Committing to home, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape

Mpumelelo Ncwadi visited Ecotrust as our first Resilience Fellow in the fall of 2011. He has since returned home to South Africa to found his own organization, the Indwe Trust. But the journey for him is longer than that. It starts on the day he was born, in a small village in the Eastern Cape, as he recently shared with Fulbright scholar Jenny Lee.


6 March 1963.  At the rising dawn that rainy Wednesday, I was born in a farm on the banks of the Fish River.  My parents were uneducated farm labourers.  They worked in that farm from dawn to dusk for no salaries.  The farmer rewarded them for their hard labour with food rations.
My family lived in mud huts.  We had no access to clean water.  Our toilet was a long hole on the ground.  We used firewood to cook and keep warm in winter.There was no school within a radius of 15 kilometres from our house.  My older sister and I spent our first 2 years of school walking 30 kilometers barefooted to the nearest farm school, every school day.  My mother sold chicken and eggs to fund my education because she always maintained that she did not wish to see me become like her or my father.I became the first child in my family to finish high school with a university entrance qualification.

When I finished high school I wanted to study something that would make the lives of rural people livable.  I wanted to be a civil engineer.  But the minister of Bantu Education under apartheid would have none of it.I was saved from my misery by a White man whose first name I cannot remember.  His last name was Cronje and was an Anglo American training officer.  He got me a job as a Learner Mine Surveyor.  That is how I became one of the first 5 young Black South Africans to become an official in the South African mining industry, where I worked for 6 years. Then one day, a young American from Greensboro, North Carolina told me about a USAID scholarship called the South African Educational Program, administered by the Institute of International Education.  He assisted me with SAT and TOEFL.  That is how I ended up at the University of Texas Austin where I final completed my BS in Civil Engineering. That was followed by invitations to participate in academic programs at UC Berkeley and Brown University, both of which I completed as the first South African.

In 2004, I was fortunate enough to be selected as one of 110 Nelson Mandela scholars to earn a postgraduate degree in the United Kingdom. With the help of Nelson Mandela’s great name, I studied and was awarded a Master of Philosophy degree in Engineering for Sustainable Development by the University of Cambridge.  This opened the door for me to earn an MBA from the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town. This is the very same university where I was denied access to study engineering under apartheid. Despite numerous opportunities to stay in the US, I kept returning home because I felt the biggest need for my skills was here among the poor people of South Africa.

On Nelson Mandela…Two days after the sudden death of former President Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela, I had coffee with an old friend of mine and we started reminiscing about the life and times of Madiba.When I asked my friend to reflect on Madiba’s legacy, he reminded me of the following excerpt from Nelson Mandela speech at the Rivonia Trial:

“South Africa is the richest country in Africa, and could be one of the richest countries in the world.  But it is a land of extremes and remarkable contrasts.  The whites enjoy what may well be the highest standard of living in the world, whilst Africans live in poverty and misery.  Forty percent of the Africans live in hopelessly overcrowded and, in some cases, drought-stricken Reserves, where soil erosion and the overworking of the soil makes it impossible for them to live properly off the land.  Thirty per cent are labourers, labour tenants, and squatters on white farms and work and live under conditions similar to those of the serfs of the Middle Ages.  The other 30 per cent live in towns where they have developed economic and social habits which bring them closer in many respects to white standards. Yet most Africans, even in this group, are impoverished by low incomes and high cost of living.

The highest-paid and the most prosperous section of urban African life is in Johannesburg.  Yet their actual position is desperate.  The latest figures were given on 25 March 1964 by Mr. Carr, Manager of the Johannesburg Non-European Affairs Department.  The poverty datum line for the average African family in Johannesburg (according to Mr. Carr’s department) is R42.84 per month. He showed that the average monthly wage is R32.24 and that 46 per cent of all African families in Johannesburg do not earn enough to keep them going.

Poverty goes hand in hand with malnutrition and disease.  The incidence of malnutrition and deficiency diseases is very high amongst Africans.  Tuberculosis, pellagra, kwashiorkor, gastroenteritis, and scurvy bring death and destruction of health.  The incidence of infant mortality is one of the highest in the world.  According to the Medical Officer of Health for Pretoria, tuberculosis kills forty people a day (almost all Africans), and in 1961 there were 58,491 new cases reported.  These diseases not only destroy the vital organs of the body, but they result in retarded mental conditions and lack of initiative, and reduce powers of concentration.  The secondary results of such conditions affect the whole community and the standard of work performed by African labourers.  
The complaint of Africans, however, is not only that they are poor and the Whites are rich, but that the laws which are made by the Whites are designed to preserve this situation. There are two ways to break out of poverty.  The first is by formal education, and the second is by the worker acquiring a greater skill at his work and thus higher wages.  As far as Africans are concerned, both these avenues of advancement are deliberately curtailed by legislation.”
 And then he asked me to look around and tell him what has changed.  “Nothing much. Many of our compatriots are still massively poor, unskilled and jobless, as they were under apartheid,” he said.  The question is: why?  The answer is a lack of access to quality formal education and skills development for our people.  For me personally, Nelson Mandela opened the door to the world.  People often ask me why I do what I do.  I tell them that it is the right thing to do.  But even more importantly, I am honoring my promise to both my mother and to the former President, Nelson Mandela.  After I completed my studies in the UK, the former President asked me what I intend to do with my acquired education.  My answer:  To improve the lives of those who are less fortunate than me. On giving back to South Africa…These days I am working hard to get Indwe Trust off the ground.  Indwe Trust NPC is a non-profit company based in Cape Town.  It was founded by Mpumelelo Ncwadi and Heather Dittmar in 2012.  We work alongside rural communities in the Eastern Cape to assist them in transforming local resources: land, water, grasslands, livestock and ecosystem services into creating employment and income and generating self-sustaining projects.   Our goal is to create agriculture-supported communities that are able to live off their land and cope with the negative effects of climate change.  The communities where we work are within a stone’s throw away from Qunu, the village where Nelson Mandel was laid to rest.    More on Indwe Trust to come… For more information on Indwe Trust, please visit or email
info@indwetrust.orgThis post first appeared on the blog by Fulbright scholar Jenny Lee.(Photos for this post are courtesy of Mpumi Ncwadi and Heather Dittmar, Indwe Trust.)