19 Sep
2018
The remarkable story of Robert “Treeman” Mazibuko

Robin Lamplough tells us the remarkable story of Robert “Treeman” Mazibuko

pictures the valley trust

In 1990 a law promoting organic farming was passed in the United States. In 1994, at Edendale near Pietermaritzburg, a Zulu agricultural instructor, Robert Mazibuko, died at the age of 90. He had been promoting the principles of organic farming all his adult life.

Mazibuko (typically of the era, his Zulu given name is never revealed) was born on a white man’s farm near Spioenkop, outside Ladysmith. While the owner was away on the Transvaal mines, the boy’s father was de facto manager of the property. Young Robert grew up in a self-reliant world of communal labour, livestock management and crop cultivation. Later he would relate how he had learnt early to herd cattle, shear sheep and groom horses, as well as the other skills of ploughing, planting and nurturing ground crops.

Robert and his seven brothers attended a nearby mission school which took them up to Standard 4 (our present Grade 6), the generally accepted school-leaving level for Africans at the time. But while the brothers then sought work on the mines, their parents had clearly identified Robert’s potential. The family moved to nearby Driefontein, where he could further his education. From there, he went to St Francis College at Mariannhill.

At Mariannhill Mazibuko came under the influence of an agricultural instructor, Father Brunner. He soon discovered the principles underlying all that he had learnt as a boy. He left Mariannhill completely convinced of the importance of what would later be called organic farming. He began his teaching career in his early 20s, in 1930.

In these formative years, Mazibuko taught at a number of schools. At them all, he planted hedges and vegetable gardens, as well as built toilets. He systematised and consolidated all that he had learnt from his father and from Brunner into what would become his personal philosophy. In time, he travelled all over Southern Africa with a Methodist supervisor of missions. Wherever they went, he was given the task of speaking about sustained cultivation.

In 1956 he came to The Valley Trust outside Botha’s Hill, where he would remain for 17 years. By this time, he was well known for his “trench system” of agriculture. The dimension of the trench would vary over the years – the best known was the size of an ordinary doorway. But the principles were always the same. Dig deep, break up the sub-soil, add biodegradable material and replace the topsoil. He had the born teacher’s knack of expressing complex concepts in plain language. Over and over he taught: “You feed the soil; the soil feeds the plants; the plants feed you.”

Robert Mazibuko had long dreamt of founding a school of his own. In 1973 he moved to the Lay Ecumenical Centre at Edendale. Eight years later, with overseas funding, he was able to start Kwa Dlamahlahla, the African Tree Centre. Over the years he exported his principles beyond the borders of South Africa, to as far away as Kenya. In the early 1990s he won a variety of prestigious awards for his contribution to what was recognised as organic farming.

Sadly Mazibuko’s signal achievement does not appear to have outlived its creator. Was it swept away in the euphoria of majority rule? Did the funding stream dry up? Or was it simply, in the metaphor of his career: that no viable sapling survived in the shade of a mighty giant? More than two decades later, it is impossible to tell.

But the vital truth Robert Mazibuko taught has changed not at all: “Caring for our earth is really caring for ourselves.”

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