Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

Rural Eastern Cape aka home of legends

I recently travelled through a stretch of the Eastern Cape that used to be officially known as the Transkei. One might refer to areas such as Ngcobo, Ngqamakwe, Ugie, Elliot, Maclear, Cala, Idutywa, Gcuwa as small towns but this is a very generous definition for places that resemble “out stations” to the surrounding villages. While travelling through some of these areas I noticed posters displaying the message “Home of Legends” alluding to some of the struggle stalwarts who were raised in the Eastern Cape: Walter Sisulu, Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela, the Mbekis, an endless list of people who are rooted in the Eastern Cape but moved away and gave their lives to national and international political causes. But looking at the current reality of many of the villages across the Eastern Cape, this province has little to be proud of.

Friends and I travelled to a wedding in a village an hour away from Cala. When the tar road ended we had to navigate through gravel road. Because of the rain, most patches were muddy and difficult to get through. Parts of the road were not clearly demarcated. The slow drive through the village allowed enough time to observe the homes on the side of the road and others neatly tucked away in the hills. There were long-drop toilets, no electricity and no sign of a water system. The home we visited had a tap outside and electricity so they no longer had to walk to the nearby spring to get water.

I write as someone who spent little time in a village while growing up and never went to ezilalini during my school holidays because my grandparents’ homes were in townships. When it comes to rural living, I am an outsider. Those who have grown up in a village have many wonderful memories of pastoral life. The narrative of “humble rural beginnings” is one we love in South Africa. This narrative adds to the romanticising of rural areas rather than highlighting the poverty and unequal playing field that is still a reality for someone living in a rural area. There were very few schools in the villages we drove through and few health facilities too.

The question of rural development is a complex one. Whose responsibility is it to develop these rural areas? Municipalities have failed many villages that still have no proper infrastructure to allow for any meaningful development to take place. Those who become success stories often forget about those they leave behind (of course the upgrade of Nkandla has shown that this needn’t be the case if you’re powerful enough to accumulate wealth and develop your family’s homestead) and make an annual sojourn to their family home driving their SUV to combat the rocky trails and dusty roads.

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    • Azul Idgaf

      These are also the last spaces where the language, cultural traditions are holding on…it is easy to think “westernising” peeople makes them “developed”. I grew up there, and it wa heaven on earth for me…

      I wish we could have bantustans again to preserve our culture, because at this rate our grandchildren will not even be speaking the language.

    • Sydney

      Athambile, a poignant piece indeed. Ezilalini. I’m from rural Limpopo but I understand and can visualize the villages that you are referring to. My rural village was urbanized in the early 90’s so life is a bit bearable in terms of services and schools. I still long for the ‘heaven on earth’ idyllic existence of old though, the quite rural life.

      There is a Kenyan writer who contends that failure to develop rural areas is a phenomenon, what he calls ‘Elite failure’. When our lives develop for the better and we become part of the elite, we inherit their amnesia, a collective memory loss of where we come from. We then romanticize the struggles we took to get where we are and then declare, ‘if I could make it out of there, everyone else should’.

      I think money and better living conditions change our value systems and we stop caring about those left behind. We forget that in the 80s we didn’t have a lot of people to compare ourselves with because we were all in the same boat.

      Those villages you drove past, the people can see wealth driving past, they know there is a better life out there but it’s not reaching them. The Elites need to develop a conscience.

    • Thina Bambeni

      I tend to agree with Azul. My childhood upbringing and experiences were a good balance of village life and town and/or surburban life. I was born in Mthatha, lived in Northcrest up until age 12 wherefrom we relocated as a family to Kempton Park, Gauteng. I was exposed to the ‘pastoral life’ at age 10 when my mom would send my siblings and I to her home in the village of Dumasi, eNgqeleni. Development-wise things in the village back in those days lagged far behind our area in Mthatha. There was no running water, ablution facilities or electricity. Yet even as a small child my spirit was more happier being in the village than in town. There was a sense of community and neighbourliness. I enjoyed doing all the chores that my cousins had to do, ukutheza (fetching firewood), ukusinda (cleaning the floors with cow dung) etc. My life felt more enriched by being there. What the village lacked in modern facilities it made up for in heaps and bound in culture, respect and love. In the year 2000 things improved, gravel roads were graded to make them even and better to traverse. Electricity was installed in all the homesteads. As much as all of that happened, to me the village youth seems to have changed for the worse. There’s now more girls falling pregnant out of wedlock as very young ages, crime (both violent and petty) is rampant, the elderly do not feel safe in their homes, cellphones are being stolen at night vigils ahead of a funeral. I can’t stand what the village represents…

    • Free Horoscope Reading

      Today, I went to the beachfront with my kids.
      I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put
      the shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit
      crab inside and it pinched her ear. She never wants to go back!

      LoL I know this is entirely off topic but I had to tell someone!

    • Rory Short

      The central resource in any area, be it rural or urban, is the people and that is where any development needs to take place. Faith in the natural abilities of people to develop themselves where they are does not seem to have been an attitude that has been given much traction within the ANC, certainly since ’94.

    • Mzimhle Maseko

      Very detailed and heartbreaking observation you have made:

      The greatest travesty that befalls villages and townships is “braindrain”. When villages produce leaders, entrepreneurs, educated people, they are always “poached” by urban areas…therefore, taking the village back to its deficit. The facilities and services NOT available in rural areas makes it difficult to retain such people. With brain comes other socio-economic deficits as well, such as drops in levels of literacy, employability and social cohesion. The Mandelas and Mbekis of the former Transkei were part of the brain drain…they moved and focused mostly on urban issues. We have to change the way people view urbanisation, it is not the movement of people to urban areas, but rather the provision of urbanised services/facilities at a particular place.

      When we curb brain drain, we ensure that we have people who will advance the will of the people readily available at these villages. the same people responsible for making sure the Soweto grows at such high rates as it does now, are the same folks who must ensure that villages develop. some villages have turned into zones of decay, ghost towns because of brain drain! without the right people to lead villagers and the well-meaning to hold the leaders accountable, villages will continue to lag way behind. It is vital that a private-public partnership is fostered to not only retain but attract leaders to rural coms to ensure development.