Madiba 90

'The problems we face are huge'

2008-07-17 09:06
<b>Zwelivelile Mandela next to a portrait of his grandfather at the Mvezo open-air museum. (News24)</b>

Zwelivelile Mandela next to a portrait of his grandfather at the Mvezo open-air museum. (News24)

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East London - "People always speak of HIV/Aids as the greatest threat to the continent," Zwelivelile Mandela says. "But for me being here in these rural areas, you'll find that poverty is the greatest threat of them all."

Nelson Mandela's grandson and direct heir would know. He left behind a life of privilege last year to take up the Mandela chieftaincy at his grandfather's birthplace of Mvezo, a tiny village in the Transkei.

A separate 'homeland' during apartheid, the Transkei was integrated into the Eastern Cape Province with the advent of democracy in 1994 as the OR Tambo District. Post-1994, it remains one of the poorest areas in the country.

Rocketing unemployment

The continent's most famous statesman had the humblest of origins as a herd boy in these green hills, dotted with turquoise mud huts, in the 1920s.

Decades later the country has experienced countless changes - but little has changed in the Transkei except for rocketing unemployment levels, HIV/Aids and a steady exodus of people to cities in the hopes of finding work.

The latest statistics from the government puts the rate of literacy at less than half of the region's population of about 1.7 million.

Mvezo itself, part of one of seven local municipalities, is just two hours by car from the bustling city of East London. But the turn off from the N2 that takes one to the village may as well be a portal to the past.

Rural villages

A rutted road winds through villages and community centres. Vehicles must stop as huge herds of cattle make their way along the narrow track.

Zwelivelile's homestead is at the very end of the road, just beyond the Nelson Mandela open air museum overlooking the Mbashe River. The museum is a bamboo structure bearing portraits of Madiba.

It is one of three sites celebrating the area's most famous son, another being at nearby Qunu where Mandela grew up as a boy after his father lost his chieftaincy following a disagreement with a local magistrate.

While Zwelivelile has been at odds with the museum and its board over their use of what he sees as his family's land, the museum has proved to be a source of development in the area.

An average of 46 000 tourists visit the museum annually, and it spends over 40% of its budget on buying local goods and services as well as employing 18 people.

Museum CEO Khwezi kaMpumlwana pointed out that the museum shares its fresh water with the community of Mvezo "at cost to itself although it is not required to do that by law, and has consistently lobbied the municipality to prioritise Mvezo for water and road provision".

No infrastructure

It's badly needed. According to the municipality's website, generally poor infrastructural support for business and industrial development severely undermines investment in the area. Locals have very limited skills, there is no rail infrastructure and the district is the poorest by any measure in the Eastern Cape - itself SA's poorest province.

Yet, it is the very district where Mandela recounts some of his fondest memories in the autobiography A long walk to freedom. His connection has brought some resources to the locals, but service delivery is still sorely lacking according to Zwelivelile.

He blamed local leadership and municipalities for not spending their budgets. "What are they hoping for?" he asked. "Because the next financial year government will simply cut your budget because you are not spending it."

Zwelivelile believes, however, that the area could thrive economically if properly governed. Locals own vast amounts of land that could become agriculturally viable with the right training and input from government. "There should also be some form of free education," he said.

kaMpumlwana agrees. "I am absolutely convinced that there are possibilities for growth; that this region will be one of the net exporters of food and water and that cultural heritage and tourism will be one of the drivers of growth for this area," he said.

"The problems facing us are huge but reversible."

  • Photos: Lauren Clifford-Holmes, News24.

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