Where The Smell Of Sugar Floats On The Breeze

A smell of burnt sugar floats along the morning breeze. The sugar mill at Sezela, the first one to be built in South Africa, is working hard to process the sugarcane that is trucked in from the verdant surrounding countryside. More than half of all the sugarcane farms in the country can be found in a strip less than 30 km from the coast in KwaZulu-Natal. Apart from these, there are a handful of farms in the Eastern Cape, and some in Mpumalanga under irrigation.

Sezela Sugar Mill

It is an important export crop and is mostly the central economic activity in many rural areas, as it requires rapid post-harvest processing in order to preserve the sucrose in the cane stalk. Hence sugar mills are located as close as possible to the crop.

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The first cultivars were imported from Mauritius in 1848. Not only did it prove hugely successful, but as a labour intensive crop, it lead to the importation of indentured labour from India. Between 1860 and 1911, when the system was abandoned, about 150 000 indentured labourers came from India to Natal. They were brought here under a five-year contract, at the end of which they had the option to sign another contract for an additional five years. This made it possible for them to then settle permanently in the colony or a free passage back to India.

Many British settlers also flocked to this part of the world, which included Samuel Crookes, a wheelwright from Finningley in Yorkshire, England, who arrived in Port Natal (present-day Durban) in 1860. Various factors worked in his favour, and five years later he started farming sugarcane in Scottburgh (70 km South of Durban), where he managed, not only to make his fortune on the Renishaw Sugar Estate, but to leave a legacy that is still going strong. Crookes Brothers Limited was listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 1948, and today produces a variety of agricultural products in KwaZulu-Natal, the Western Cape, Mpumalanga and Swaziland.

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Dirt roads twine around and over small hills dotted with lone houses, and weathered signs announce an elusive retirement village in the tiny sugarcane hamlet of Renishaw.

There are no manor houses or evidence of any riches, except perhaps for the stone chapel and adjacent graveyard, perched on top of a small hill, which served the Crookes family for several generations. It is a serene place to visit.

Visited:  June 2015

Further Reading:

* Crookes Brothers Limited Website

** Renishaw – The Story of the Crookes Brothers by Anthony Hocking