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To talk of cabbages and kings

Wednesday.

It’s Day 356 of the Covid-19 lockdown. 

There’s a gunmetal ceiling hanging low over Durban’s North Beach, banishing — for a while — the oppressive heat that’s been smothering the city for weeks and providing some form of relief. It’s still early, so the cloud will burn off as soon as the sun makes its presence felt, ending the temporary respite from the heat and humidity.

I’ve forgone the build-up to the internment of King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu at the Khethomthandayo Palace later in the day, to spend the morning instead with the residents of the Elangeni Green Zone. 

The Elangeni Green Zone is the eThekwini municipality’s camp for homeless men set up a year ago in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the level five lockdown.

I’ve been visiting them every couple of months since early April, about a week after they were first locked down. Some of the cats living in the camp started growing vegetables out of boredom and turned it into a business and I’ve been going back to document what they’re doing. 

The Elangeni camp is still standing, despite the city closing the rest of its 11 Covid-19 camps and setting up two permanent centres in Albert Park and Block AK. 

The municipality has allowed its residents to continue staying there and to keep on growing vegetables on the football field-sized plot behind their tents.  

It’s by far the kindest thing the city has ever done for its homeless population, whom it treated with brutality up until the Covid-19 lockdown began, and it is an initiative I hope it continues with.

The project took off very well, with lots of support from locals, NGOs and restaurants.

Even the Boxer supermarket started buying spinach from the farm, hundreds of bunches a week.

Then the wheels fell off, for a bit. 

Out of the group of 20 men who started planting, only five — Peter Moyo, Sandile Mthembu, Grant, Jiyane and Dubuzane — are left. A dispute over money and control of the project split the group, with one crew deciding to move to Umbumbulu with the bulk of the profits and equipment and the rest staying behind. 

Despite the setback, Moyo, Mthembu and the others are still at it. Moyo, who grew up farming, is incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to agriculture. Mthembu is a bit of an ideas man, all energy and plans. They’ve planted about half their land — there’s spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, spring onion and peppers already in the ground — and have prepared the rest to take the seedlings they’ve propagated in a home-built greenhouse. 

I’d made an arrangement to visit them again on Wednesday, so the call was between the homeless cats planting vegetables, and the official planting of His Majesty.

The decision was easy.

It’s not just my contrary nature. Or the fact that I’m not exactly the world’s greatest fan of monarchies in general. Or the reality that I am, like most of my fellow South Africans, one paycheck or one really bad decision away from the street.

There’s also still a deadly Covid-19 pandemic going on. 

People are still dying, and a third wave of infections is coming. It’s inevitable.

Joining the thousands of punters packing Nongoma to say goodbye to the monarch — who himself died from diabetic complications after getting the virus — at this point in our history does not appear to be a wise move.

Despite the best efforts of the authorities, the monarch’s send-off is likely to be among the events that spark the third wave of infections, hasten it’s arrival, so staying away is the sensible thing to do.

It was cool to learn that a monarch is planted, and not buried.

In East Belfast, where I was born, planting somebody refers to punching them.  As in, “I’ll plant you.” It also means to bury them, as in “Don’t plant me, put me up the oven” — that’s “Don’t bury me, cremate me” in English — as my old man, Gerald, used to say.

Weird.

I wonder how planting came to become part of the East Belfast lexicon, as well as the literal — and somewhat flustered — English translation of the term for laying a Zulu king to rest? 

Perhaps the term planting was brought back from Nongoma by some cat from Mountpottinger Road or Templemore Avenue who made it home alive after 1879? Perhaps it made its way there later, after the South African War, with some veteran of Colenso, who came across the term.

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence.

Perhaps I have too much time on my hands.

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper
Storyteller.

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