Turbulent past, peaceful present

2011-08-04 00:00

WINTER is not the time to see Mpophomeni at its scenic best. The wetlands are almost dry and the usually green hills that surround the sprawling township are yellow with dry grass. But if you travel to the top of the mountain that surrounds the township you will see a gentle beauty.

Small rural houses dot the hillside and towards the epicentre, the houses grow in volume, the plots becoming smaller. If you have been on a township tour in one of the country’s urban centres, you will find that this one has a different vibe.

Frank Mchunu has been at the forefront of the Zulu Mpophomeni Tourism Experience (ZMTE) and has been nurturing it along its developmental phases. The next step is the completion of the Gateway centre at the entrance to the township, which will be a hub for the area, promoting tourism and giving local entrepreneurs a chance to sell arts and crafts.

His mission is to attract more local visitors to the township and to spread the economic benefits of tourism. They have tried hard to mimic successful models elsewhere and they have decided to make use of the wetland and the ecology of the area to attract visitors.

The township was established in the late fifties to provide housing and lodging for the many workers who had jobs at the huge rubber factory based in Howick. Workers who constructed Midmar Dam were also housed in the township.

Our guide, Sihle Zondi, explains that many residents were forcibly removed from the site of Midmar Dam and relocated to Mpophomeni. Mpophomeni gets its name from the sound of the water “po-po-po” gushing over the waterfall.

Mpophomeni has a vibrant political past and it is this heritage that has encouraged the tourism industry. Zondi explains that the South African Rubber Manufacturing Company Limited (Sarmcol) strike in 1985 was the catalyst for seven years of violence in the area.

Workers who went on strike because of long hours and low wages were replaced by scab labour from surrounding villages. This heightened already existing political tension between the different groups and entrenched political allegiances and divisions. In the ensuing seven years many people were killed.

“It was a fight between the UDF and IFP,” says Zondi. “The fighting stopped when a small girl was killed by a police vehicle during a march. She was innocent. People decided that enough lives had been lost and they decided to make peace.”

Today, that small girl is a symbol of reconciliation. The Nokulunga Gumede Wall of Reconciliation is a tourism attraction, with many plaques bearing the names of the people who lost their lives in the fighting.

A Belgian sculptor, who observed the violence on television, sent out a sculpture to commemorate the peace. Mark Jammer’s monstrous red sculpture is a contemporary depiction of violence and horror. He and other Europeans were moved to act on behalf of the trade unionists and they helped to set up the Zenzeleni Community Centre.

This centre was established to help the community create jobs. The ZMTE was one of the ideas born from the Zenzeleni centre as many Europeans had nowhere to stay in the township. Today, there are six bed-and-breakfast establishments in Mpophomeni.

The women at Zenzeleni help run feeding programmes for orphaned children and they also sew school clothes for those children who have none. A legal service helps families apply for grants.

Zondi, an articulate young man who is a product of the local high school, says he has only been able to study a tourism course and an entrepreneurship course, and he dreams of opening a business one day. In Mpophomeni there are no supermarkets. Groceries have to be purchased from spaza shops.

The land on which Mpophomeni is built once belonged to a wealthy farmer called Guy Lund. He resisted the government’s plans to make him sell the property during apartheid and, in the end, he committed suicide and instructed his family to scatter his ashes over the farm.

The original farmhouse on the land was part of the land given to boer trekker Andries Pretorius, who later subdivided the land and sold the farm to Dr William Addison (of Addington Hospital). He later sold the farm to the Lund family. The ZMTE has plans to turn the farmhouse into a museum for visitors.

We visit a local sangoma. Local healers have flags flying above their houses. Some cure with holy water and others use herbal medicines. Sangoma Luthuli sits in a small thatched mud hut at the back of his yard. The hut is thick with the acrid smell of mphepu.

This herb is burnt in order for him to commune with the ancestors. He tells us he received the calling to be a sangoma at the age of 13, so he left his home and went to find a teacher.

On a shelf are many powders, seeds and crushed leaves, all with medicinal purposes. He charges R30 to speak to the ancestors, and then according to the medicine required.

Luthuli says he is not an inyanga. Inyangas have the power to put curses on people and they can use body parts to make powerful medicine. We hear the sound of a baby crying and we look around in horror. He fumbles inside his robes and finds his cellphone: “Yebo,” he says, shaking his beads. The sombre atmosphere is broken.

A traditional lunch break is accompanied by the slam-style poetry of Mpophomeni poet Siyabonga Mpungose. As we eat our pap-and-meat lunch, he demonstrates how vibrant his freestyle poetry is. He is soon to visit Australia to recite some poems, and he is already training 10-year-old protégé Nkosikana Khumalo. Next, we visited the home of the Shembe followers high on the hillside. Their homestead is surrounded by white stones which are meant to ward off evil spirits.

In a neighbouring rural area live a family of Zulu dancers who belong to the Zuma clan. Our guide, Zondi, assures us that they train all the other dancers in the area.

As the sun begins to set, the young dancers emerge, the drums beat and the spirit of Africa rises. Lithe bodies and shrill voices mesmerise the audience.

The cows are herded back to their communal pens, the dogs head home to eat the scraps of food and as the sunset deepens it is time to return home to another world.

• To book a township tour with ZMTE, contact Frank Mchunu or Nokuthula Mkhize at 033 238 0288 or 082 228 2044.

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