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.