Muammar and me

While explicit images of Muammar Gaddafi’s death continue to be splashed across the world’s newspaper pages and television screens, even after the deposed and brutally slain Libyan leader is laid to rest in an unmarked grave in the desert, a South African farmer is mourning the man who once visited his KwaZulu-Natal farm.

Farmer Charl Senekal is the country’s largest sugar cane producer and still lives just outside Mkuze in northern KwaZulu-Natal, on the farm where Gaddafi visited him in 2002.

Senekal is on congenial terms with high-level members of the ANC and it is through these relationships that he got to meet Gaddafi.

Senekal laughs when asked how he came to be so politically connected. Half of the answer, he says, is that he got to know senior government officials when he built a R60-million pipeline carrying water from the Pongolapoort dam to his farms and surrounding communities.

As to the other half of the answer … he simply chuckles.

Senekal says he first met then-deputy president Jacob Zuma in 2000 when he contacted him about building the water pipeline, and received the go-ahead to access water from the country’s third largest irrigation dam.

As it happens, Senekal says water was one of the things he and Gaddafi proved to have in common.

It was at a breakfast in Durban with former minister of water affairs Ronnie Kasrils, when Gaddafi’s visit was planned. “The proposal came from his [Kasrils] side” says Senekal.

Kasrils said to Senekal that an unnamed VIP — a head of state — might enjoy a visit to his farm, but then seemed to change his mind, telling the farmer: “Let’s forget about it”.

But the next day, just after five in the morning, Senekal’s son called him to ask: “What the hell is going on?”

Sixty land cruiser bakkies had arrived at the farm, along with three huge trucks: it was Muammar Gaddafi and his entourage.

Senekal was not expecting any visitor at all, he says, let alone the former Libyan president.

When he met him “the puzzle [over who was coming] worked out”.

Senekal says Kasrils knew about the pipeline he had built.

“We [Gaddafi and I] had one thing in common. I had just completed a huge pipeline and he was busy constructing his pipeline with a 7m diameter. Gaddafi was making a great man-made river that snaked through his country for nearly 5 000km.”

Senekal says the man Zuma has called “brother leader” had close to 300 bodyguards and soldiers accompanying him.

Gaddafi spent the day on Senekal’s Mkuze farm, in a large white tent that his staff erected for him.

A red carpet stretched out from the entrance of the tent. When Gaddafi stepped onto the carpet, Libyan ministers and Senekal and his wife ran up to the former president.

Senekal says he got the impression that Gaddafi was displeased at how slowly he ran up to meet him.

Gaddafi told the farmer and his wife that he had brought R65-million with him to the farm. He apparently travelled through Africa distributing the money after his time in South Africa.

Gaddafi didn’t speak much to the farmer and his family but he did want to know about Senekal’s water projects.

“He asked what we irrigate, what we plant and how many people I employ,” Senekal says.

But the bodyguards and the Libyan ministers who accompanied him were much friendlier than Gaddafi, he says.

When he was at the farm, Gaddafi had all his food cooked out of a kitchen that formed part of one of the enormous trucks in the convoy.

It was a “hell of an experience to meet a man like that”, he says.

The former dictator left Senekal’s farm after just one day and went to have a meeting with the Swaziland’s King Mswati III.

“It was unbelievable when he and [all of his] vehicles left the town. One of the Mkuze garages was out of fuel for two days.”

Though the encounter was brief, it was not the last time Senekal had anything to do with Gaddafi.

In 2009, Senekal and several other South African farmers were invited to Libya to see if they could make a go of farming there, after Gaddafi realised the food prices in his country were too high, and the country was importing too much food from European countries.

The president was very hospitable, he says. Gaddafi phoned the bodyguards accompanying them three times a day to check that the South Africans were having a good trip.

A farming agreement between the Libyan leader and the South African government failed to materialise, but Senekal says his trip showed him that people of the country had a high quality of life — thanks to Gaddafi, whom he described as a “warrior”.

“He would not stop fighting!”

On the developments of the past week, Senekal says he is totally disgusted with the manner in which Gaddafi died, and how Libyans in Misrata had viewed the former president’s body in a shopping centre refrigerator for three days.

“There is no vocabulary to describe it,” he says.

In Libya, no one paid taxes and schooling and attending university was free under Gaddafi, says Senekal, earnestly.

“Gaddafi was a tough customer — but he was good to his people.”

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.


Two dead in new ANC KwaZulu-Natal killings

A Mtubatuba councillor and a Hammarsdale ANC Youth League leader were shot yesterday near their homes

Inside Facebook’s big bet on Africa

New undersea cables will massively increase bandwidth to the continent

No back to school for teachers just yet

Last week the basic education minister was adamant that teachers will return to school on May 25, but some provinces say not all Covid-19 measures are in place to prevent its spread

Engineering slips out of gear at varsity

Walter Sisulu University wants to reprioritise R178-million that it stands to give back to treasury after failing to spend it

Press Releases

Coexisting with Covid-19: Saving lives and the economy in India

A staggered exit from the lockdown accompanied by stepped-up testing to cover every district is necessary for India right now

What Africa can learn from Cuba in combating the Covid-19 pandemic

Africa should abandon the neoliberal path to be able to deal with Covid-19 and other health system challenges likely to emerge in future

Road to recovery for the tourism sector: The South African perspective

The best-case scenario is that South Africa's tourism sector’s recovery will only begin in earnest towards the end of this year

Covid-19: Eased lockdown and rule of law Webinar

If you are arrested and fined in lockdown, you do get a criminal record if you pay the admission of guilt fine

Covid-19 and Frontline Workers

Who is caring for the healthcare workers? 'Working together is how we are going to get through this. It’s not just a marathon, it’s a relay'.

PPS webinar Part 2: Small business, big risk

The risks that businesses face and how they can be dealt with are something all business owners should be well acquainted with

Call for applications for the position of GCRO executive director

The Gauteng City-Region Observatory is seeking to appoint a high-calibre researcher and manager to be the executive director and to lead it

DriveRisk stays safe with high-tech thermal camera solution

Itec Evolve installed the screening device within a few days to help the driver behaviour company become compliant with health and safety regulations