Laura Wheatman, newly appointed manager of Wits Rural Facility (WRF), knows when and how to apply creative strategies under adverse conditions. She was part of the small, but competent team that produced the Weekly Mail during the late 80s into the early 90s and successfully transformed the paper into the well-known Mail and Guardian, which she left as chief subeditor in 1995, “in time to see democracy in.”
Leaving the paper was a deliberate decision as an opportunity came up to do a masters degree in development planning at the University of the Witwatersrand, covering a broad area of subjects ranging from business to local community development. “It was a real luxury to study full-time as an adult, as one cannot experience all these opportunities as a mature adult when you study and work.”
She did her thesis on ‘Conflict resolution in development planning’ and graduated in 1996. Funded by the Danish Government, facilitated by Danida, she joined the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (Dwaf), to investigate, develop and implement strategies for community-based natural resource management projects in the Bushbuckridge area.
She was based in Nelspruit but spent many hours, days and years in the communities with traditional healers and community structures, such as the Dwaf initiated Participatory Management Forums, to facilitate appropriate projects. When Dwaf considered her services were no longer needed she did not want to lose the momentum, contacts and relationships that were painstakingly built over the last six to seven years.
She began writing proposals for funding for some of the projects and secured support from the Small Grants Programme (Gef), implemented by the UNDEP. This was to continue her work with the traditional healers at two communal areas in Thulamahashe and at Salique Forests. The project entails the sustainable use of trees harvested from a forest and from a lowveld site. Unfortunately the grant was linked to the exchange rate, which strengthened at the time and she needed additional funds. She got this from Danida.
She is looking at linking the project with a similar project in Kwazulu Natal. The project is still ongoing. “I do not believe in being territorial about projects and things like this. The more we share, the more we get back,” she says. From January to August this year, she completed a manual on the Sustainability of Land Reform through Land Use, Livelihood and Gender Planning for an NGO, Track, that could be used as a training resource.
This can be obtained from Track on 013-7554324. She returned to Johannesburg and when she saw the position at WRF advertised, applied immediately. Development is close to her heart and her rural roots cut deep from her previous work in Bushbuckridge. Laura grew up on a farm in Griqualand East near Lesotho, with Kokstad the closest town.
She has two brothers. Her father died when she was young, with her mother taking care of the family and farm after that. She studied journalism and anthropology at Rhodes University and began her career as a ‘wet nose’ journalist at the Natal Mercury.
Laura with Claire.