The role of mentorship

May 2, 2019

Seasoned forester, Gilbert Plant, offers tips from the clifftop.

Mentorship is a familiar concept in the context of rural development in South Africa. It refers to the process of sharing experience, guiding and transferring expertise and knowhow in a particular field, like forestry for instance. Most rural development type programmes have a mentorship element embedded in them.

By Gilbert Plant /

Programmes conducted by some of our major timber companies to develop small-scale timber growers, which have had a significant socio-economic impact on rural communities, are a case in point. These generally take the form of a commercially-based arrangement, i.e. physical assistance and technical guidance, with the caveat that the small-scale grower should supply his or her timber and bark to the mentoring company or organisation. Mentorship is focused primarily on achieving the objectives of the programme, through which rural development is advanced, though I feel that something is missed along the way.

Drawn into the community
In my experience, in the process of guiding, advising, facilitating and encouraging the community to grow better timber and get a worthwhile return from their woodlots, the mentor is inevitably drawn more deeply into the lives of the growers and their community.

He becomes an advisor, not the boss, and to be effective he must be accepted into the community. He has to know the system, understand the rules and culture that guide it, identify with its ethos. His attitude and approach opens doors; he is a problem-solver and heeds the needs of the people. It follows, then, that his activities should fit in with the diversity of their lives; his planning has to take on the sort of flexibility that would drive corporate managers mad. This is not eight to five with lunch break at one. Success cannot be measured in tons alone.

The Chief is the master key to your programme. It`s his fiefdom; he is the authority, and commands great respect in a formal hierarchy which requires that the mentor be introduced by an induna. If the chief likes what you propose, you will have his and the induna’s support. Don`t even set foot there without this!

Typically, mentorship in this context encompasses the entire gamut of the management appropriate to a rural setting. Protection of the environment features highly, with focus on indigenous species, wetlands and catchments, as well as creating awareness of the impacts of forestry, fire, erosion and grazing, amongst others.

Fire protection
Fire protection and planned burns for grassland conservation and grazing are used as training opportunities, drawing willing communal support.

Advising on silviculture, species choice, soils and site is almost continuous.

He arranges training courses in the use and maintenance of chainsaws, herbicide use, basic safety and formal First Aid. He helps with marketing and business plans, advises on the maintenance, safety and use of transport, and liaises with Government departments.

Field Days
Field Days are a great way to consolidate the work. Always popular, they often attract newcomers, and they connect supporting companies and suppliers with the community.

The mentor will generally be invited to attend and participate in grower association meetings, and occasionally finds himself addressing the Chief`s court when a new development is contemplated. Promoting fire danger awareness in schools, and drawing senior pupils into First Aid courses puts him in touch with the younger generation.

So these are some of the many and varied things that a communal mentor engages in.

But here is the icing on the cake: In all of this, something else is created. It`s a relationship (in my case) between two cultures, a partnership, a creation of friendship based on the person, not his background. It`s not measurable, but it pervades the very ethos of mentorship. It speaks of empathy based on mutual respect, and an appreciation of the rural way of life, and it settles in the individual and collective memory of the community of which the mentor is privileged to be a part.

*First published in SA Forestry magazine, March 2019

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