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Artist Nozeti Makhubalo photographed in front of the Umlibo artwork.

Nozeti Makhubalo

Climate impacts and rural poverty

Nozeti Makhubalo has lived many lives during her 62 years. Today, rheumatoid arthritis has changed the landscape of her aching body, making it difficult to perform the most basic tasks. She dreads needing the toilet as this means wrangling her walking sticks for the slow struggle to an outside toilet on her smallholding on the open grasslands above the small town of Hamburg.
But when she tells the stories of her youth, it is impossible not to think she is still that active young woman with high cheekbones, a twinkle in her eye, and a deftness to do whatever it takes to provide for her family.
She says she used to creep down to the shoreline under the cover of night, hoping that the bright moon wouldn’t paint a suspicious silhouette of a woman with a screwdriver in one hand and a bag around her wrist, off to illegally harvest a high-value marine resource – abalone.
Once in the ocean, she draws in breath when a wave comes and ducks under the freezing cold water, prising what she can off the rocks with the help of the well-placed screwdriver. She waits for the next wave, then goes down again.
“Yes,” she says without hesitation, “I was an abalone poacher back then, and it was terrifying.”
The years leading up to those moments beneath the cold inky water at midnight had not been easy.
Nozeti’s mother was very young when she fell pregnant, and her mother’s own mother had died. The white family her mother worked for in the farmlands said she must relocate to King Williamstown with them. She did so, and on discovering she had fallen pregnant, the employers said that baby Nozeti should go and live with relatives in Hamburg.
“And I have been here ever since, and I will be buried here,” she says.
There is one decade in the mix, however, when Nozeti was in Johannesburg.
She met and fell in love with a fellow Hamburg man whom she married at age 23, but like many from the so-called ‘homelands’ declared by the apartheid government, he became a migrant labourer to earn a living and packed his bags for the mines of Johannesburg.
“My husband would work on the mines for 12 months then come home for two months and then back again. He was staying in a hostel in Carletonville.”
Desperate not to be apart, he made a plan for Nozeti to join him, so she too packed her bags and headed for the big city. She doesn’t talk much about that decade of her life, except to say that back then she grew veggies and sold some for a bit of income.
In 1998, they moved back to Hamburg and her one set of twins were born the following year. But working on the mines had caused extensive damage to her husband’s body: he had lost his eyesight, his hearing was slipping and some of his fingers had been lost on the job.
Compensation was promised, but never arrived, confirming to Nozeti that her husband had been no more than a pair of hands to the mine owners.
Their family had grown with more children, and pressure mounted on Nozeti to bring in an income.
“We suffered a lot,” she recalls, “and I was desperate to make money. So I joined other local women who were poaching abalone and selling it off for a decent price. I joined to feed my kids and my husband. He was old at that time, and it was dangerous work, but he would come with me sometimes to help carry the heavy abalone.”
She says, “I did feel bad about taking the abalone but there were divers there too with big bags and a lot of equipment. I don’t know who was there legally and who wasn’t.”
Nozeti carried on poaching for two years, and then in 2000, when the Keiskamma Art Project began, Nozeti was offered work.
She took up the needlework with enthusiasm but admits that she carried on poaching for a while – hiding from both her husband and the doctor who started the art project.
The last time she ever poached, it was a dramatic saga: “I was seven months pregnant with my last set of twins. It was pitch black and we went into the cold water but all of a sudden there were huge white lights in the sky shining down onto the sea. We had to run away as fast as we could, with me holding up my tummy.”
She laughs and says, “It was hard, but I was not going to put down my abalone. I got home covered in sand. My husband was in the rondawel with the kids. I crept into the house and washed myself, hid the abalone away, and went to sleep. That was my last day ever of poaching.”
When she looks back on that era of her life, it is with a deeper understanding of the importance of not removing natural resources that cannot be replenished, and Nozeti continues to notice that both fish and abalone become scarcer in the area all the time.
After her last poaching endeavours, Nozeti entrenched herself in earning a living from the tapestry artworks and also started growing of vegetables again as had been done by the generations before her.
“My grandmother was a vegetable grower. She grew beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes and even tobacco,” she says, “and now I teach the kids the way I was taught by my grandmother.”
Today Nozeti cannot overcome the challenging of her fence breaking or how the unseasonal rainfall washes clay into her veggie-garden soil making it harder to grow fresh produce.
But she can tackle the more immediate daily challenges, like finding a lift down to the art centre to sit with her Keiskamma teammates or slowly getting herself to the bathroom as her body aches.
Through it all, her passion for Hamburg endures.
“We love our Hamburg just the way it is. We don’t want it to change and end up with development along the beaches like in East London. That is what I hope our climate impacts tapestry will teach people. I want it to travel around the world and tell people: let’s take care of our places. Let us be careful.”
As for herself and her own future, Nozeti gives her movie-star smile despite the losses she has suffered, and with a poignant twinkle in her eye she shrugs, and says, “I will be gone in five years. I have no doubt about that.”

  • Population growth and coastal development threaten the long-term survival of marine ecosystems and the people that rely on them. Contributing factors include overfishing, pollution and climate change.
  • It can take up to 1 000 years for the Earth to produce 3cm of soil. One third of the Earth’s soils are already degraded, and 90% could be degraded by 2050.
  • Large numbers of people with rheumatoid arthritis report increased pain and stiffness as weather patterns change, and scientific studies are still underway to explore the impact of climate change on immunology diseases.

Nozeti Makhubalo suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and relies on local transportation to get her down the slope from her village into Hamburg.

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