Same-sex marriages became legal, with South Africa again taking the moral high road. In the same year, Mabandla showed how a community could flourish by working together.

mabandla 2006mabandla 2006In 2006, South Africa hosted the 16th World Economic Forum on Africa: Going for Growth, focusing on African economies, investment opportunities and sustainable development.

It was also the year in which South Africa became the fifth country to legalise same-sex marriages. It was a ground-breaking legal and human rights step, and was celebrated by many around the world.

The 20 000-strong Mabandla community in rural KwaZulu-Natal also had cause for celebration: the Industrial Development Corporation provided funding to buy harvesting and transportation equipment for its gum and pine plantation.

Mabandla is a 1 300ha forestry plantation employing over 100 people. There are also plans to develop a vegetable project, an orchard and an indigenous nursery. A cattle project, a conservation programme and a tourism venture are already up and running.

Supported by a R11-million Subsistence Land Acquisition Grant from the government, the Mabandla Community Trust (MCT) was set up. A total of 3 200 households committed to the project, or some 80% of the Mabandla community. The MCT planted 880ha of gum and 440ha of pine on the hills above the village. It was supported by Rural Forest Management, which provides training, marketing, administrative and financial management support to forestry projects in southern KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape.

The first harvest was in 2008, and MCT is now harvesting 90ha to 100ha a year, supplying the Sappi Saiccor mill in Umkomaas. About 94 people are employed full-time in the forestry project, which also offers 30 part-time jobs.

IDC seed funding served as a springboard for a range of other businesses that provide additional jobs for members of the community and sustainable revenue for MCT. Just one, a conservation and development programme, falls under the umbrella of the Umgano Project, an initiative of the Mabandla Traditional Council using the community structures established for the forestry project. A further 70 part-time jobs were created on the conservation project. An eco-tourism project, a cattle farming project and an HIV/Aids clinic also fall under Umgano.

The region has an astonishing natural biodiversity in the grasslands and patches of natural forest, and it has been called a "biodiversity hotspot of international importance". The project area covers 7 000 ha in the Umzimkhulu Municipality between Coleford and Ntsikeni nature reserves. Most of the area is state land on lease to the community; the balance is communal land.

The commercial plantation, certified by the international Forestry Stewardship Council, is the core of the project, providing a platform for the community to pursue business opportunities, creating jobs and generating an income stream. It includes a commercial afforestation zone of 1 500ha; a conservation zone of 1 500ha, consisting of natural forest, grasslands and wetlands; as well as a livestock management zone with a carrying capacity of 500 to 600 head of cattle.

MCT also has a cultural tourism project, which is aimed at attracting young people to Mabandla to experience the culture and hospitality of rural South Africa. The tourist groups, aged between 14 and 25 years of age, stay with Mabandla households for four nights and must undertake a community project. Host families are trained to take the tourists – two at a time – and are paid per visit they accept. New host families are trained annually to ensure a fair distribution of the benefits.

The trust has also established a Livestock Association to run a pure-bred Nguni livestock business. In 2014, the IDC approved more funding for Mabandla and Umgano for the acquisition of harvesting equipment and establishment of a saw-mill, which will enable MCT to add value to their timber and create additional local job opportunities.