Sunday, February 28, 2010

Unknown dangers

While in Mbotyi I interviewed the teachers of Mbotyi Junior Secondary School. That is, I tried to interview them, but they wouldn’t give me their names. Why, I asked them. Why don’t you want to be quoted?

They certainly had plenty to complain about and had spent about 15 minutes showing and telling me what was wrong with their school: no electricity so no photocopiers, computers or phones; no proper furniture - desks designed for infants are being used by teenagers; and no classroom for Grade 8 who have to be educated outside.

“We are still living in the past,” said one. “There has been no changes at all. It’s just like before [1994].”
“It’s all empty promises. We are just the step ladders to get them into power,” said another. "They always blame the apartheid era. They put the blame on other, but it is them.”
“We are not paid according to our worth. There are so many things promised to get, and we don’t get. It’s not that we like that [going on strike], it’s because we don’t see any other alternatives to force the government to do it.”

With such strong views, why don’t they want their voices to be heard?

Again they refused to tell me why.

“Are you afraid of something?” I asked. “Are you afraid you will lose your jobs or be attacked if you speak out?”

Still they wouldn’t answer. I pushed again. And again.

“You journalists,” said one with a glint in her eye. “You are always digging.”

“But why – explain it to me,” I said, exasperated.

“We are afraid of the unknown,” said one, finally.

That’s all she would say.

I remembered this conversation this morning while reading an opinion piece by Mvume Dandale, COPE’s parliamentary leader in the Sunday Times, headlined “ANC goal is to stifle all critical debate”.

His list of stifling tactics include the Ministry of Police demanding recently that crime statistics be debated in private, the Minister of Justice refusing to share information about the latest arms deals of the government, and expulsion from parliament of COPE MP Mlukeli George. All pretty high-level stuff, but if you can’t have critical debate in the very corridors created for it, what hope is there for civil servants down on the bottom rungs?

That's definitely unknown.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The murky waters of Matheko

Matheko is home to about 5,000 Pondo people. It's about half an hour's drive from Lusikisiki, down a pretty decent dirt road. The headman of the village is a woman, Nontsapho Mathanda. There is no running water or electricity in the village so she has to send her mobile phone by taxi to town to get charged. It costs R19 for a round-trip and R5 for the charging, a total of R24 ($3).

Mathanda and one of her traditional councillors show me the water supply for Matheko village. The water bubbles up from an underground source, and there are many watering holes like these dotted around the veld.

Here Mathanda demonstrates how this water is used for drinking. She tries to convince me to try it, but I get a dodgy belly after a haloumi and pesto pita. I'm not sure my middle-class tummy can manage it. I awkwardly decline. She winks at me with a laugh.

Here local women gather water for cooking, washing and bathing.

The headwoman, her councillors and some hangers-on audition for U2's next album.

Headwoman Mathanda relaxes at home. Squint, and you'll be able to read what it says on her vest: ROLE MODEL. Indeed.


Friday, February 19, 2010

"The people like this voice. I am not afraid really"

This is Masukede Malindi, "headwoman" of Mbotyi. Her father-in-law, 75-year-old Alexander Malindi, has passed the torch of leadership to her. He had five sons, four have died, and the youngest Fezile is weak with TB. Headwoman Malindi is the widow of the eldest Malindi son.

Her husband, died of a mysterious illness. He complained of stomach pains and was dead three days later. The other sons had similar rapid deaths. In days gone by, this might have reeked of poisoning and conspiracy, but as a doctor explains to me later that night, untreated HIV/AIDS can kill with rapid stealth.

To speculate that someone’s death was caused by HIV/AIDS in this part of the world could be construed as slander, so heavy is the stigma. This is something that Headwoman Malindi wants to change.

She speaks with a soft voice, barely audible. “The people like this voice. I am not afraid really,” she tells me. I first meet her at sunset inside the large mint green rondawel where the family gathers to cook on a rainy night. The ashes of last night’s fire are piled on the floor, and the walls are blackened with years of smoke. The women sit on the left of the door, the men on the right. Fezile, the old chief’s only surviving son is doing some ironing.

As we sit in the hut, with the old chief listening in, Headwoman Malindi is quiet and Fezile does most of the talking. He tells me about the conflicts that exist between municipal councillors and chiefs. It’s a story of woe I’ve heard again and again, about how councillors are trying to wrestle the power away from the chiefs.

It’s a difficult one to report on because there’s so much hearsay, he-said/she-said and personal agendas. In an ideal world they would be working together - the traditional leaders sorting out community quarrels and misdeeds, and councillors taking care of development. Instead there's constant conflict between the old world order and the new. Between those born to care (or not), and those paid to care (or not). There’s no clear-cut baddie.

Simphiwe, a young local hiking guide, might not agree. Earlier in the day he’d taken me to see the river where people fetch water and had spent a great deal of time complaining about the old chief. “If there is a community meeting in our chief’s place and I say we need the road there, and he says no that is grazing land, if I fight that, he will say I want to see your father. When my father gets there, the chief will say warn your boy, he is naughty. So it’s bad. The youth are not scared to speak to the ward councillor.”

If the young headwoman has it her way, the young won’t be scared to speak to her either. “I want to change this direction from when the old chief was ruling before,” she whispered to me in her low voice, as we stood outside watching ducks and cows weave in between each other. “I want to change the minds of our people so we can sow together. Because of him, the people of our community are so divided. I want to change this thing. All people must be treated the same, not treated differently.”

I asked her what else she hopes to achieve for her village. “In this area we have a lot of needs. HIV means that children are living without homes and with other families. I want to create a food parcels for orphans.”

She also wants to get rid of the stigma around HIV. “If I’m not talking, if I keep it inside, then it’s a poisonous thing. It affects the heart and the body. Many people live with HIV but they don’t talk about it. I want to change these things."

Girl about the village

I met Ziyanda in Mbotyi. We walked for a while together along the dirt track that leads out of the village. Ziyanda is 25. She wears jeans, weaves her hair in dreadlocks and works as a lifeguard, tourist guide and waitress at the local hotel. I want to talk to her because I want to know what it's like to be a young woman living in a rural village. She smiles as she talks about her life.

She got pregnant at 15. “My mother was so crazy with me,” she says. By 16 she had two children, a boy and a girl. I asked if she was still with the father? “He died,” she says. “Of pneumonia. He was also a lifeguard.”

Being seriously ill in Mbotyi is a dance with the death. There is no clinic. The building is finished, it has a waiting room, toilets, a security fence, but its doors remain closed because electricity has not yet arrived in the village. Well, that’s not quite true. White people own holiday cottages along the beachfront and all their cottages have electricity. There’s also a lodge – where I stayed for two nights – and they also have power. It’s just the black villagers who don't. Apartheid lives on - courtesy of the local municipality. So until the power comes to the people, the closest clinic is in Magwa, a five-hour walk away, or if you can afford transport, the closest clinic is a 26km taxi ride in Lusikisiki. To get a private emergency taxi costs R300.

I asked Ziyanda if rape is a worry for women living here. She told me she was raped in 2003 when she was walking home at night time from work. “I was so scared. It’s not easy to be a woman, I can say. You are facing so many challenges.”

The sound of our footsteps grew louder at this point. My voice sounded loud in my head. At a glance Ziyanda looks like any modern girl about town. But the reality is, she's a modern girl about a rural South African village, and the odds are stacked against you. Ziyanda has experienced more hardship in her young life, than most women will experience in a lifetime. And yet she smiles. And laughs. And talks honestly.

I try to find a clever way to bring the subject around to HIV/AIDS, but there isn’t one, so I just blurt it out. I ask her if she knows how many people in this village have HIV/AIDS. She says no one talks about it. “We can’t talk about it. No one talks about it. In our culture it is so difficult to talk about sex. We’re not like white people who can talk about it.” I tell her my mother is from Yorkshire and never talked to me about sex and periods either. My first boyfriend was always just called “my friend”.

So what happens if you have HIV/AIDS? Can you not even talk about it to your best friend? “No, you can’t talk about it. Maybe to your family, but no one else.” But does everyone know about it? “Yes, everyone knows about it. We are very scared of it.”

If there is so much awareness and fear, does that mean that the HIV/AIDS rate will start to drop? “No. You see these young children who are now growing up. When the girls are 15 they will fall in love for the first time with a madala (older man) who will HIV/AIDS. He can’t talk to them about it, he won’t use a condom, and so they will get sick.”

I asked her if she wants to date a new boy does she ask him if he has HIV/AIDS. “Yes, I will ask him, but I can’t trust what he tells me. It’s very hard to find a new boyfriend.”

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Pondering in Pondoland

I’m back again in Pondoland, this time checked into a seaside tourist lodge in the village of Mbotyi. To get here you drive 26km down a paved-then-dirt road from Lusikisiki. Three quarters of the way a road signs instructs you to engage your lowest gear as the road cuts daringly down the side of a mountain. You wonder who built this road - and why? They must have really wanted a swim.

At the end of the road I meet the Irish. There are 60 of them. The receptionist had already "warned" me about them over the phone. I expected a mad adventure holiday gang, and was inwardly marvelling at ability of the Irish to organise a piss up in a brewery at the end of the world. Turns out that wasn't why they were here at all - well, not officially.

The Irish are a collection of builders, electricians, teachers, nutritionists, and 16-year-olds in their “transition year” – the Irish version of the gap year that they take while still at school – who are here with the charity Friends in Ireland to build what the local municipality haven’t bothered to.

I met them at the bar at the end of a long day. They were exhausted, covered in dirt and sweat from another day of building, but their eyes sparkled with what they’d achieved. For some of them, this was their fourth “patrol” in South Africa. Previously they’d built feeding stations for orphans in Franklin, Bizana, Flagstaff and Lusikisiki. This time round they were building a security office for one of the feeding stations, building a crèche in Mboyti, teaching musical skills and planting a garden at one of the schools to show the children how to grow vegetables.

I found this a bit odd. The people in this area are subsistence farmers. They live on the most fertile soil in South Africa and are famed in history for having homed and fed Europeans shipwrecked along this Wild Coast (which is why so many Pondo people have pale skins). Why do they need someone from Europe to teach them how to farm the land? I can believe children who live in a multi-story flat in Ireland might need to be taught that vegetables come from the ground and not a plastic bag, but out here?

It sounds like the owner of the Mbotyi shebeen was also a bit perplexed. He asked one of the Irish what they get out of this? Exactly why are they here? I think it’s a question worth pondering.

On the one hand you've got municipal councillors who are paid to bring key services to the rural poor, but don't, and on the other you've got Irish people who are donating their free time to raise money back home and then build services with that money. Why do they do it?

Brian, one of the Irish guys, told the shebeen owner that they can learn a lot from people out here. That people in Ireland have lost the run of themselves, that they've lost the values despite having everything. The same came be said for many people living in the West, but does that really explain why some people crave a front-row seat in the theatre of poverty? I asked him again: Why are you here? He shrugged and said: "You feel good when you go home."

That got me thinking about the feel-good feeling. Western society is so slammed for being individualistic, for being motivated by the pleasure principle and only doing things that make us feel good. We collect shiny baubles because they reflect back to our ego just how clever and successful we are. But is not perhaps that same ego, hungry to feel nice, that motivates us to do charity work? Do we perhaps care because it gives us pleasure?

The day before I'd interviewed the Queen of Pondoland (more on this later). The discussion had turned to the chronic corruption in the local Lusikisiki/Flagstaff municipality. I remarked that I found it incomprehensible that so much corruption was tolerated, especially since to my eyes, African people seem to have a greater duty of care for each other than people living in Western society. If your sister dies in African society, you must care for her children. In Western society, we'd only do it if it made us feel good.

The Queen remarked that this duty of care could be one of the explanations of the corruption." It comes exactly from African families taking care of their extended families. You get nepotism. It has riddled all these municipalities right now. Nepotism I think does have some traditional roots. Except of course now, politics also counts. But generally it comes from my feeling responsible to help my uncle’s brother-in-law, you just go back forever. And that’s why this corruption is in the tender system, because someone wants to take care of their brothers, their uncles, and with that comes kickbacks, bribes."

As I drove those winding Transkei roads, I pondered whether there's a misfit between the African duty of care and the western sense of Democracy. Democracy gives everyone ego a chance to stand up for their bit of the pie. But it works – perhaps – just as long as everyone is only fighting for enough of the pie to satiate themselves, to make their ego feel good. Democracy works because we are inherently selfish. As soon as I start fighting for enough of the pie to satiate everyone else, then it falls flat on its face.

There's my bit of bakkie philosophy. It's like armchair philosophy, just with a few more bumps and holes.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The black widows of South Africa

This is a taster from an investigation I'm working on...

"Thinking of your reason to meet me is very haunting. It is like digging what I want to forget. I think we need to arrange to meet face-to-face for your interview. We are about to go to lunch. Sorry to sound so complicated.”

I had been trying to get hold of Senior Chief Nokhakha Jumba for two days. It was broken wires and cross communication and when I eventually found her office in downtown Mthatha, the potholed capital of the old Transkei, she wasn’t there. She was across town at one of those rural development conferences where people arrive in high heels and Mercedes Benz. I felt like giving up. My gut didn’t. A few hours later this text message beeped through.

I wanted to meet Nokhakha for the same reason I’d been meeting her contemporaries: she’s a woman chief, one of a growing number in South Africa. Before 1994 and a new Constitution that guarantees equal rights for women, women chiefs were rare. The chief line passes from father to firstborn son, and if the father died before the son was grown up, an uncle or cousin would hold the fort until he was ready. Mandela changed all of this. “Mr Mandela insisted that the women as well become chiefs because everyone is equal in front of the people,” said Chief Nokwanele Balizulu, the woman chief who lives in a mint green house with pink linoleum floors directly across the road from Mandela’s fortified facebrick mansion in Qunu.

But not everyone shares Mandela’s vision.

The day before, in the wilting heat of a Sunday afternoon, I’d met Chief Lindiwe Ngubenani at a safe house near Mqanduli. Lindiwe is 27 years old. She was wearing a pink sundress and big loop earrings, and twirled her hair in her fingers as she told me her story. After her father died her mother became the chief of Mthonjana, a village of 84 homes near the hippy hangout of Coffee Bay, famed for its untouched beaches and marijuana plantations. The villagers protested. They spread rumours that Xolisa was not the real son of the chief, they insulted her, threatened her, and on 24 September 2007, they assassinated her. “They shot her inside the hut and then they burnt the hut and her body was lying inside,” Lindiwe said, the firstborn child who must take charge until her brother has completed her education. But she too fears for her life. “I am not at home now because people are not accepting me. About 10 homes out of 74 support me. People are divided. They say they cannot be ruled by a woman, especially by a girl.”

Looking at Lindiwe lounging on the brown velour couch, her mini-dress riding up her thighs, her flip-flops dangling loosely from her painted toe-nails, she doesn’t much look like a chief. I wondered how I’d feel if she was the person I had to go to whenever I needed a signed affidavit, or needed someone to mediate when my neighbour does some thing to harm me, or my family, or my land. It’s not something an urban South African would ever have to think about.

Democracy was fought and won in the cities, and people who live in the urban centres rely on the police and the municipalities to keep order - or at least a semblance. In the city, if your neighbour parks his car on your driveway every day without your consent, you complain to the police. In the village, if you neighbour’s cow parks itself on your grass every day, the police don't care. In fact, the closest police station is likely to be 50km down a rutted track and you don't own a car.

The chief is to the villager, what the head of the body corporate is to the urbanite. It’s the person who settles the squabbles and makes sure you all live peacefully side by side. Well, that's the job description. Not all chiefs are good chiefs. Some are cruel, harsh, lazy - made lazier by the recently introduced government salary - and those villagers saddled with a rotten egg protest that this system is out-of-step with the South African democracy. But there's also those chiefs who do care, whose heart and feet are from the soil. Rural residents in these villages prefer a chief who's in it for life, who's born to it, rather than an ANC-appointed municipal officer who's in it for 5-years and a fat pay cheque.

But what of the women chiefs? They’re a new breed. They’re neither born nor elected. They are widows. Black widows to some.

The Waiting Place

Remember this poem by Dr Seuss? For those who wonder what's it like to be a journalist, this about sums it up...

"Congratulations! Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away!
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

You’ll look up and down streets. Look’em over with care. About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you’re too smart to go down a not-so-good street.
And you may not find any you’ll want to go down. In that case, of course, you’ll head straight out of town. It’s opener there in the wide open air.

Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you.
And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along.
You’ll start happening too.

Oh! The Places You’ll Go!
You’ll be on your way up! You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights.

You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed. You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead. Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes, you won’t.

I’m sorry to say so but, sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you.
You can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch. And your gang will fly on. You’ll be left in a Lurch.
You’ll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chances are, then, that you’ll be in a Slump.

And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.
You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked. A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin! Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in? How much can you lose? How much can you win?

And if you go in, should you turn left or right…or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite? Or go around back and sneak in from behind? Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.

You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race, down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
And grind on for miles across weirdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.

The Waiting Place…for people just waiting."

In the frenetic, overly competitive world of journalism, this is the place where anxious freelancers rock back and forth, waiting, waiting, waiting, for busy overstretched editors to reply to their pitches. It's not unlike waiting for your teenage boyfriend to call.

I've found an amazing, exclusive story. It's a cracker. It wakes me up at night. And yet, the publication I was counting on might be able to offer me a one-page slot in June. Might. They did warn me about slashed pages, crushed budgets, a queue for Africa stories, departing editors, but I believed - foolishly - that if I came up with a great story, it'd get in there. The Red Sea would part. More fool me.

Anyway, we'll always have blogging. The placebo for the world's storytellers in this so-called information age.

Today is the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Last night the BBC World News ran a segment where the journalist who covered the release of Mandela came back to reflect on how South Africa had changed. Except he didn’t. He briefly interviewed Archbishop Desmond Tutu; Mandela’s former driver and bodyguard; a man in a township in Cape Town who now owns his own shop; and then he strolled nonchalantly past a few shacks and mused that people still live in poverty, but at least they are free.

Why bother coming at all? If that’s all there is to say after 20 years, you may as well have stayed at home and spared the carbon footprint. Tell us a real story.

Friday, February 5, 2010

At home with the Hlakulas

Here's some pictures from my two days spent as a guest of Faith Hlakula, her mother-in-law, Mrs Hlakula, and Thembi, Ana and Junior.

The road in, built by Walter Sisulu

Waiting for a lift to the far end of the valley

The sun goes down over my first night

African silhouette

It's a goat's life

Walter Sisulu photograph on the wall of Ellen Hlakula's house

Blink and you could be in Scotland

School's out, let the dancing for the camera commence

Faith and the Xhosa steamed bread. Yum

Samp and beans. My favourite African dish

The local teens dance for the camera to music on their mobile

Faith and me

Faith hard at work in her mother-in-law's kitchen

Jumping beans, Ana and Thembi

Ana, Thembi and me at dinner time

With my hosts (minus Junior, who was off playing somewhere)