Thobeka Gacula stands, rake in hand, at the end of the N2 Gateway, in an unexpected site: a flourishing green farm. Situated next to the highway at the end of the district, the plants provide a stark contrast to the buzzing by traffic and playground-turned-dumping site that lines the road. The street used to be where teens would come in their cars for midnight kisses– now, it provides a different kind of sanctuary, one where Thobeka and her team are nourishing plants and people alike.
Growing up in Middle Drift, Port Elizabeth, Thobeka’s childhood was centered around agriculture. Every morning, Thobeka woke up early before school to collect milk from the cows and water from the nearby river. “We never bought milk in the shop or a cafe,” she explains, “and if you want tea, you must like to go to the river to fetch some water”. Though physically strenuous, Thobeka loved how agriculture was a part of her daily life. It symbolized something larger to her than just a means of provision and necessity. “If you have cattle, you are rich. You’ve got a rich lifestyle, and you’re making a lot of money”. Thobeka was proud to be surrounded by this means of wealth- literally, as in cattle are quite expensive, and figuratively, as in the lifestyle a cattle farm provided was fulfilling to her. The field was her playground. When Thobeka was 9, her parents moved to Johannesburg, and Thobeka stopped interacting with agriculture.
In school, she found solace in studying agricultural science, and her interest in farming began to grow. At 18, Thobeka fell pregnant with her first son. It was only culturally appropriate for her to leave school and go work to make a living for her child. She began to work at a hardware company, and in 1990, when her son was 10, Thobeka was transferred to Cape Town and settled in Langa. She moved in with her aunt while her parents looked after her son back in Port Elizabeth.
Moving away was no easy transition. Shortly after she arrived, Thobeka was raped. “I’ve gone through a lot, but I want to show people that it’s not the end of your world, there is more you can do after”. She began to see a doctor to address her subsequent declining mental health, to whom she accredits her survival. He gave her medicines and some forms of talk therapy, and Thobeka began to improve. “You must find a way through that”, she urges, “you must go through because we are human beings and somewhere, somehow, we have to pass through those things”. And that she did. Thobeka used her trauma to reconnect with herself, find inner peace, and listen to what she wanted to do next. At 30, she decided to go back to school to complete her high school education. And that she did.
For months, Thobeka left the house at 6 am to work until 6 pm, when she headed off to night classes. “It wasn’t easy, but I did it”. Sometimes she fell asleep in class, but she didn’t care– what mattered was reaching her dreams: becoming a social worker, and giving back to women who have struggled as she did. After a few months of seeing her doctor, Thobeka received some not-so appreciated advice. “He said, ‘this is the last pill I am giving you because I don’t want to hear nothing from you– do yourself a favor and get yourself a boyfriend to tell your stories to’”. As offensive as it was, it was also the wake-up call Thobeka was looking for. She knew she couldn’t stay on medicine forever, and that her current state would only be viable for so long. She stopped seeing her doctor and began to focus on herself. “I thought, what am I going to do? I’m living with my aunt, and my son is in PE with my parents. So I began to manage my space here, and life got smoother and smoother”.
Thobeka is a giver, her dedication to helping women so strong that in any space, mental or physical, she finds a way to make herself of service to battered women. She began clerking at the police station as an archivist to help file cases and shortly found that she was in a position to push forward the sensitive cases and advocate on behalf of others. “This was one way I could help other women– it was a blessing in disguise for them being there because it was my opportunity to help them”. In 2016, Thobeka became a house manager for an older couple in Cape Town and was presented with the opportunity to go back to school to become a social worker under their sponsorship. This promise fell through, and Thobeka, once again, had to let go of her dream.
The smile on Thobeka’s face as she admires this season’s harvest would not suggest such a background of struggle. In 2020, she was introduced to Mr. Paul, a local man, who was passionate about cleaning up the end of the street that had become a dumping site. The project was initiated just before COVID hit, and the community came together to clear the trash out of the neighborhood. The empty land was converted into an urban farm and has been running successfully ever since. Now, seven women and two men tend to the garden daily. During COVID, the farm was a sanctuary. With job and income loss and food insecurity
came the reliability of growing their own food. They didn’t have to go to the store or spend their incomes on food– the garden provided for them.It also became a space for emotional and mental clarity, allowing people from Langa to get outside during lockdown. Such solace was critical for Thobeka, who in 2004 suffered a stroke. It affected the left part of her brain, and while she is now completely healthy and capable, she still suffers from long-term effects, like brain fog, fatigue, and memory loss. “There are days where I don’t want to talk, I feel tired. But being in the garden every day, I feel fresh and healthy. I wake up in my bed and I want to come to the garden, it’s like I’m somewhere else.”
Thobeka’s women-led team is a small revolution amongst the often patriarchal norms of Xhosa life. It is a form of meaning-making and justice for Thobeka, for she can give women the skills and hope they need to be self-sufficient and independent. Two husbands help on the farm, but they are ‘extra’, she jokes: “It’s easy for us being women because we learned we need the men to do the hard physical things for us, but most of these things we can do without them”.
Thobeka is a member of the Langa Agri Food/Hub, an initiative started by the SA Urban Food & Farming Trust in tandem with the Masakhe Foundation to strengthen local food production. Throughout this community, Thobeka has found solace in connecting with other smallholder women farmers, a form of social cohesion unique to this form of network. For Thobeka, agriculture and social work are related, and her farm is a form of social work itself. “My passion is helping other women, to show them there’s more life in hope, just like there is in plants”.
Growing through hope and struggle, with proper care, into a healthy being, is a lesson learned in both people and plants, and one that Thobeka holds close to her heart. “I want people to know that whatever happens in your life, you must know that can make you stronger on the other side”. It is also a lesson she wishes to share with women of younger generations, so they can help and see how they grow. She is powered by her desire to teach and inspire others, powered by her past, and powered by the strength others give her. Her close friend and coworker Nomsa is who she describes as her biggest source of power, as they are constantly sharing ideas and working to improve the farm together.
Thobeka still dreams of becoming a social worker and having her own practice in Langa– but in the meantime, the garden is her office, and the planting and harvesting is her form of providing therapy. “I wish one day to have my own huge farm, to grow this now,” she explains. She also wishes to have some chickens, just like her family did in Middle Drift. “It is the love for farming, that love for growing” that started this garden, continues to power this garden and inspires Thobeka to return to the garden every day. “We organize other women, and now we are nine. Nine women, nine women… our only wish is to grow”.