Against all odds


Text Paolo Candotti Photographs Various

Never let the odds keep you from pursuing what you know in your heart you were meant to do.

H. Jackson Brown, Jr

The late 70’s was not an easy time to be born if your parents happened to live in the Table Mountain area of Kwa-Zulu Natal. An area very traditional in its ways but buffeted by the inevitable winds of change which were stirring up the movement towards a democratic South Africa. Internecine violence was rearing its head and was destined to define the early childhood of Simon Maphumulo.

Early education at Magqongo Primary was largely carefree but later caught in the maelstrom of political infighting the family had to relocate from its home to the Kwadabeka section of Clermont some 50km away. This “forced removal” in itself provided an early lesson in adaptation and survival which was going to become useful in later life.

The family relocation facilitated the work opportunities somewhat for the senior Maphumulo even allowing for the dreadfully low wages offered by a local brewer in Westmead. It also provided an opportunity for Simon to seek work opportunities as a gardener in order to supplement the families meagre earnings which often had to be supplemented by the sale of a goat or chickens from the family home in Kwa-Ximba to fund school uniforms and other necessities.

But when things look bleak there is often a bright light to be found for those who persevere and for Simon that came in the form of an empathetic and benevolent employer, the late Fanie Jordaan who not only employed Simon as a gardener but also took him under his wing and assisted him to complete his matric at Kwadebeka High School. But it was not only assistance to complete his basic education that Mr Jordaan provided, he also provided the initial spark in the love for nature which was later to become all-encompassing in Simon’s life.

Simon (second from right) with friends in his matric year

Early challenges

Having worked as a gardener for five years and successfully completing his matric Simon enrolled for a diploma course in Nature Conservation at the Natal Technikon but had to abandon these studies due to financial difficulties. He opted instead to obtain a driver’s license which would be a key asset for employment opportunities in the formal sector. Armed with a driver’s license he was offered a job as a driver by Mr Jordan and with stability returning to the Kwa-Ximba area the family later returned to their traditional home and he took up the position of driver and later storeman at a seeds company in Camperdown.

The passion for nature conservation was however never too far away from his mind and in 2002 he enrolled for a garden design course with Lindsay Gray at the School of Garden Design. From here a network of opportunities opened up. Simon was introduced to the late Lynne Thompson who was running WESSA’s pioneering “Stop the Spread” campaign against invasive alien plants. Lynne was well-known for her kindness and she encouraged Simon to develop his skills further and helped arrange WESSA sponsorship to enable him to attend a formal Pest Control Officers and environmental course at the Cedara Agricultural College.

The Pest Control Officers Certificate (a pre-requisite to legally apply herbicide commercially) then enabled Simon to benefit from black empowerment opportunities and he registered a “services and cleaning” business (Msenge Cleaning Services) in 2003 which set him on his way as a businessman and created further opportunities for him to engage in conservation activities. Securing grass cutting and basic garden maintenance contracts he gradually grew the business and with it a reputation for reliability and honesty. Much of his work was based at businesses in Camperdown and the Upper Highway area.

Two significant breakthroughs for his business were the securing of a contract with eThekwini Municipality for invasive alien clearing work at Giba Gorge and from Kloof Conservancy for the control of invasive aliens and litter on the M13. These contracts provided a measure of financial stability which then allowed Simon some flexibility to pursue conservation projects whilst still growing his business.

While his business developed he could not but notice the efforts being made and the positive environmental results achieved by the various conservancies operating in the Upper Highway and comparing these to the environmental conditions when he returned home each day to Kwa-Ximba where the situation was not as encouraging.

View of isiThumba Mountain in Kwa-Ximba

Environmental justice

What is evident some twenty and more years into a democratic South Africa is that freedom per se does not redress the historical inequalities across society nor the environmental inequalities created by past policies and spending patterns. Kwa-Ximba is a strikingly beautiful area bordered by Cato-Ridge and the uMsindusi and uMgeni Rivers. It has deep valleys, flowing streams, striking hilltops. The vegetation is mostly Eastern KZN Bushveld Thicket which has rich biodiversity both in flora and fauna.

The area is under the control of the iNgonyama Trust Board with its traditional leadership structure which is overlapped by eThekwini’s political structure and invariably there are conflicts and vested interests over development and resources. Although semi-rural it does not escape the rapid urbanisation experienced by the city as a whole albeit at a lower intensity.

The conflicting political structures are an ideal recipe for chaotic development and this manifests itself with unregulated buildings, poor services and environmentally destructive exploitation of the natural resources such as illegal sand mining by criminal syndicates. All of these inevitably spill over into further damaging an already fragile environment making recovery an ever greater challenge.

Inspiration from the Upper Highway

Inspired by what he was seeing in the Upper Highway Simon challenged himself against all odds to move into uncharted territory by starting a conservancy in Kwa-Ximba in the hope that similar results could be achieved.

His vision at that stage, and it remains much the same today, was quite simple:

  • Provide information and educate the residents to understand and appreciate their natural environment
  • Encourage people to take environmental responsibility for their immediate surrounds by adapting their behaviour
  • Create visible improvements as “inspiration spots” by greening open spaces in public areas such as schools and community centres

The attendees at the first workshop to start the Kwa-Ximba Conservancy

A new beginning

In 2012 the conservancies movement was and remains to this day largely Eurocentric. There were no models in previously disadvantaged communities to follow or to ask for advice and direction. So Simon joined the Kloof Conservancy and asked for help to establish a conservancy in Kwa Ximba. The conservancy responded positively and also engaged Kwa-Ximba neighbours the Drummond Conservancy and what was then the Inchanga Conservancy (now defunct!). Whilst the established conservancies were very enthusiastic to support the initiative they had no clue on how to go about starting a conservancy in an area which was in effect an “unknown territory”!

Under the guidance of Kloof Conservancy’s then vice chairperson Sarah Chiles a number of workshops were held with interested community members during which the levels of community interest were gauged, the concepts of environmental management and volunteerism discussed and explored. The representatives of the established conservancies guided by Simon went to great lengths not to impose any solutions and to encourage a re-awakening of the Zulu traditional values of ubuntu and respect for nature. The enthusiasm of those present at the workshops was overwhelming in its positiveness.

With the blessing of an interested section of his community the Kwa-Ximba Conservancy was registered and it was a proud moment on 13 May 2013 when Simon received the official certificate of registration for the Kwa-Ximba Conservancy from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife manager Graham Keet at Ezemvelo’s head office in Pietermaritzburg thus becoming the first black conservancy to register in KZN.

Simon receiving the Certificate of Registration for the Kwa-Ximba Conservancy from Graham Keet of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife

The community expectations were now high and a first goal was soon set; establish a “green space” at Nomfihlela Primary School where the principal had been supportive and had offered the school as a meeting venue. A date was set, volunteers from Kwa-Ximba, Inchanga, Drummond and Kloof were mobilised, plants donated, tools arranged and all was set for what turned out to be an amazing experience: Kwa-Ximba Green Day.

On the day, large numbers of residents turned out as did the volunteers from the established conservancies. Invasive alien plants were hacked and removed, indigenous species planted, local dancers performed a series of traditional dances, a snake demonstration enthralled all present and the event was topped by the ceremonial planting of a Mitseeri (Bridelia micrantha) tree.

Simon with local dignitaries at Green Day ceremonial tree planting

Residents reaction at snake demonstration during Green Day celebration

Success breeds success

There was no doubt that the community had been touched and a visible impact made. Many residents signed up to be members even though very few had the cash to pay the membership fee of R20.

It always seems impossible until it is done!

Nelson Mandela

Kloof Conservancy mascot Rubi D was a great attraction at the Kwa-Ximba Heritage Day

Enthusiastic participants at the Kwa-Ximba Heritage Day at the Durban Natural Science Museum display

Buoyed by the success of the Green Day an even bigger event was organised with full support of eThekwini’s Natural Resources Department which pulled out all the stops for a momentous Kwa-Ximba Heritage Day on 24 September 2013. Traditional dancers delighted the audience and environmental education displays by the Durban Natural Science Museum were overrun with enthusiastic visitors. Kloof Conservancy’s mascot, Rubi D was popular with young and old as everyone queued to be photographed. The event was attended by senior dignitaries from the municipality and hailed by all as a huge success.

This was followed by clean-up campaigns on the main route into Kwa-Ximba which were not only aimed at removing litter but to ensure the community was aware of the existence and actions of the conservancy.

The ever present litter problem in Kwa-Ximba

Success is not always plain sailing

The euphoria of the successful start was however difficult to maintain and Simon began to tackle some of the more mundane problems which all conservancies face such as finding funds for projects and maintaining member interest as well as commitment. The area also presents challenges which are not common in the established conservancies.

The Kwa-Ximba area is economically depressed with most residents unemployed and very few local businesses willing to support environmental improvements. Whilst conservancies in the relatively wealthy suburbs such as Kloof generally have no problem in organising meetings and events the situation in Kwa-Ximba is significantly different. Communications are a challenge, everyone may have a mobile phone but they don’t necessarily have airtime when you call them to attend a meeting. Getting to a meeting venue can be a major obstacle, the area is large and residents have to rely on minibus taxis but persuading residents to spend their meagre funds to pay for a taxi ride to a conservancy meeting is not as simple as it may sound!

Within this context, concepts which are usually the norm in established conservancies such as “volunteerism” take on a different dimension when everyone is focused on simply ensuring sufficient food for the family. Sometimes unwarranted opportunism also got in the way such as when Simon developed a great idea to help reduce the litter along road verges. It is a sad reality that much litter is generated by passengers in minibus taxies throwing their litter out the windows of the vehicle. Simon was keen to introduce a programme of providing bins in the taxis and with the support of Durban Solid Waste would arrange for collection points at the taxi ranks. After much research and discussion the project failed when the taxi operators demanded payment for having the bins in the taxis!

Invariably Simon found himself using his own funds and transport to keep the conservancy on its feet. The team was enthusiastic but the resources non-existent so Simon sought fresh ideas and opportunities to find ways of keeping the conservancy alive.

A trail runner negotiates the descent from isiThumba Mountain

Photo: Ben Bruzas

Simon had volunteered as a marshal for the first running of the Kloof Conservancy 3 Falls Trail Run in 2012 and was soon “nagging” the Kloof team to help him organise a similar fundraiser in Kwa-Ximba. He eventually persuaded Andrew McKay to help him develop a trail route through the most scenic parts of Kwa-Ximba including a difficult climb to the top of the iconic isiThumba granite dome. The Kwa-Ximba Trail Run was launched and for six years has been the only source of income for the conservancy until more recently when funding from the National Lotteries Commission was secured.

Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.

Primo Levi

Storms gather

Storm clouds were however gathering! Some initial warning signs had already manifested themselves in late 2014 when all the good work done on the Green Day at Nomfihlela Primary School appeared to have gone to waste. Goats had repeatedly entered the school premises and eaten all the plants, learners had reverted to littering in their backyard and the principal showed little interest in addressing the problems. Undeterred, Simon took the failure as a signal to work harder and commit even more to the conservancy despite the conflicting need to also run his business effectively.

The Kwa-Ximba Trail run brought welcome financial relief but the funds raised were also to become a source of dispute which almost destroyed the conservancy and put Simon and his family at great risk. Once funds were “in the kitty” the attitudes of some members changed from wanting to improve the environment to wanting to improve themselves.

A faction of the members demanded that the funds raised be divided equally amongst the members despite this being clearly in breach of the constitution of the conservancy and all it stood for. Constitutional “niceties” carry little weight when greed sees an opportunity. The dispute raged for some weeks and was eventually escalated to the local nKosi who proclaimed that the funds should be divided amongst the membership because “there is no such thing as voluntarism”! The same nKosi also turns a blind eye to illegal sand-mining and other environmental abuses but Simon stood resolute.

By then he had married Abigail, his sweetheart from school and they had four small children. He recalls the numerous threats then made to him and his family and the pressure became almost intolerable. He was warned to change routes to and from work because people were waiting to “get” him, threatening calls and abusive conversations were the norm but with strong resolve Simon decided to disband the team thus removing the obstructive members from their roles in the conservancy and a new team was elected.

The pressure and threats however continued but fortunately the new team was supportive and over time the threats faded and the conservancy re-established its work programme with new vigour.

You never know if you can do something against all odds until you do it.

Abby Wambach

A fresh start

Simon explained that as a precaution he stepped down as chairman and fortunately a new dynamic chairman stepped forward in Khulekani Ngubane, a young businessman unencumbered by past issues but with a passion to also see the environmental conditions in Kwa-Ximba improve. Under Khulekani’s guidance and business acumen the conservancy has secured funding from the National Lotteries Commission and is running a number of significant environmental projects. These include:

  • Taking over 20 local traditional healers to a course at Silverglen Nursery where they were taught to propagate “muthi” plants with a view to reducing the pressure on plants in their natural environment
  • Running an environmental awareness programme for over 30 residents with the following deliverables:
    1. The broad meaning of biodiversity
    2. Understanding hunting seasons
    3. Understanding the impact of losing species
    4. Application process for legal hunting license
  • Running a youth development course with the following deliverables:
    1. The importance of nature preservation
    2. The broad meaning of biodiversity
    3. Job opportunities related to natural resources
    4. Business opportunities linked to nature
    5. Relationship between nature and agriculture
  • Funding clean-up and anti-litter campaigns

Traditional Healers at Silverglen Medicinal Nursery arranged by the Kwa-Ximba Conservancy

Success is the sum of small efforts repeated day in and day out.

Robert Collier

Some hope for the future

Simon remains a crucial role player and facilitator, organising events, meetings and generally helping to make sure the conservancy keeps moving forward. When asked to reflect on the successes of the conservancy he reiterated that he remains passionate about doing positive things even if they are very small things;

“The challenges are huge as the people seem to have lost the spirit of uBuntu and embraced money as the solution to everything. The sheer number of people squabbling over limited resources is also a big concern as is the number of broken families which was not such a problem in the past. Despite all these challenges I know I can make a difference. I don’t want my children to say I was part of a ‘bad generation’ that destroyed our world. I was taught to respect the environment. I don’t hunt but hunting was acceptable on the condition that it was sustainable; don’t hunt in the wrong season, don’t take the young etc. I used to collect firewood for my parents but I did not cut trees. I want to help people understand that there can be a positive balance with nature and that each person can make a difference even if it is small. There is a lady living on the main road into Kwa-Ximba who has cleaned-up and improved about 500m or road verge – it’s beautiful! I want to get more people to do that. We need more visible “green spots” so that people can compare them to the filthy, littered areas we live in and maybe it will get into their heads and change them!”

Our environment is facing unprecedented challenges but with people like Simon amongst us there is still some hope! We salute a true member of the Eco Impi!

And sometimes against all odds, against all logic, we still hope!

Meredith Grey

Simon Maphumulo at the top of isiThumba mountain with the uMgeni Valley in the background

Note from the Chairman of the Kloof Conservancy:

Simon Maphumulo is a member of the Executive team of the Kloof Conservancy and is also contracted by the conservancy to do environmental rehabilitation work on the conservancy’s behalf. The Executive Committee fully understands that this creates a potential conflict of interest and Simon is recused from any decisions regarding the awarding of work. We are of the view that supporting Simon’s business (on the pre-requisite that he meets the standards set for the work) is an important factor in the Kloof Conservancy’s outreach efforts. By ensuring some minimal financial stability to Simon’s business we make it more possible for him to pursue his environmental work in Kwa-Ximba and elsewhere. As a conservancy we have repeatedly stated in our communications that we see a need for environmental justice beyond the strict borders of Kloof which enjoys a significantly superior environment to many areas in eThewkini. As such it is important that we encourage and support the development of environmental initiatives in previously disadvantaged areas.

Paolo Candotti


Kloof Conservancy