Sbu Ngalwa.
Sbu Ngalwa.
Image: Daily Dispatch

The drill around the high-profile court appearance on 3 August 2015 was not unfamiliar. Casspirs and riot police lined the streets of Polokwane leading to the Limpopo High Court, and surrounding blocks were cordoned off with barbed wire.

This was all in aid of yet another visit to see the judge by EFF leader Julius Malema — for fraud and corruption related to his involvement in the controversial company On-Point, which had won millions worth of contracts from the Limpopo provincial government. The charges were subsequently withdrawn.

Around the court, the sea of red was out in full force. “Hands off the CIC,” they barked — brandishing pictures of their revered leader and hand-written placards pledging their support.

Among the thousands who came to support Malema was one Cleo Maepa. He stood holding a butternut impaled on a stick. It was no ordinary butternut. It had “Zuma” scrawled all over it. At a subsequent EFF gathering at the Union Buildings, butternut as protest art was taken a step further: this one sported an image of the former president sketched around its base — complete with square glasses — and the message: “Zupta must fall”.

Just like that, the butternut left market stalls and dinner tables and was thrust into the political spotlight. The innocent fruit (or vegetable, depending on which side of the debate you stand) had been corrupted. It had become a symbol of insult for Zuma’s odd-shaped head. The sweet plant had lost its innocence. References to butternut became a euphemism for Zuma’s scalp. “We are tired of Zuma and his butternut-shaped head,” Malema told an adoring crowd at Mdantsane’s Sisa Dukashe Stadium last year.

Having left my previous job as the editor of the great Daily Dispatch in December to focus on farming, I am now convinced that Malema and his supporters knew very little about the plant. Malema may have once moonlighted as a cabbage farmer — before the South African Revenue Services confiscated his farm, which they regarded as proceeds of a crime — but that is as far as his knowledge of crops goes.

I have also found some striking similarities between the butternut and the former president. They have nothing to do with the shape of his head

I, however, can say butternut planting has taught me a thing or two. I have come to respect this produce and have found some striking similarities between it and the former president. They have nothing to do with the shape of his head.

A hailstorm that hit East London in February delivered almost 50mm rainfall in an hour, leaving a trail of felled trees and deep gashes of soil erosion in its wake. As the skies cleared, the storm had left me with some important lessons. I lost 5 000 cabbage plants and a similar amount of spinach. Much like Zuma, the butternut was more resilient.

Bar a few scratches and cuts on its thick coat, it remained intact. Comparatively, I need not count the number of times Zuma has “survived” unrelenting political storms. And, much like the tan-skinned plant — the most popular of the cucurbit family — our former president is known to produce a lot of seeds. I think it was 21 for Zuma, at the last count. Ahem. And, those who know Zuma well attest to his softer and sweeter side, much like the inner part of the pear-shaped produce.

Our political landscape is really not dissimilar to a veggie garden. Though with Zuma gone, having begrudgingly resigned as president last year, it seems the butternut has found its way back to its rightful place — our plates.

Now all eyes are on Cyril Ramaphosa, who will be contesting his first national elections, on 8 May, as the president of the ANC. That is something he shares with opposition leader Mmusi Maimane, who took over from Helen Zille as the leader of the DA only in 2015. Yes, Maimane was in charge of the DA when it contested the 2016 local-government elections, but it’s national and provincial elections that I’m referring to.

Looking at Ramaphosa and Maimane, it would seem they have more in common than they care to admit. I see them both belonging to the cruciferous family, which includes cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli. If my losses in the February hailstorm are anything to go by, then they are both drawn from the most vulnerable of society.

But they don’t quite cut it as the ubiquitous cabbage, which usually makes up the majority of my crop planting. Perhaps one is broccoli, the other cauliflower — high-class cabbages, if you will. I’ll leave it to you to figure out who is who.

Politically, both of them have faced similar issues: they’ve been accused of not representing black interests. The former has been regarded as too rich to care, while the latter has been labelled the leader of a white party. This partly explains why they seem to be trying so hard to campaign among the poor.

And what of the sprinkling of red-chilli peppers that are necessary to plant to repel some pests? They may be small and spicy, but they are a necessary part of the planting mix. Think of the “pay back the money” campaign, for example.

With our weather patterns as unpredictable as our politics, it remains to be seen how the crops will fare this elections season. But I know one thing for sure: the butternut is likely to survive, once again.

Ngalwa has mostly swapped his journalism days for a pastoral life. Hours spent on his harvest and dragline irrigation make him happy.

• From the May edition of Wanted 2019.

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