THE empowerment of some 40,000 black sugar-cane farmers in the rolling hills of the strife-torn province of Natal is promoting peace through development and attracting people from sprawling urban slums back to rural areas.
"The men have started to come back from the city," says Victoria Khuzwayo, a small cane grower from the Mansomini irrigation project on the Umvoti River near the town of Stanger. "My husband is now a cane contractor. He loves the job so much that he never sleeps."
Cecilia Khuzwayo, Victoria's mother, has illustrated vividly how the planting of sugar cane can transform rural poverty in the tribal homeland of KwaZulu (also known as Zululand) into flourishing and developing communities.
"There was nothing here before the road came," Cecilia says, pointing to a well-graded dirt road that crosses the Umvoti River via a bridge that now connects the two sides of the valley.
"There were no schools, no decent houses, and no electricity - no jobs and no money except the little that came from the men working in Johannesburg," she says.
"It was a valley populated only by women, children, and the elderly," she continues. "There was no stimulation, no purpose, and nothing to do."
Local inhabitants had to cross the river by foot or on a donkey. And after the rains, they could not cross the swollen river at all.
Mrs. Khuzwayo, the elder, rallied her neighbors to plant cane, and when they were producing enough to make an impact on the local Glendale Mill, they approached the mill and the KwaZulu administration for a cane quota, electricity, irrigation, and a road.
Today, lush fields of sugar cane cover the hills on the river banks and are sustained through the dry season by irrigation.
Neatly built whitewashed houses, a new school, and a community center with electricity have been built on the proceeds from the sale of the cane.
Some 65 percent of all small cane growers are women, but the men are starting to return.
Khuzwayo's success has had a major ripple effect, and many of the men - who traditionally migrate to overcrowded cities like Johannesburg and Durban in search of work - have returned, knowing they can improve both their quality of life and their earnings in the rural areas.
The transformation of the Umvoti valley is not unique. A tour of the cane-growing areas of rural KwaZulu shows a trend of development and stability in areas where small cane-growers flourish.
Outside the cane-growing areas, communities do not have the means to fight poverty with development. It is in the undeveloped areas of this potentially prosperous province that violence and instability have become the hallmarks of the conflict between supporters of the African National Congress and those of the Inaktha Freedom Party.
Since the system of influx control for black South Africans was abolished in 1986, rural poverty in places like KwaZulu has pushed black families into sprawling shanty towns on Durban's periphery. The population of such settlements has tripled - from 1 million to 3 million - in the past two decades.
Now the growing of sugar cane is providing a vehicle for economic development in the rural areas.
A financial support group, the Financial Assistance Fund, managed by the South African Sugar Association, has laid the foundation for a breakthrough in self-development and grass-roots empowerment of small sugar-cane growers.
The 3,000 small cane growers of 1973 have become a thriving industry of more than 40,000 today. Last year they formed the Small Grower Development Trust, an industry-backed group that will represent the interests of small growers in relation to the (mainly white) big sugar-cane farmers.
POLITICAL and economic changes since 1990 - particularly the deregulation of the sugar industry - have created new opportunities for black farmers and removed barriers and restrictions that had put a ceiling on their progress under apartheid.
"The Trust will be the vehicle that takes small cane growers into a new era of self-development, people democratization, and participation in decisionmaking at all levels," says Wilson Luthuli, a successful cane grower for 30 years. He serves on the Council of the South African Sugar Association - the industry's highest decisionmaking body.
Last year, small cane growers accounted for some 10 percent of the country's sugar production. Their contribution is rising rapidly: They now produce an average of 50 tons per hectare (2.5 acres) - about half that of the big sugar farmers.
But success stories like the Umvoti valley have achieved harvests of up to 120 tons per hectare - showing that the productivity of small growers has enormous potential.
"The Trust will have the needs of small growers at heart," says Mr. Luthuli, who has turned his personal success into a crusade to help uplift all small cane growers.