We have forgotten letsema principle

The ANC in Gauteng recently announced that it is to embark on a campaign to promote the effective use of land.

The ANC in Gauteng recently announced that it is to embark on a campaign to promote the effective use of land.

The announcement followed the recent food summit organised by Gauteng MEC for agriculture Khabisi Mosunkutu.

The summit was aimed at exploring ways to address the rising cost of food, which has had an impact on food security, especially among the poor.

Addressing the media, ANC provincial secretary David Makhura said that as part of the campaign the ANC and its alliance partners, Cosatu, the SACP and Sanco, would identify unused arable land around Gauteng.

This would be with the objective of using the land for agricultural cooperatives where communities could grow their own food.

The ANC's announcement raised some hope in me that our leaders are eventually going back to the basics of using land as a natural resource that should benefit the poor.

The basics I am talking about are what the struggle, waged by the oppressed people of this country against apartheid and colonialism, was about.

It was premised on the understanding that land is like the mother of our nation from which every citizen of this country is entitled to suckle for sustenance.

One way of suckling from her is by growing our own food. This is the best way of using this important natural resource afforded to us by nature.

Unfortunately so far South Africa cannot boast to have taken advantage of this natural resource to the benefit of the majority of its citizens who remain poor despite having achieved political freedom.

Those who were pupils in the apartheid era will remember how we were forced to learn subjects like agricultural studies.

For the practical side of the subject, pupils were allocated pieces of land where they were expected to grow vegetables like tomatoes, onions, carrots, cabbage and spinach.

They were then given marks based on how successful their gardening projects were in cultivating healthy crops.

I recall how we would stand to attention next to our plots as stern-faced inspectors walked around assessing our handiwork while furiously making notes.

Besides getting high marks, the pupils with the best gardens were also allowed to help themselves to some of the vegetables, while the surplus was sold or given to children from poor families.

Post-apartheid these programmes, like many others, such as teachers' training colleges, were discarded. My suspicion is that the garden projects were discarded because they were seen as part of the bigger conspiracy by apartheid masters to reduce Africans to "hewers of wood and drawers of water".

Today school yards, especially in black communities, lie bare.

Instead of those thriving gardens that provided communities with vegetables, they have turned into dust bowls and in some instances lairs for drug dealers who peddle their wares to pupils.

As part of its campaign to reclaim the unused land, the ANC in Gauteng must work towards reintroducing gardening in schools.

The reality is that those who were pupils during apartheid acquired important life skills from those gardening projects. They learnt discipline, responsibility and, most importantly, acquired a skill they could use now to provide food for their communities.

We are not unaware that there are some initiatives by both government and the private sector to encourage community gardens.

What we are saying is that their initiatives need to be more coordinated so that community gardens or cooperatives become part of people's lives. This can only happen if such initiatives become part of an integrated programme driven by government.

African communities have a history of communalism that was articulated through initiatives such as "letsema" - a practice where villagers would, for example, come together to help one family build a home or harvest its crops. The family would then keep what it needed for itself and share the rest.

The advantage of letsema is that it also had the effect of building community spirit while providing for the needs of the community.

The way to go is to let as many "matsemas" blossom so that ordinary people can produce their own food while building a spirit of communalism with their fellow citizens.

The government must take the lead in this campaign.