married a Pakistani man who is related to Yasmine’s husband. The birth of Zarah has also helped to bring back the closeness between the twins.

The fact that Zarah lives with her parents in my home means that I’m able to be much closer to her than if she lived somewhere else. I have been part of her life every day, unlike the children of my sons, who don’t live with me. I discovered that whenever I feel sad, upset, angry, or confused, I just look at that baby’s smile. It feels like an angel is smiling at me and giving me courage. She is only five months old, so even though she cannot answer me, I can still talk to her about my garden, my people, my community, and my goals.

Life was difficult

My grandmother was married and had five children before her husband died. After that she stayed with the five kids and her in-laws. They started to be nasty to her, so she had to marry somebody else in order to escape that home. During the apartheid era a woman could not own property or live by herself.

My mother did not like her stepfather [grandmother’s new husband]. She told me stories of how she had to walk barefoot to school and how they had to heat up stones on a fire and put them in their jacket pockets in order to keep warm, because life was difficult.

When my mother was around 14, she went away to school but decided that life was too hard for my grandmother, for my mother to not contribute financially. So, she found a job as a domestic worker for a white lady in town near the school. At the end of the month, my mother took her earnings to my grandmother, who was shocked because she thought my mother was at school. That was the end of my mother’s schooling, as she continued to work to help my grandmother.

It was then that she moved to Camps Bay, from Franshoek, so that she could work for the white family as a live-in domestic worker.

My mother’s own marriage to my father did not work. She had two children with him, and because of the bad relationship between her and her stepfather, she could not go back home. Instead she asked some friends to look after my brother and me while she worked to support us.

They say my brother got sick because we were not being looked after well by this family. My brother was four and I was five. So I do not remember much about it. I can remember quite well, though, the room where my brother and I used to sleep. It was a small room with two beds. My brother was lying on one bed when my mother arrived after being told he was sick, but it was too late. My brother died in that bed.

I can still see how she pulled handfuls of hair off her head. [My mother] never remarried and never had another child. It was only after the death of my brother that my step-grandfather agreed for me to live with him and my grandmother whilst my mother worked in order to take care of me.

He pushed us hard

I was born in Cape Town, but I grew up in Groendal, a neighbourhood of Franschhoek, with my maternal grandmother and my step-grandfather. My step-grandfather was a gardener in his time, and although he couldn't read or write, I learnt so much from him. He worked on a farm, and he bought some land with the money he acquired from the farming.

He worked here at La Motte for the Ruperts as his day job.[2] After hours, he had his own garden, that he worked on and then he produced veggies, which he took to the market to sell early in the mornings before work. When he took his holidays during the year, he would go to the Free State.[3] He would prune trees for the farmers there. He saved all the money he made while there.

Amazing man! He saved the money he made between the two jobs for seven years, until he was able to buy land. He was really an icon for me. In those times it was a milestone for somebody like him, a person who was not literate, to buy land, build a house, and then extend it.

It was tough growing up in his home because he was a very strict person. He had his moments where he could also be a sweet guy, but he believed in discipline and the importance of having a very good education. He pushed us hard in that respect.

Rule number one was to be educated, and there's was no relaxing or having a nice time. All his children were well educated, even though he was not literate, and that was amazing. That approach to hard work is what allowed me to develop into a strong kind of person in my community.

My step-grandfather inspired me, but he had his flaws too. From Monday through Friday, he was a hard worker, but on weekends, after his duties in his garden were finished, then that was his time for relaxation. He would go out on his bicycle to meet his friends, and when he came back, he had a dominant attitude. Everything had to go his way, and if you crossed his boundaries, he would get physical.

I have no idea how my grandmother endured that abuse and never reacted. My grandmother occasionally smoked cigarettes — I think it was because she needed something to help her manage nerves — but my step-grandfather did not approve. There was a day when he smelt the smoke, and he searched the entire house until he found the cigarette. He beat her badly that day. I was just a small child when this happened, but I wished she had spoken up, stood up for herself. But she never did.

Gardening all the time

My step-grandfather worked in the garden with the help of the rest of the family. In addition to the garden behind his house, he also rented a garden far away from Groendal and had land three kilometres from the house, of which a big portion of it was used to plant veggies.

My step-grandfather planted carrots, cabbage, onions, potatoes, and different kinds of beans. He grew foods that were staples in our diet. He also grew big cucumbers, tomatoes, and a little bit of lettuce, because in those days, it was a luxury to have different varieties of salad. It was amazing to see the love he had for gardening, for farming.

He taught us about gardening all the time — even after hours on a Saturday afternoon — and whether we wanted to or not, we had to sit there and listen. He would discuss different types of potatoes, how to plant different things, different kinds of fruits, and nobody could leave until he was finished.

Some of my family members didn't like it at all. One of my cousins had to go to the garden that was about three kilometres from home. He was sent to water the garden there because he was a boy and because as my step-grandfather got older, he needed someone to go and water that garden. My cousin would water the whole row down the line by only sprinkling a little water, so it would take less time.

To make sure my cousin was doing the watering properly, my grandfather would go to the garden from time to time and he'd take a stick and just dig a little. He would find that the soil just below the surface was dry because my cousin cheated and did not water properly. My step-grandfather knew exactly when you cheated on the grounds.

Now when I go visit my uncles, it is nice to see that all of them have a garden at home. We all share between us, little plants and veggies, and in that way, we try to keep the legacy of what my step-grandfather thought was important going in our family.

Every drop is precious

My step-grandfather also taught us to respect water. When my step-grandfather was at work, he would lock the water tank. This was an eye-opener for me about respecting water.

Whenever we needed water, and there was no water in the community taps, we would have to wait for him to unlock the tank after work. He would stand there, and before he opened the tap, he would tell you that you have to respect water and that no drop should fall on the floor after you fetch the water. “Every drop is precious,” he would say as he’d unlock the gate and the tank's valve.

To this day, especially since water is scarce here, I continue spreading the message he taught me by telling everybody, “Respect water.” I’ve realised that knowledge is a thing that spreads from generation to generation. That's why when I work with women in the community, I take what I felt were valuable lessons from what I learnt as I grew up and I share it with other people.

God used an illiterate man to educate me

When I was young, reading was a big hobby of mine. And because my step-grandfather couldn't read and write, when he would prepare to go to the Free State for his holidays to prune the trees of the farmers, he had me write the letters to the farmers to let them know he was coming. When the farmers replied, I was the one to read the letters to him. I was a big part of his little business.

Also, because I was not somebody who was always into fun times — I mostly stayed at home — he was very fond of me. During the times I’d be home, he would explain to me all the different types of food he was growing. At the beginning I had no choice but to help, but later on, as I continued gardening, I started to see how amazing it was that I could put a little bean in the ground and then see it break through the earth and flourish.

It felt incredible to be a part of that. Even now, if I feel stress, I notice that when I work in the garden, I end up much more relaxed. It's like I come together with nature.

That's why if I look back, if I think back, I realise that God used an illiterate man to educate me and most of our family.

We began to join

Eventually I left my grandmother and step-grandfather’s house. In 1980, when I was 18, I moved to Cape Town and started working there. While in Cape Town I met somebody from my hometown who had come to visit, and when I was 19, I married him. We then moved to Meerlust[4] in 1981, the first forestry station we lived in, for one year before moving to La Motte, which is another forestry station.

After I got married, I joined the women’s group. I used to be quite shy, but the more I participated in community activities, the more confident I got. At that time I had just had my first kid, Shaun, and this is also when I began to join the women in our community in caring for the elderly and advocating for healthcare and education services for members of our community.

Within the church women's association that I was a member of, I was learning from elder women in church. I and other younger women took the knowledge that they passed on to us, and we added our little fresh ideas. And we passed on those ideas to our children. When my children were in school, I started advocating at the primary school about ensuring that every child in school is fed, because a child can't study if they are hungry. We decided as mothers to share our ideas and bring food to the school in order to have better conditions for our children. My own child may not be hungry, but maybe my neighbour's or my friend’s child is.

My husband had come from an urban family that was very well off compared to my family. He wasn't used to forestry work, the hard kind of work. But he worked from the bottom until he became a supervisor at the forestry station in La Motte. He started off as a driver. Then he became a head driver, with the specialised tractors in the forestry, and then a supervisor.

After almost 18 years of working at La Motte, the fact that Maasdorp, the area we are now living in, was only for white employees became an issue for the coloured staff. There was one coloured person who was working in the office at the forestry station, and he applied successfully to the forestry department for a piece of land in this area. After that, a few other coloured people in management positions also applied for the land in this area, and that is how we ended up having a coloured community living here, an area that used to be only for white staff.

You're not fine until everybody around you is fine

Land to me means that you can have your own home, you can grow some food, you have your cattle there, and you can feed your family and other people around you. I think it is hard to build a secure life if you do not own land.

Though we live here, the community people living in the Maasdorp area do not own this land. It's been 18 years of fighting for ownership of these houses, because they remain the property of the government.

The government doesn’t want the financial responsibility that comes with us owning this land, because there is a law that once a community has been established, the government must establish a town. This means they have to upgrade the water, electricity, and the roads. They will need to develop the typical infrastructure, such as a school, a hospital, and a shopping centre. Franschhoek is prime land and is reserved only for tourism and multimillionaires like the Rupert family. They want to get rid of us so that the wealthy whites that own all these wineries can use this land to make more profit. They want to take all the good land and leave us with nothing.

We, as the mostly coloured forestry community, have had Surplus People Project [SPP] supporting us in our land struggle for years now.[5] I am extremely grateful for SPP, a movement I first interacted with in 2008. I learnt from them how to stand up for myself and how to think about myself as a citizen with rights and responsibilities. Even if your life is relaxed and comfortable, you fight because you're not fine until everybody around you, in your country, and all over the world, is fine. You can't sit back and relax. There's always work to be done and information you can spread.

We have made friends and built community with other farmers, including youth who are interested in farming and gardening, with the help of the network that SPP established. It's tiring, and sometimes you get disappointed if things don't go your way or you have setbacks in your garden. But then there's always a farmer who encourages you and says, “Do it this way next time. It might work better” or “add this to your compost heap.” Learning from others has always been very important to me.

I must say that we are flourishing now as a community because we are helping each other and also using the things, like composting, we learnt as children when we were farming. I learnt from my step-grandfather about liquid manure from worms, and I still use that method now.

Every member of the community belongs here

The government deprives certain people from owning land that historically belongs to them. Our people fought because they worked for the government and for the forestry industry all their lives. The best years of their lives were spent working in the forestry industry. It was not easy, and now they have nothing to show for it.

Every member of the forestry community, myself included, belongs here. All of us that were born, lived, and worked for the forestry commission were forgotten after the closure of most of the forestry departments. We have been living here all or most of our lives, and yet they want to evict us.

This home is my life, and I deserve a place where I can stay, where I can have my legacy go on. I have the right to flourish, to develop, and to be empowered where I am now. And I feel the government can't just come and displace us and give us homes in another place.

I planted those trees in the garden and the lawn and flowers that surround this house. My children played in this garden. Justin would fall from the big tree outside and still climb it again. Memories of my children’s childhoods are everywhere inside and outside this house. We built up our community, and we uplift each other. So we're not going to move.

Stealing with your eyes

For now I don't do gardening at my home. I garden at my mother's house, where my son is living. It is my son who prepares the soil, and at the moment, there is not so much in the garden. Between my son and his wife and a nephew of mine, they handle the gardening but strictly with no chemical fertilisers. They look after the garden and prepare it and plant onions and potatoes — that kind of stuff.

In agroecology we believe that you can have healthy food if you share your seeds with people that don't use fertiliser and if you make your own compost. My step-grandfather used to have a special compost. No vegetable or peel would be thrown away, not even an eggshell! It all went into his compost.

I don’t have any technical knowledge of farming. What I know about gardening I learnt from my step-grandfather and SPP. There is plenty that I can learn from others; all of us just have to be willing to learn and pay attention. We can improve ourselves through watching and borrowing ideas — “stealing with the eyes,” as my mother calls it. Even when I travel, I am learning new ideas or acquiring new seed. I will always continue to learn.

They just take it

In 2017, I was selected by SPP to go to France for a land solidarity meeting convened by CCFD-Terre Solidaire [Catholic Committee Against Hunger and for Development-Solidarity Land] to go and speak about the realities of the forestry community in the Western Cape of South Africa.[6] I spoke on a panel and shared with the audience about where I come from and the history of the forestry people.

I remember one specific debate that I had while in France about industrialised agriculture and mass production versus organic farming. While in a meeting, I told the people who were there that in South Africa, my community are part of a minority of people that believes in agroecology and that we need more land if we want to be profitable. In this moment, with the land that we have, we can only do it on a small scale, and it's not a sustainable way to ensure our livelihoods. We are still struggling; farmers are struggling.

One of the men in the meeting stood up and said that nobody is still talking about land, and that the world is now focused on industrialised agriculture and mass production. I responded that whatever direction he thought the world was moving in, the world could not ignore the history of land being taken from black and coloured people by white people in order to start or expand their businesses.

I talked about how during apartheid, the land owned by my step-grandfather had been taken by the municipality because they wanted to make a path through it to service white communities. These are not things we can just forget in order to focus on industrial agriculture, especially because industrial agriculture does not benefit us at all.

Indigenous people were living on prime land. They take the land, and if you are not difficult, they might give you something small for the land. If you don't want to give it up, they just take it.

So much hate and frustration inside

Our grandparents and great-grandparents were displaced from their land, put on small little plots that they didn’t own, and forced to pay rent. Before 1994, the government just took that land and displaced our people to places where you can't even do good farming or practise agroecology on a big scale. You were not supposed to develop the land, since you didn’t own the land. So, you could use it but not change it. This means that though non-white people may have had access to some portions of land, they still did not have real control over it, because the government was still deciding what you could and couldn’t do on that land.

So our people are struggling to farm on a big scale because they have no resources and only have small plots of land over which there is little control and no ownership. They can be evicted at any time. These are the injustices we are fighting against with the help of SPP, and there are many other movements, projects, and organisations that are challenging the government and fighting for us to get our land back.

If you have land, you have power, because then you have the ability to put a seed into the ground, see it grow, and to sell whatever you put in the ground and make a better life.

Even if the government wanted to give us land by buying farms and redistributing the land to people, it would not work because those white farmers sell those farms for huge sums of money. The government can't afford to pay for those farms. In instances where white farmers do sell land, it is usually in some distant place where people can't even farm properly because the land is not good for farming.

That’s why our people have so much hate and frustration inside them — because we're still struggling. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It is a sad story, but we won't lose hope because we are in this fight already.

Try and keep hope alive

The challenge faced by community organisers is that it has been difficult to fight government and the corrupt municipalities. Our challenge is that though we are the majority, we are poor and less privileged. There is a lot of wealth in this area, but it belongs to a few rich people.

We are clearly last in line to get access to land in our community. If you have a lot of money, you can easily acquire land in this area.

We have been struggling to get ownership of the small piece of land that our homes are built on, but wealthy foreigners coming from overseas own huge pieces of land. The poor and landless will continue to suffer while the rich continuously grab land.

Another challenge is community awareness. Once I suggested to a man that he could also start gardening. He said, "Are you mad? I can buy a bunch of carrots for next to nothing in the market or in the shop." All he knows is the price of the carrots, not how they were grown or what damage they can do to his health. Teaching people means we also need to let them know about the health benefits of growing their own food or eating food whose source you know.

People are frustrated, and we have a lot of social difficulties in our communities. We have a lot of programmes and projects going on to try and keep hope alive. Thankfully, SPP is helping our people to stand strong and to be educated about how to battle and how to take on our government and our municipalities.

Standing in the way of our struggle

One of the issues we are facing day by day is job creation. If our people don't get food on the table and they don't have a job, they won’t have the chance to take on issues and projects and to be part of the fight against the government. Job creation is a major problem.

It is tough for our youth and it is hard to convince them that there's a better life than just being stuck working in forestry. It’s difficult to get the youth involved in our campaigns because of the lack of work and a lot of drug and substance abuse. That is all standing in the way of our struggle moving forward.

Sometimes we as organisers have financial burdens, because in order to keep people motivated, we need money to transport and to feed them, so that we can educate them on the issues. My wish is that we as a community — and that I, Charmaine — can feed [our] families. I want us to be able to teach the forestry communities and urban communities to produce food in ways that benefit the world. No child should go to sleep hungry anymore.

My little part

I will do this work until hunger is no more. I'm not talking about just benefiting myself; I'm talking about in the whole world. I wish that the gap between the rich and the poor will shrink.

When I think about what will happen when I die, I want people in my community, my children, to think of me as having been a little part of the struggle, working, and fighting against government and the rich.

I want people to remember that when I was a part of a campaign, a project, I never lost hope and that I had this vision of owning land, of owning a house.

But most of all, I want them to remember that I always looked to the future, lived in the present, and learnt from and never forgot our history.

  1. The Forestry Community Forum is a member organisation of the Western Cape Forestry Sector Forum, which is formed by the key forestry stakeholders in the Western Cape. They seek to promote and support development in the forestry sector in the Western Cape Province.
  2. La Motte was acquired in 1970 by the late Dr. Anton Rupert, an international industrialist who established a global business empire.
  3. The Free State is a South African province sprawling over high plains and stretching along the Maloti Mountains bordering Lesotho.
  4. Long recognised for producing world-class wines, Meerlust Estate has been the pride of the Myburgh family since 1756. Meerlust Estate is located in Stellenbosch within the Western Cape.
  5. Established in the 1980s, the Surplus People Project (SPP) publicises and supports communities in the struggles against apartheid state-forced removals. This work culminated in the publication of the seminal five-volume SPP reports documenting some of these forced removals. SPP emerged from the radical liberal tradition in South Africa, and in the post-apartheid era, SPP’s focus shifted to support community struggles for agrarian transformation, including food sovereignty, equitable land ownership, and alternatives to dominant models of production. SPP aligns itself with social justice movements.
  6. CCFD-Terre Solidaire is an association of 29 movements and services of the Catholic Church and is recognised as the first development nongovernmental organisation in France. It was founded in 1961 as CCCF, “Comité Catholique contre la Faim,” an initiative against hunger. In 1966, it became “Comité Catholique contre la Faim et pour le Développement” as part of expansion toward promoting development and not only fighting hunger.