Contradictions in the countryside

This last weekend I attended the wedding of (as of the weekend) Rebecca and Danson Joseph, at the Cathedral Peak hotel in the Drakensberg. It was a beautiful wedding, and a good party — many of us camped near the hotel, in a big shared campsite. My congratulations and best wishes to Danson and Rebecca!

The last 40km or so of the trip to the hotel passes through a part of what was the “self governing homeland” of Kwazulu, under the Apartheid system. It’s been a long time since I was in this part of the country, and it’s just such a reminder of the bizarre results of Apartheid, and of the difficulty of overcoming its legacy.

To set the scene: the road winds through an achingly beautiful countryside, of rolling green hills, surrounded in the distance in nearly all directions with the peaks of the mountains, traditionally called the “Wall of Spears”, capped with snow in winter. The passes wind past places like Sterkfontein dam, a dam at the top of an escarpment, midway on the long journey of water from Lesotho to Johannesburg.

14 years after its dissolution, the border of Kwazulu is still quite clear in the landscape. The self governing homelands were roughly like the US’s reservations, and were supposed to be the legal homes of all black people in South Africa — thus leaving South Africa as a majority-white country. Some of the homelands were granted supposed “independence”, though Kwazulu did not reach this status. Passing the former border, one moves from large-scale commercial farming and forestry, with hardly a person in sight, to high-density, semi-urban subsistence farming. Spread over the hills as far as the eye can see are extended family homesteads, partially brick houses and party mud and thatch huts. Heavy land use and cattle farming has led to some erosion, though it seems like there is progress being made in containing it.

The absurdity of Apartheid-era development is best illustrated in the road. There are homesteads in all directions, but the road’s clear purpose is to go to the Cathedral Peak hotel. It is still the only tarred road, with much smaller gravel side roads occasionally heading off in other directions, complete with clusters of signposts for schools (Clover seems to have cornered the market for sponsoring such signs). One sees why a trip to the clinic might take a whole day — and why SMS delivery of diagnoses from blood tests has become such a hit application.

I was really struck by the contradictions of partial development. The houses and landscape are little changed from decades ago (though perhaps in generally better repair — people are poor but certainly not desperate or starving). Electricity, however, is now pretty much everywhere, and on many a mud-walled hut one finds a satellite TV dish. The rivers are spotted with women cleaning clothes — and chatting on their cellphones (3G internet and voice coverage is excellent).

Despite all the people, there are still no industries or major commercial centres. For wage-paying jobs, people need still to travel to farms across the the former border, or perhaps to the mines and industries many hours away in Johannesburg. But there are schools everywhere, and one passes a major hospital complex. South Africa is full of huge challenges and mountains to climb to build sustainable communities. But almost uniquely, it has also the resources and potential to run schools, build infrastructure and uplift an entire population. But what a challenge to get the schools right, the hospitals efficient, the roads built. And what personal challenges people face every day — how does one prepare a student at a small school in an almost timeless rural community, for a job in a first world economy? And over everything hangs the war-time demographic changes resulting from AIDS.

Hope, opportunity and challenge. And really nice mountains.