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.