Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Chapter 14: Nokhakha Jumba

This is an excerpt from Chapter 14 of Another Country. The chapter begins by telling the story of Nokhakha Jumba, the female chief of the Jumba clan, and one of the many many of the new sisterhood of chiefs who are living in fear of their lives, threatened by male jealousy and tribal hostilities. This excerpt is the last 1000 words of this chapter where I set this conflict against a bigger political backdrop. It's tricky because I don't want this book to become overly theoretical or politically analytical, so I'm hoping this provides sufficient depth for the reader without sending them to sleep...

Barely 20 miles from Nokhakha’s kraal is a third woman who understands the fear that permeates her life. 44-year-old Noitaly Mthirara is chief of Mpheko. She returned from a nursing job in Johannesburg at the community’s behest to take over the chieftainship from her late husband’s alcoholic brother. What followed was a bitter struggle that went all the way to the Supreme Court in Bloemfontein.

“It was not an easy thing, it was a hassle. We were divided. But now, I don’t want to lie before God, things are going a bit normal now. But what I’ve learnt from this, the chieftainship needs someone who is very strong. The government did pass it on the Constitutional side that women can be chiefs, but when it comes to protection, you have to do it on your own, the government doesn’t protect you at all. Even if you have your own security, they can be bribed. Your only protection is God. For example now, I don’t have a car and I’m not worried about that. I said to myself if I have a car it’s easy for them to do whatever. But if I am using taxis, even if I die, I will die with my community members, I won’t be alone.”

There is an old African saying. Inkosi yikosi ngabantu. A chief is a chief by the grace of the people. It’s a reminder that grassroots democracy existed in South Africa long before 1994, but it also highlights how tribal politics has forever been fraught with conflict and challenges. I asked Nokhakha if she thinks democracy is responsible for this conflict. She shakes her head.

“In traditional leadership Claire, most of us never take it that it says anything to us about equality. We always cry about justice or recognition, not equality. We have our own challenges as women in the rural areas, like if you can claim that we have to be equal to me, we have challenges of digging graves. If we say we are equal, it means we must take the spades and go to the graves. As women in traditional communities, we are not so strong about equality, we only need justice.”

But what shapes does justice take for unelected chiefs in a democracy? In these same months that I am travelling the Transkei, elsewhere in South Africa rural communities are preparing to challenge the authority of the tribal councils in the Constitutional Court – the highest court in the land. The basis of their argument: that during apartheid, many of the old chiefs colluded with the white minority government in order to secure themselves more land and power. One community that experienced this first-hand were the Makulele in Mpumalanga. In 1969 the Makuleke were forcibly removed from their land and resettled in the Mhinga Tribal Authority to make way for part of the Kruger National Park.

Why is this a burning issue 32 years later? Because in 2004 the government passed the Communal Land Rights Acgt (CLARA) which aimed to end a century of black land dispossession. At last people leaving on tribal land would be able to get title deeds to the land they’ve inhabited for generations. Sounds good in principle, but the institution given the power to distribute these title deeds were the tribal councils. The Makulele argued in front of the Constitutional Court that to give that kind of power to the tribal councils, would entrench Apartheid’s unjust divisions of land and power forever.

This is not an isolated story. In his book, Democracy Compromised, Lungisile Ntsebeza, recounts tale after tale of rural people who became unwitting pawns in a power play between rural leaders and their apartheid masters, and remain at the mercy of these political divisions still today. Tribal political power was an issue that divided the African National Congress (ANC) leaders during the transition to democracy, and has remained a burning issue in every South African election since.

Today the workaday solution is for each village to be overseen both by a chief and a ward councillor, both paid government salaries. The chiefs are in charge of settling rural disputes and safeguarding customs, the ward councillors responsible for rural development. It may sound workable on paper, but the reality is a headache-inducing mish-mash of back-biting, corruption and power struggles.

Before I started out on this journey, I found it easy to vilify the chiefs. I come from a world where unelected kings and queens are little more than tourist attractions. Where the only weapons they wield are scissors to cut ribbons at the opening of new buildings. The idea of the unelected clinging on to power was an anathema to me, though despite my biased preconceptions, I was curious to know the role they play in rural societies, and more to the point, how come they can continue to exist in a democracy

The answer became obvious as I travelled down those rutted tracks and discovered communities without sanitation, electricity, running water, doctors rooms, post offices and police stations. Communities so cut off from the rest of South Africa – before and after 1994 – and so vulnerable to conflict with other clans, that it was imperative that they have a fixed, hierarchical system which would stay the ship from one generation to the next. But I also wondered if it wasn’t possible for an elected official to offer the same role?

Chief Noitaly Mtirara explained it to me as clearly as she could. “A councillor is just there for five years, but a chief is there to stay. If we leave it to democracy, we’ll see everyone just doing as he feels because he will say that is his right because he is in a democratic world. Even if it’s democratic, there must be someone who says its right. Even if it’s a democracy there must be nobody who suffers at the end. Everybody must benefit.”

There it was again. That strange Transkei-version of democracy which gives everyone the right to do exactly as they please. A democracy without responsibility or accountability twinned with a belief that only the chiefs can be truly responsible and accountable. My heart felt heavy for the rural people caught between these two political worlds, neither able to propel them forward.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The story continues

It's been a long time since I've posted. In that time I've written nearly 30,000 words of a book based on this trip, had it approved by an editorial committee at a South African publishing house and rejected by the management committee at the same publishing house. My editor encourages me to keep going. To finish the book, and so that's where I find myself this Scottish winter.

I've been back writing for two weeks now and I'm starting to get back into my stride. As the first frosts arrive and the trees outside my window shiver without their leaves, it's wonderful to be able to courie (Scots word: burrow) inside my imagination and memories and return to the hot and dusty roads of the old Transkei in the lead up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

My editor reassures me that writing a book takes a long time, so I'm drowning out the critical voice inside my head that is demanding to know what's taking so long, and every day I write another 1000 words. Today it dawned on me that I will finish this book this winter. That by February 2012, Another Country (working title) will be ready for an audience.

I hope you will be one of the first to read it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

South Africa's Women Tribal Chiefs Often Rule in Fear

My story on the women chiefs made the front page of TIME.COM.

South Africa's Women Tribal Chiefs Often Rule in Fear

Good things come to those who wait. :)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Silent all these months

I've been very quiet for a while, but I'm still here. The truth is, my car broke down, and me with it, and it's taken me a bit of time to pull myself back together. But I'm whole again - or as whole as one can ever be - and I'm back at my desk ready to write up the last month of my search for the Rainbow's End. I hope you enjoy it as it unfolds.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

An unholy alliance?

This morning I read two articles in the Daily Dispatch (in my view, the best newspaper in South Africa) that convinced me a face-off is brewing in the old Transkei between the disempowered rural poor and the ruling ANC.

This new struggle is divided into two camps: the rural youth vs the government, and the tribal leaders vs the government. Over the past couple of months I’ve interviewed angry, disappointed people from both camps. They are not united. If anything, they are deeply divided. It’s unlikely they would form an unholy alliance, but if they did, it wouldn’t be peaceful.

In the one camp are the tribal leaders, frustrated because they feel they've been disempowered by the ANC government. During the apartheid years, and back into days of yore, they ruled the rural areas. Since the first democratic elections of 1994, the chiefs’ status has become a bit muddy. They have been given small government salaries (R2,700/month for a headman; R10,000/month for chiefs), but they've also been stripped of some administrative duties while decision-making over development has been handed to municipal councillors.

This might sound fair in a democratic country, but unfortunately many municipal councillors are like the bad chiefs of the past – those that infamously sold coastal land to white holiday makers for bottles of brandy, and those that signed over communal grazing land to mining companies for a few thousand "personal" rands a year. There’s hundreds of stories of tenders for new roads, clinics etc being granted to the brothers/uncles/friends of municipal councillors, only for the roads, clinics etc never, ever to be built.

“In Lusikisiki, they are shooting each other over tenders,” says the Queen Sigcau of Pondoland. “The tender system allows corruption to happen. That’s why the roads are ruined. You will find that the tender for the road from one hospital to the Great Place has been awarded every year and nothing has happened and there is no follow up. The money will disappear, the roads will never be done, and you will see heaps of crushed stone on the side of the road. No one seems to care.”

Into this hotbed of frustration, comes a very strange threat, which is escalating. Since the beginning of this year, King Dalindyebo, king of the abaThembu tribe to which Nelson Mandela belongs, has been threatening to secede Thembuland from the rest of South Africa. Dalindyebo didn’t make this threat because he’s angry with the way the government is treating the traditional leaders. No. He made the threat because of the way they’ve treated him personally.

Last year, King Dalindyebo was sentenced to 15 years for serious crimes including arson, assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm, kidnapping and defeating the ends of justice at the Mthatha High Court. He regards his criminal conviction an insult to the abaThembu nation, and unless the government pays R80 billion as recompense for humiliating him.

Now in the beginning, many traditional leaders took this as a joke. In fact, the Thembu traditional leaders begged that the media give this no more attention. But the King will not rest and last weekend, in a meeting where only those pro-secession were allowed to speak, he said the government of South Africa was a weapon of oppression and the ANC was the new National Party occupying the land of the Thembus illegally. He also added that those who did not support him would be seen to be disrespectful of him as a monarch (reported in the Daily Dispatch).

The question is: is there is enough frustration among traditional leaders and rural youth for this to amount to something more than a threat from a powerful criminal?

The rural youth tend to be anti the chiefs. “It’s not right to have chiefs. In the years to come, it would be easier to have no more chiefs because they use us for their interest, to fight against each other. I do not like them,” says Lungelwa Shaun Mabongo, 26 General Secretary of the youth league in Jumba Tribal Authority, where there is a dispute over the chieftaincy.

But their anger and despondency at lack of opportunities is also escalating. And last week fuel was added to this fire, when young people were refused the right to register for a Youth Imbizo at University of Fort Hare's Alice campus, where opportunities for learnerships and other skills would be on offer - unless they joined the ANC youth league.

“I refused to join and he refused to put my name and ID number on the list,” said Amanda Mabandla, reported in the Daily Dispatch. “We seem to be having no choice, this ANC rules and we just have to follow what they do. I was told that they are the ones who are coming up with these opportunities,” said Lindikhaya Dywili.

The reality is, the ANC have done very little for young people who live out here, and surprise, surprise, the people have noticed. The muddy tracks of the Eastern Cape do not lead to Sandton, Chivas Regal shindigs, and Breitling watches. For these disenchanted youth, joining the ANC youth league, may seem even more of an unholy alliance.

As Simphiwe, a villager from Mbotyi spelt it out to me: “The life as I know it is worse. Instead of getting better, it’s worse. But the people who make the life worse are the black people. I can say it’s the black people. They understand where we are now, where we’ve been. So why are they not making the life better for us – why? That is a problem, you know."

They eat alone

I’ve been very quiet lately. Unfortunately trying to sell stories about what I’ve found in the old Transkei has been so much harder than I anticipated, and it’s dragged me down.

The hardest part has not been the editors that say no, I can accept a polite refusal, but being outright ignored. I guess in a world drowning in emails, it’s easy to get lost in the spam, but when you send again, and phone, and leave a message… how hard is it to send a "no thank you"?

But it got me thinking that perhaps this is another part of this journey: learning what it’s like to really, really be ignored.

The people I’m writing about, the people who teach in schools where there aren’t enough classrooms, the people whose local clinic last received life-saving ARV drugs in time for the April 2009 elections - they know how it feels to be ignored. To knock on doors, again and again and again, and have no one listen.

If I really want to understand life in rural South Africa, then maybe I needed to feel the same way.

At first you feel a bit disappointed, but hopeful. Then you feel a bit sad, but optimistic. Then you feel a bit tired, and you take a break. Then you try again, and you begin to doubt yourself. Then you panic. Then you feel angry. Then you feel really, really angry. And then you just sit still.

“We’ve got angry, and more angry, and angrier, it doesn’t help. People just got tickets to get on the gravy town and then closed the door. They eat alone,” Khululekile Ntula, 29, the dreadlocked youth league chairman of Ward 15, near Mthatha.

I know how he feels.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Still a little salty

This morning I went to pick my husband Gavin up from Cape Town airport. He’d been back to Scotland to say a final goodbye to our old dog Patch who departed for Elysian Fields on Friday. We’ll miss you so much old friend.

I got there just in time to see the British Airways plane touch down, its wheels smoking on the runway, and as I smiled at the safe landing, it was as if all those thoughts that have been spinning around in my head for the last few months also bumped gently to earth.

I’ve been back in South Africa for 3 months, partly to work, partly to interrogate my mind and my senses about where I belong. Do I belong in the shadow of the Magic Mountain? Do I belong in Britain? Am I South African? Can I be South African when I wasn’t even born here but feel so alive here? Is there a warm patch of earth for these roots that I’ve been so cavalierly carrying over my arm?

Seeing that big blue bird arrive with the other half of my heart and life made it all seem so clear. Yes, I am British. I am one of them. After all, I was born in Yorkshire and raised by two Yorkshire folk. But I was raised in the veld, next to a mielie field, and speak fluent Afrikaans and a smattering of Xhosa, and that makes me South African too.

Back in the colonial days, someone with one foot in Africa and one foot in the UK was called a Soutpiel - a Salty Dick because as your legs stretched across the world, your dick (if you were a man, and weren't we all back then?) would trail in the Atlantic.

My double-identity might still make me a Soutpiel, but I'm not a colonialist, and I never was. My parents arrived here as economic refugees escaping Thatcher's crushing blows to the hard industry of the North of England when I was just 5.

I'm a modern child of Africa, an immigrant, another happenstance player in an incredible, evolving tale of which I’m proud to have a bit-part.