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The Heartland

by Gary Mathews / 08.12.2010

Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu are arguably the three most important leaders in the history of the ANC, their names synonymous with the liberation struggle. All were all born in what is now the Eastern Cape, along with other politically important figures like Thabo Mbeki and Steve Biko. This alone makes the Eastern Cape a good place to see first hand how the ANC are delivering on their election promises.

You’d think that when the ANC came into power it would tend to favour it’ political heartland for strategic reasons and as reward for the prominent role the people of the Eastern Cape played in the liberation struggle. With reports of scores of children dying unnecessarily and the education system in shambles, I went to the Eastern Cape to see first hand how the ANC are keeping their promises.

But first let’s review the ANC’s promise to the people who put it into power. Their 2009 election manifesto says:

“The Freedom Charter says: Rent and prices shall be lowered; food plentiful and no one shall go hungry.”

“There shall be houses, security and comfort for all!”

“The Freedom Charter commits us to a preventive health scheme run by the state; Free medical care and hospitalisation provided for all, with special care for mothers and young children.”

I’m on my way to Mbotyi which is located in the heartland of the ANC when rain and mist conspire to hide the landmarks and side-roads that should show the way to the small rural village. Four hours behind schedule, it is too late to go on to Mbotyi. Even though I’m a total stranger and arrive unknowingly in the middle of a funeral I am graciously invited to stay the night.

I am welcomed by Tunki, a village elder who works in Queenstown and is home for the weekend to attend the funeral. He directs me to a marquee doing a mediocre job of keeping the rain off mourners’ heads and gives me a chair to sit on. Tunki, a relative of the deceased asks if I am hungry. “What would you like to eat? Chicken, samp and beans or meat?”. I ask for samp and beans, and a large plate is brought to me. As I am eating, children are singing in the background. The melodies are beautiful.

The children’s voices carry to the back of the Marquee and Tunki falls silent for a while. He leans back in his white plastic chair and stares into the rain. “It’s the only time they get a good meal, these children,” he says. “What do you mean?” Tunki explains that the children are permanently hungry and the food mandated by these ceremonies represents the only really good meal these children eat. “They go to school hungry,” he says. “They have to walk more than five kilometres to get to school, sometimes without even a slice of bread in their bellies.”After another thoughtful pause he adds “In the afternoon, even if it’s raining, they have to walk home again.”

Rural Eastern Cape

Preparing the goat heads on the morning after the funeral

As we talk the downpour slows to a fine drizzle. Tunki says “You are safe here, you know. You can go wherever you like.” I thank him, walk out of the marquee and head toward the hut in which the sangomas (traditional healers) are sitting. In the single circular room of the hut is a bed and a wall unit. A square of worn linoleum hides most of the floor, on top of which a few blankets and thin mattresses scattered. The shelves of the wall unit contain a collection of pots, plates and cups.

Rural Eastern Cape

Three sangomas wait for the ceremony to begin

I sit on the floor with my back against the bright blue walls and as my eyes become more accustomed to the dim light I notice that the four women sitting against the opposing wall are nodding and smiling at me. They are all sangomas and one of them motions to my friend, a thwasa (trainee sangoma), to bring me a bowl. In the bowl is an odd assortment of meat of some kind. I ask him in a hushed tone “What is this?”. “It is chicken”, he replies softly. I select a small piece and only when I bite into it do I realize it is the heart of the chicken. I struggle to swallow, but somehow manage. I politely refuse a second piece.

A young child stands in the doorway, eyes downcast. After a short while, one of the women stands up and walks to the wall unit where she unlocks a door at the bottom and removes a loaf of bread. Without asking or saying anything, she hands the bread to the child and sits down again. I realize that this is a common occurrence, and words are not necessary. I am asked to leave the hut as the women need to prepare for the ceremony.

Rural Eastern Cape

Sangomas in their regalia

Exiting the hut I notice a young girl in the distance squatting with her back against another hut. She is urinating. I need to to take a piss too and walk past the edge of the village looking for a suitable location. I notice multiple piles of faeces of human origin.

In the fading light of a sun that seems to be turning its back on the village, I walk to the marquee and sit next to Tunki again. “Are you thirsty, do you want some water to drink?” Tunki holds up a large plastic container of water he brought with him from Queenstown. “Drink this,” he says. “If you drink the water that you get here – the water that comes from the river – you will get cholera…” His voice trails off: “… the water that the children drink”.

We chat late into the night while the spluttering candle tied to the marquee’s main supporting pole smudges sooty patterns on the metal. We talk of history and politics, of cabbages and kings. As the flame of the candle nears the string holding it tight against the metal Tunki peers quizzically at me and asks why I think the ANC government has not kept its promises. Why is there no clean water? Why are there so few good schools, no toilets and no electricity?

All I can do is shrug. There are no answers.

With billions of rand unaccounted for by the Eastern Cape Provincial Government and the misuse and misappropriation of the meagre resources that are available, there is almost no hope of a change in the miserable circumstances any time soon. The Xhosa people are famously patient but obedience through compulsion is not freedom, and they know it. How much longer will they vote for broken dreams and empty promises?

Read more:

Zuma satisfied with service-delivery progress on the Mail & Guardian.

Education – the nadir amid Eastern Cape’s litany of low points on The Daily Maverick.

Mud schools travesty: Eastern Cape mud schools testament to bad governance on Politicsweb.

Rebellion of the poor: South Africa’s service delivery protests by Prof Peter Alexander, South Africa Research Chair in Social Change at the University of Johannesburg.

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