A shining light in land reform

January 11, 2013

SA Forestry magazine talks to Khethiwe Mlotshwa, a shining light in Mondi's land claims settlement support team ...


With 19 years of experience in community development work, Khethiwe Mlotshwa finds herself at the cutting edge of land reform. This is where the private sector has effectively taken on a developmental role to ensure that beneficiary communities are empowered to manage their own land that has been restored to them through the restitution programme.

This is a complex process for which there is no manual. The work that Khethiwe and her colleagues at Mondi's land unit are doing is pioneering. There are no quick and easy solutions, but through patience and dedication, they are helping to build confidence and capacity so that these rural-based communities can manage their land, run their own businesses and build a better future for themselves. The importance of this work cannot be over-emphasised, because their future is linked to all of our futures, to the future of the forestry industry and the country as a whole.

Khethiwe was born in Estcourt and matriculated at Albini Girls High, a Catholic mission school at Ntshongweni near Durban. She obtained a degree in Social Work from the University of the North, postgraduate courses in Community Development and Human Resources with Unisa, and started doing community development work in 1994 for the Independent Development Trust and then the Department of Public Works. From 2000 to 2007, she worked for the Department of Land Affairs in the land restitution programme, and then did a spell as Corporate Affairs Director of the Cane Growers Association.

In 2008, she joined Mondi's Land Unit, which was established to facilitate the settlement of land claims on Mondi land, and to empower and support the claimant communities until they are ready to take over the forestry business.

Mondi has moved decisively to settle claims on its land, developing a pioneering sale and lease-back settlement model. The lease agreements are structured over 20 years and provide for community income from annual rental and a stumpage fee based on timber production. The agreements also ensure progressive involvement of communities in the forestry business so that they are ready to take over the entire operation at the end of the lease period.

Since 2008, Mondi has settled 19 land claims totalling 35 000 ha of forestry land. This has kept the Land Unit extremely busy, and Khethiwe, who is currently managing the land claim settlement projects in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, is right at the proverbial coal face.

Khethiwe took some time out from her busy schedule to chat to SA Forestry magazine about her work:

SA Forestry: What role does Mondi's Land Unit play in the post-settlement process?

Khethiwe: Setting up this department has made it possible to drive the mandate to focus on the beneficiaries, making sure that they have the resources to acquire the skills and the confidence to one day take over the forestry business and the management of their land. All of this work has been paid for out of Mondi's budget as there has been no financial support from government. This demonstrates a major commitment to empowering rural communities.

SAF: How difficult is this work?

Khethiwe: It is a very complex process. The claimants are often elderly people who have had little exposure to business. We have a responsibility to ensure that they understand it properly so that they are ready to take over when the time comes. We also have to encourage trustees to involve the youth and younger beneficiaries in the forestry businesses to ensure that there is continuity and sustainability.

SAF: When do the beneficiaries start getting involved in the forestry operations?

Khethiwe: A year or two after the land settlement, Mondi and Mondi Zimele assist the trusts to set up contracting businesses; the communities start by working on their restored land as a Mondi contractor. This prepares the community to take over compartments after they have been clear felled. This takes place after the first rotation, 11 years after the lease was signed.

SAF: Are you confident that they will be ready and the land will continue to be productive?

Khethiwe: Yes, I have that confidence because we have laid a good foundation. The process is slow and you need a lot of patience and passion, but we will make sure it happens. The community must get a sense of ownership and management of their own small businesses prior to taking over the forest business. They will be the champions and the pioneers of land reform if all goes well. We need to give them all the support they deserve.

SAF: What's the biggest challenge you face?

Khethiwe: During the negotiation process expectations are raised. It's tough to deal with, we have to calm down those expectations. Finding that balance between expectations and reality is a challenge. Forestry is a long-term investment, and the benefits do not come overnight, but the people are beginning to have more realistic plans. We also need to assist and guide them to spend their money for the benefit of ALL the beneficiaries. It can be tricky because some individuals tend to dominate.

SAF: Forestry is largely a male-dominated industry, but this job requires something different. Can you comment on that?

Khethiwe: It needs a woman to be involved in this work. You need to be patient and nurturing. The communities must feel that they are not being pushed into things, it is their right and they respond to a nurturing approach. It needs a woman's touch.

SAF: Has it been rewarding for you personally?

Khethiwe: I have been involved with community development for 19 years. I've grown with the communities I've worked with and have really enjoyed it. It is my passion. What I appreciate most is coming back years later and I am always made to feel welcome. To be honest and do your work faithfully makes you honoured and appreciated by the people you are working with. If you're not honest with them and have other agendas, it will catch up with you.

SAF: How do you balance family and work?

Khethiwe: It's difficult because I get calls any time, even on weekends. But I've learnt to share my communities with my family. Having said that, it's still important to take some time out. I enjoy going to the gym, walking, reading and spending time with my daughter, Sinethemba, who is 12. I also love travelling; my favourite destinations are the Mpumalanga lowveld and Mozambique.

SAF: Do you get good support from your colleagues in the Mondi Land Unit?

Khethiwe: We work really well together, we understand our mandate and we support each other. It has been a huge learning curve for all of us.

SAF: How do you feel when you come across failed land reform projects?

Khethiwe: Very sad! For instance, there is a land reform project in Eshowe that I drive past sometimes and I always feel sad. The settlement was not done properly and the land was just pushed on people. It was a sugar cane farm, and all the cane has just been replaced by grass. Some people failed to understand that there are certain processes you have to go through before you give land to people. Our sale and lease-back model is different. It benefits the wider community because the beneficiary communities understand land management.

SA: Who is your biggest mentor?

Khethiwe: Her name is Thabi Shange; she has had the biggest influence on me. She was the Regional Land Claims Commissioner for KwaZulu-Natal. I first met her in 1996 doing community development work, and I worked with her on projects while I was with Public Works. She has been an inspiration to me. What I know is through her. Her passion and dedication to community development is what I aspire to. We talk a lot and she is supportive. She is still involved in community work.

SAF: Any last message?

Khethiwe: It's so nice to see somebody moving from nowhere to somewhere!

SAF: Thanks for your time Khethiwe, we wish you well in your work.

Published in October 2012

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