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Grace Masuku (1932 - )

The Order of the Baobab in

Grace Masuku (1932 - ) Awarded for:
Her outstanding contribution in the field of environmental conservation.

Profile of Grace Masuku

Grace Masuku is a former school principal from Moruleng in the North West. She is from the Bakgatla ba Kgafela people, who in the apartheid era were forcibly removed from their ancestral land to make way for the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. Today, Masuku spends her retirement dedicated to restoring the Bakgatla's traditional respect for the environment as well as improving the living conditions of inhabitants in the approximately 30 surrounding villages. She aims to engender a spirit of self-sufficiency in the area, which in recent times has been hard hit by the closure of platinum mines.

Masuku has a profound understanding of indigenous knowledge systems and the environment. She is the brain behind several successful environmental and conservation initiatives. Apart from being a 'traditional conservationist', as she calls herself, she is widely regarded as a powerhouse of knowledge on indigenous plants and a giant in sustainable rural development.

A septuagenarian with endless energy, she continues to share knowledge with those around her. Her undoubted vocation is organising women and the youth around her and showing them how to use the environment in a sustainable way. Her efforts to alleviate poverty, using her own brand of wisdom, have not gone unnoticed. She has won many awards, including the coveted Ma-Afrika Award.

She uses her pension to visit the numerous villages to provide training and ideas for businesses based on traditional values and knowledge. Her first project, Letswanana, began 21 years ago, and today continues to yield herbs that are used to treat diseases. Her most public project, Podi-Boswa (meaning 'goat, our inheritance'), has provided more than 1 000 people with sustainable livelihoods through producing leather products from goat-hides that had been discarded prior to the Podi-Boswa venture. It all started when the Department of Trade and Industry's Community Public-Private Partnerships Programme was looking for a project leader to co-ordinate a leather-producing initiative. Someone suggested Masuku, and she quickly surveyed the area to see whether the project was feasible. She discovered that every household in the area owned one or more goats. A programme was implemented to train people in the production of leather skins and products. It was not long before they started seeing profits. The project has since won the support of the World Conservation Union and the Agricultural Research Council. Moreover, Podi-Boswa was one of the eight projects showcased by South Africa at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.

A similar project involves the production of medicinal herbs using indigenous plants. Masuku was awarded R1,5 million by a German non-governmental organisation to assist in the building of a pharmacy to house these traditional herbal remedies. Masuku's mission is all-encompassing. She is also a sought-after speaker on topics as diverse as safe-sex practices and Setswana culture and she is known to occasionally head ecotours in the Pilanesberg area. Masuku was named by the National Heritage Council as a National Living Treasure in 2005.

In February 2006, the documentary From Nkoko… With Love, was aired on SABC2, detailing Masuku's life and philosophy. Grace Masuku is exemplary in her commitment to the environment and to the innovative use of local knowledge and wisdom. She combines her intimate awareness of her traditional environment and the imperative to create sustainable economic projects that remain ecologically sensitive. She is a model of perseverance and productive inventiveness.
She has five children.