Virginia Magwaca

Virginia Magwaca

Age at interview: 54

Ngqumeya, South Africa

A medium-sized mud house in the village of Ngqumeya stands on a hill overlooking a large dam known as Sandile Dam. In the distance sits an expanse of green vegetation and winding roads weaving around mountains and hills. The home is abuzz with activity. The mud house is being repaired by a cheerful man with a broad smile who turns out to be Virginia’s only surviving sibling, Mlamli. He picks up walnut-sized amounts of the sticky mud and skilfully throws it at the wall, leaving no gaps as he throws, forming a beautiful pattern of slightly raised mounds. Virginia, a beautiful dark skinned woman, is cheerful and talkative, and her face is covered by an evenly smoothed layer of a red clay. She tells us it’s a beauty mask and that the focus should be more on how the mask evens her complexion and not so much on her current appearance. A young woman greets us; introduces herself as Oyisa, the youngest daughter of Virginia; and bursts into song as she walks away. It is clear that we are in a home of genuine people, and the sense of ease around the home immediately makes it welcoming.

I am very excited to be able to share my story. My name is Virginia Magwaca. I was born in Upper Ngqumeya in 1963.[1] I am 54 years old and a mother of four children.

I did my primary school and high school, but I was not able to take my grade 12 exams, which are the last high school exams you take before university. I became pregnant in grade 11 and had my daughter Paula.

The eldest daughter, Paula, is currently living with me, but she was working in Cape Town. Before that she was working in East London. She did her grade 12 in 2007 and failed two subjects that she didn’t end up redoing. She is a very hard worker who helps everyone around the house who needs it. I have a grandson from Paula who is eight years old.

The second child is my son Petros. He finished grade 12 in 2014, and he is currently in university. He does not talk much and only talks when there is a need to.

The third child,is also a young man and his name is Tsepo. He passed grade 12 in 2016 and has been working to save up money for university, which he’ll start in 2019. He is an extremely hard worker and excels in school because of that. Tsepo is also an amazing singer. He is the choirmaster for Mnombo Wothando Choral, the community choir.

The last one is my little girl, Oyisa. She went up to grade 12, though she did not pass the grade. Her exams were during taxi strikes, so it was very hard for her to reach the examination centre, which meant that she ended up missing some of her exams. Oyisa also has a great singing voice, and she is very talented at netball.

My mother’s only daughter

In my home growing up, there were only two girls — my cousin Cynthia and me. I was my mother’s only daughter; the rest of her six children were boys. When I was a child, my mother had to leave for East London to find employment to try to give us a better future, so were raised by our grandmother.[2] My mother mainly worked in homes as a domestic worker and would come to visit us often.

My mother was never married, so we grew up with my maternal family. My mother was very fond of her sons. Even though I was the only girl, we were not very close. When I was growing up, she complained that I was stubborn and would tell me that she did not like that. I always felt she preferred her boys.

My grandmother was employed in Keiskammahoek, which is the nearest small town, where she was [also] a domestic worker. She would commute every weekday. She passed away a long time ago, when I was 11 years old. When we were young, she used to wake us up early to fetch water and water the garden. She took all her grandchildren to church with her on Sundays, but after church, we had to change back into home clothes and go into the forest and collect firewood for cooking.

As a child, I had been quiet, and it wasn’t till much later, as a young woman, that I joined community societies and started singing at concerts. I even became the choirmaster in the same choir that my son is now a choirmaster.

We had all we wanted

I have lived in this home my whole life. When we were growing up, life was great because we had all we wanted between my mother and grandfather. My mother worked in East London and was able to financially provide for us quite comfortably. My grandfather was a farmer, and so we ate food that was grown at home.

My grandfather used cattle and an ox-drawn plough when planting seeds and used cow manure as fertiliser in the fields. The field was always full of food: beans, rye, wheat, peas, mealies, pumpkins, and potatoes. I remember my grandmother used to grow vegetables in the same garden that I am now gardening in. She taught us about how to grow rather than buy vegetables from the market. We were never reliant on supermarkets. Food wasn’t generally bought from the shops in those days; you would only buy food like rice from the shop.

My grandmother was very proud that she could provide meat, chicken, eggs, vegetables, and different grains for the family without having to buy them. She was also very proud of me, I was her pride and joy.

I remember once when I received an award for my schoolwork, instead of slaughtering two chickens for dinner, my grandmother slaughtered three, declaring that the third one was for me. I did not eat the third chicken alone. We all shared it, but I got to pick the piece I wanted first. I felt so proud that day, because we were having more chicken than usual, and it was because of what I had achieved.

The success of his rituals

My grandfather was a traditional healer (herbalist) who also led initiation rite ceremonies for boys (as a surgeon). Even when he was very old, he continued his work. He had a hut that he used for the consultations within this same compound that we lived. When people came to consult him, I was the one who accompanied them to his hut. If he wanted something, like to retrieve some herbs, he would send me to tell my cousin to come help me to put together the herbs that were needed. After my cousin and I would bring the herbs, my grandfather would tell me what each herb was for and how to prepare it.

He helped many people who were physically ill but also helped with spiritual challenges. He could even help someone be released from jail just by using his herbs. I remember there was a man who killed a boy in the village. Young men from the village of the boy who was killed then went, and in their anger, killed the boy’s murderer. When the murderer died, the villagers involved were arrested. The parents of these villagers came to ask my grandfather for help, and within two days, the young men were released. I remember them standing in front of our kraal singing all day and thanking my grandfather.

People often paid my grandfather after the success of his rituals. They paid him with goats, chickens, and cows. When a person could not pay, that never stopped my grandfather from helping them. As for why he chose me of all his grandchildren to assist him, I don’t know. Maybe it was because I was such a curious child.

My first taste of being a business woman

I think the shift in how I was in the world happened around 1989, when one of my aunts gave me vegetables and meat to sell for her. It forced me to talk because customers were always giving me trouble and some would refuse to pay. She gave me my first taste of being a business woman.

When Paula was two years old, after selling produce for my aunt, I started selling hot dogs outside the local high school. There were two other people selling hot dogs at the school, but people would line up for mine, because I used to take care when preparing them. I would cut the rolls neatly and slice the onions thinly, though I am not completely certain if that is why people preferred my hot dogs.

Then, when there was a disco coming up, I started doing hair for the girls and making money that way. I also would cook fish and sell it during the discos. I started doing all of this because I needed to make money for myself and for my baby.

I started farming in 1993. I only had a small piece of land to plant on because I did not have enough fencing material to put around my whole garden. Without fencing, goats and cattle will destroy everything you plant. I quickly realised, however, that the more I could plant, the more I could harvest. So I asked my brothers to help me expand the garden, and so I finally managed to expand it.

At this point, I was planting using the information that I learnt at school about conservation farming, which I did quite well at. Since they still teach this subject to children now, I was able to help my kids with their agriculture homework when they were in primary and high school. In 2004, when I was 41 years old, … I met a counsellor who told me that I could still take my grade 12 exams. I started studying again and I took my grade 12 exams.

It gave families a chance

In 2006 I joined a cooperative called Water for Food, headed by the Border Rural Committee [BRC].[3] The BRC came to work with the community as part of the land claims process that was underway. People within the community were claiming compensation from the government because our ancestors were forcibly moved away from ancestral land into this resettlement area by the apartheid government.[4]

The affected communities, who instituted the claim, won the claim and so every family in the area was awarded 55,000 ZAR [$5,500 USD]. In my village, we decided as the members of my community that we wanted to keep half of the money and use the other half for community development. The money might not have been much, but it gave families a chance to do many things they had never been able to do. So many people were happy. It is only now that we look back and see that it was not a lot of money.

After the land claims were settled, the BRC introduced a farming cooperative project, and all those who were interested were welcome to join. They taught us about how growing food is a way of fighting poverty and supporting vulnerable people, like the elderly, in the community.

After training us on things like how to plant different vegetables in one plot through intercropping and how to run our gardens more generally, they gave us wheelbarrows and other tools with which to work.[5] They gave the seeds and seedlings needed to start our gardens, and then they came back six weeks later to see how we were doing. When they saw my garden, they wanted to know why my cabbage was so beautiful and big. I told them that it was because I was always in my garden tending to my plants.

A lot of hard work

Initially, we were eight people in the cooperative, but when others saw how beautiful our gardens looked, they requested to join us. The number went up to 23, but most of them got defeated and dropped out when they realised there were no profits and that there was a lot of hard work. So in the end of this initial period, only 12 of us were still left in the cooperative. After giving us seedlings the first time, BRC then expected us to buy our own seedlings based on the business models they had taught us for sustaining the gardens. Initially, I used to buy seeds, but after a while, I started a small nursery where I now produce my own seedlings.

Later on, the BRC gave us tanks to store water, which we would use to irrigate our plants. They had a limited number of tanks and decided to start with four people from the cooperative. I was lucky to be one of the four who received assistance with building a reservoir. The tanks were very large, holding 500,000 litres of water each. The water tanks were meant to support food production by eliminating or limiting the problem of not having enough water.

The cooperative that I joined is still functional now, but there are only seven of us who are left. The others left because the work is tough and they just could not manage. I think it is just laziness that made them quit. Even though it is hard work, I am motivated knowing that I’m not going to buy everything from the market.

They also want to learn

Two of my children like the land and growing food. They also want to learn how to plant, so I’ve been teaching them the things that I know, like how to plant on a plot and how to intercrop, because this practice is really important, as it gives you higher yields per area. It is important to know which plants should be grown together through understanding their relationship to one another and how they support each other’s growth.

For example, if I plant spinach and I intercrop with onion, the onion repels insects, which in turn protects the spinach that is mixed in with the onion. I also have taught them things like how to protect plants from disease and why it is important to have trees as part of your garden. The way I protect my plants from disease is by using aloe and blackjack plants. I pound them both and soak them in water, then use the water to sprinkle over the plants. It does not kill insects; it repels them. If you want the mixture to be stronger, you soak the aloe and blackjack in the water for a longer time.

As part of the trainings I got from the BRC, I also learnt how to plant a tree, so I’ve also told my kids how important this is. Having a tree in a corner of your garden provides shade for the plants that are growing. In my garden I have planted fruit trees, including banana trees and peach trees. So while I am giving my plants shade, I am also able to have fruit, which is wonderful.

The way of life that my grandmother taught me

I also give my children the way of life that my grandmother taught me. In the garden, I produce more than enough for my family, so I sell some of the surplus. I also give food to my neighbours, my friends, my relatives, sick people, and people in the community who come here and ask for something to eat.

The soil here is very fertile and produces a lot of food. I don’t use chemicals when growing my food because I use the organic traditional knowledge passed down to me. All my food is organic, because people die from the chemicals and artificial fertilisers.

My passion for self-sustainability came from my grandmother. I live by my grandmother’s practice of being self-sustaining when it comes to food. I have my own eggs from my own chickens, and I fry onion and spinach, which I’ve grown, with the eggs to create a healthy meal.

I will only stop growing food when I am no longer physically able to do it. Until then, the land and I will play and dance together.

I have real opportunity

After learning all of the organic farming practices I’ve learnt from school, from my grandfather, and the BRC, I’ve discovered that I have real opportunities, and that it’s not just about the size or weight of the cabbage, or whatever else you are growing, but it is also about the life and health of the person consuming what you are growing.

I’ve conducted trainings as a member of Ntinga Ntaba kaNdoda with people, but many people have said that what we are doing, like carrying manure and then spreading it in the gardens, is too difficult.[6] I’ve told them they don’t have to copy all our practices, that they can do what is easiest for them as long as they are not using chemical fertilisers and other chemicals used in industrialised agriculture. As a result, some people have started doing organic farming, though it is to a limited extent.

I wish everybody would practice small-scale gardening to support their household needs, because each household could have its own garden. These small gardens can expand over time, and we can feed more and more people with healthy food.

Lost brothers over the years

Of my six brothers, only two are still alive. The first to die of my brothers died in 1978. His name was Thembela, and he was six years old when he died. He was the fifth of my mother’s children. He and my cousin, my mother’s sister’s son, were sent to the post office to collect registered mail. They often used to go and collect the mail at 5 p.m. for our family and other neighbours. When they came home that day, they were both vomiting something that was pinkish. They were both immediately taken to a traditional healer on the other side of the mountain, but it was too late. The next day, both of them died.

Those that lived close to the post office say that the children were called over to eat by our grand-aunt who lived next to the post office. Some say they saw her put a reddish liquid in the children’s food. There were some fights and arguments about whether this grand-aunt had poisoned the children, but there was never confirmation. So nothing happened to her. My brother and cousin had just finished their grade two exams, and their results came after they had died. My cousin had come first in class and Thembela was third.

A cloud of darkness came over my family again. I have lost other brothers over the years. In 2009 we lost my brother Vido. He died just three streets away from home. It was a Saturday, the Fourth of July, and our family had just come back from the funeral of a cousin in Cape Town. My brother would often stay out late, so I would leave the door open for him. I was asleep on the floor in my room with my son Tsepo, who was still small at the time. I had forgotten to leave the door unlocked that day, so my brother knocked when he came back. I sent Tsepo to unlock the door. My brother and his friend Songze wanted some money from me, 30 R [approximately $3 USD at that time], to buy alcohol. I sent him to get the little money I had from my daughter Paula, who was sleeping in another room. In the morning, my daughter Paula came to tell me that my brother was missing. A few days before this, I had had a dream of my brother Thembela lying dead by the side of a river. I told my cousin that my brother was dead in the forest and that we should go and find him. But they told me it had just been a dream, and so no one would let me go into the forest to look for him.

Later that day, my son Tsepo’s father called me to ask if I had received the news of my brother’s death. The bodies of my brother and his friend had been found in the forest next to the river. There was a woman in the community whose cousin was a well-known drug dealer. He used to keep his marijuana in his cousin’s home here in this neighbourhood. Apparently on the day of their death, my brother and his friend went to this woman’s home in order to steal marijuana. The woman called her cousin, and he came and shot Vido and Songeza then dumped their bodies by the river. The man who killed them was caught, and we went to court. But he was given 10,000 R bail, and that was the end of the case.

I remember that it was Saturday, October 15, in 2011 when a dark cloud once again hung over our home. My brother Paul was looking very unwell, so we decided he had to go to the hospital. But he refused, so I went to a cousin who lived nearby to tell her what was happening. She quickly came home with me and tried to convince him to go to the hospital. But still he refused and he made up an excuse that he could not go because the clothes he was wearing were dirty and he felt he couldn’t show up at the hospital with dirty clothes.

I decided he was going to go to the hospital no matter what he was saying so I boiled water for him so that he could bath. While we were waiting for his bathwater to boil, my mother came in and told him to go to the hospital. He was a very stubborn person and , he told my mother, who was also unwell, that she needed the hospital more than he did. He then bathed and dressed himself, took his clinic card, went to the car and took himself to the hospital. That was the last time I saw my brother alive. He passed away that same day, and we never knew what illness had killed him.

Hit me the hardest

Paul’s death and the death of my mother in the same month really damaged me.. When they died, I had just started to volunteer at Ntinga Ntaba kaNdoda. Being that it is a community movement, the finances were limited. Ntinga was unable to give us salaries and could only provide a small stipend.

My mother and brother left me suffering. They used to support me financially while they were alive. I would supplement that by growing food in the garden, but the issue was that what I was growing was not enough, as I had children to support as well.

After the death of my brother, I inherited a piece of land that my brother was given by the village committee. I also have my own land on the other side of the hill, but because I don’t have enough money, I haven’t built a house on that side.

Until about 2009 my mother, brother, and I had many cattle and goats in the kraal, and we had all the manure that we needed for the garden. So we harvested enough to meet our needs.[7] Unfortunately, starting in 2009 to 2011, the livestock began to mysteriously die, and now we have none left. I am not sure why the livestock died. Maybe it was the dying wish of those who died that their livestock too must die. I believe that people speak things into being.

Learning to live in community

On May 6, 2015, I graduated from Rhodes University with a diploma in community practice and early childhood development. This was thanks to Ntinga Ntaba kaNdoda, which encouraged me to keep improving my skills and knowledge.

As a member of the organisation [Ntinga Ntaba kaNdoda], I have learnt how to facilitate a workshop or meeting, how to problem solve, and how to talk to people from diverse backgrounds. The process one goes through within Ntinga Ntaba kaNdoda is not just about learning to practise agroecology, it is also about learning to live in community with others, supporting and feeding each other, resolving conflict, and being self-sustaining enough that you never go hungry, even if you lack other resources.

In an assignment that I did while at Rhodes University, which I got high marks for, I wrote about how I farm and how that contributes to the community. The teachers were impressed with the description of my farming practice, my relationship with land, and that I started growing food when I was young.

I have come a long way and changed a lot on this journey. Community members used to look down on the members of Ntinga Ntaba kaNdoda who were women, and undermine us. They recognised only the chairperson of Ntinga Ntaba kaNdoda and the people who chaired the village assemblies. They saw me, and other women like me, as unimportant, and they treated us like we had nothing to contribute to the community. When those of us who were women smallholder farmers began raising questions and having discussions at the community meeting, our knowledge started to be recognised, and people in our community began to respect us and the knowledge we have.

The land is my gold

I have a real passion for the land. I feel free in my garden. When I’m hungry and working in the garden, I tell Oyisa to give me the food in my garden. Because if I were to leave the garden to go and eat, it would feel like time wasted. I know that once I go into the house, I can get distracted by other things. So if I am working in the garden, I eat my meals there.

If I have a choice, I would never want to leave the garden. Land sustains a lot of diverse life. To me, the land is my gold. I never want to go anywhere else. I’m happy to continue digging in the soil and planting the seeds.

Taking us back to the apartheid era

There are two bills that have been brought to parliament which I am very concerned about, the Plant Breeders' Rights Bill and the Plant Improvement Bill.[8] I am very worried about these bills because I feel they are taking us back to the apartheid era.

This level of regulation and control over the very seed that enables food sovereignty is a problem. We are already struggling, and these bills will impoverish small-scale farmers and peasant farmers even more. Sharing seed is how generations have maintained seed varieties as well as ensured that communities have food. According to the proposed bills, it is as clear as daylight that we cannot share anything anymore. This means that if someone harvests from their garden, they cannot share the seedlings with other people. You have to have a contract and government permission to share any seed.

It’s insane! They want us to suffer more by forcing us to buy seed from the multinational agricultural companies. There are those who make money and there are those who work. Those who make money want us to labour for them, using their farming inputs, and then they buy our produce from us at very low prices. In that system only the big agricultural companies benefit, along with retailers and commercial farmers. It is really the small-scale farmer who stands to lose the most.

Now the government wants to come and change our cultures so that other people’s pockets can get fatter. These bills are not going to succeed, even if they have to take us all the way to the high court!

A better life

One of my hopes is to help reduce poverty, because there’s so much poverty here. Many families do not have enough to eat or are not able to send their children to school. I don’t want families to depend on the one or two people in the family who are working. I want us to use the garden to feed ourselves, our families, the neighbours, and the children in school.

I want children in schools to continue learning about how to grow food so that they also have this ability as they grow. That way, members of our villages, both young and old, can live a better life. I think a better life is possible, where we all grow our own food, support each other, and protect our environment. If we did that, there would be no hunger, and it might even stop the crime that keeps increasing in our country.

I am a Xhosa born woman, of the land of the Xhosa’s, and I believe that if I have something, I have to share what I have with my neighbour and with my family. That is the way of my people.

  1. Upper Ngqumeya is next to Ngqumeya and is located in Amathole District Municipality, Eastern Cape.
  2. East London is a city on the Indian Ocean, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. It’s known for its beaches, such as Nahoon and Cove Rock.
  3. BRC is a progressive nongovernmental organisation working in the central and eastern parts of the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. “BRC seeks to defend human rights and democracy in rural areas, promote land reform (with a focus on betterment restitution), support community environmental initiatives, and promote sustainable livelihoods in rural areas”. For more see: (accessed November 9, 2018).
  4. BRC’s work in the area of “betterment restitution” is undoubtedly the highlight during this time. Milestones achieved to date in this regard have included settlement of the precedent-setting Cata claim in October 2000 and the settlement of betterment claims in all other communal villages in the Keiskammahoek area in June 2002.
  5. “Intercropping, a multiple cropping practice, involves growing two or more crops in proximity. The most common goal of intercropping aims to produce a greater yield on a given piece of land by making use of resources or ecological processes that would otherwise not be used by a single crop.” For more see; (accessed November 5, 2018).
  6. Ntinga Ntaba kaNdoda is a rural community movement that mobilises for rights, democracy, land reform, and sustainable rural development. Located in Keiskammahoek, Eastern Cape, South Africa, the organisation started in 2002. Community members formed Ntinga Ntaba kaNdoda as an organisation to help propel the work and vision of the community forward.
  7. “Kraal” (also spelled “craal” or “kraul”) is an “Afrikaans and Dutch word (also used in South African English) for an enclosure for cattle or other livestock located within an African settlement or village and surrounded by a fence of thornbush branches, a palisade, mud wall, or other fencing. It is roughly circular in form.” For more see: (accessed November 7, 2018).
  8. Resisting corporate seed laws in South Africa—in the form of these two bills—has been a priority for smallholder farmers across the country. These bills pose a threat to agroecological practices such as seed banking and seed sharing. These bills have been tabled in parliament.