A township reborn

2009-12-04 00:00

I LAST visited Mpophomeni in early September. The plane trees lining Nelson Mandela Road, which takes you into the township from the R617, were stark and leafless against a wintry blue sky, although I was mainly concentrating on the road surface, negotiating the potholes that spattered the tarmac like bomb craters.

The same journey last week was a transformation. The road has been tarred, speed humps are being zebra-striped, and the trees stood guard of honour in bright- green spring uniforms.

“It’s good that you came today,” says Frank Mchunu, manager of Zulu Mpophomeni Tourism Enterprise (ZMTE). “You came at the right time.” And he wasn’t referring to the refurbished road or the season. ZMTE has just had some good news. Not only has it received a coveted Imvelo Award from the Federated Hospitality Association of South Africa (Fedhasa), it has heard that R5 million has been allocated by the provincial government for the construction of the Mpophomeni Gateway Information and Craft Centre.

The Fedhasa award — “we were nominated by a tourist” — saw them the winner in the Best Practice — Economic Impact (Independent) category of the Fedhasa Imvelo Responsible Tourism Awards.

ZMTE offers visitors an opportunity to experience Zulu culture in a township context. Mchunu says the seeds of ZMTE were sown in the nineties by the Reverend Dan le Cordeur. “It was his vision,” he says.

While Le Cordeur acknowledges a role, he says he worked from a distance. “We wanted to get the community to own and run the project. Frank says it was my vision, but I would simply take their vision, give some flesh to it and back off.”

In 1996, Le Cordeur recalls setting up a computer centre in Mpophomeni. Trainers were required to teach people how to use the computers. Where would these trainers stay?

In bed and breakfasts. But there weren’t any in the township. So it was decided to start from scratch. Local women interested in the project were given hospitality training by Gion Polterra of the Fern Hill Hotel. Today there are 13 homes offering bed-and-breakfast accommodation in Mpophomeni.

At the time, Mchunu, a lay minister in the Anglican Church — which is how he and Le Cordeur met — was working as a salesperson in Pietermaritzburg but wanting to become more involved in community work, plus he was trained in marketing management. “My main aim was to mobilise the community and get women to run the bed and breakfasts,” he says.

Gradually, the project expanded and Mchunu got on board as a full-time employee. “We wanted tourists to have more of an experience of the township, more than just staying overnight. Now they can experience traditional healers. They visit a sangoma and a herbalist, an inyanga. They can visit a shebeen and get the local vibe and sample traditional food. They can also visit the Shembe church and hear about African rituals.”

Other income-generating projects have been created such as the community vegetable gardens adjacent to Nelson Mandela Road. “We encourage the B&B owners and other caterers to buy from them, especially as they are producing organic vegetables.”

This interaction illustrates how ZMTE sees tourism taking place within a larger, more holistic context. As well as nurturing community gardens, they are piloting a community-driven wetland conservation project. “The vision is to establish a conservation project in the wetland that will contribute to wetland and water conservation,” says Mchunu. “This will help create an environmentally aware community that is better equipped to use local resources to improve standards of living and generate income.”

ZMTE hopes to promote the conservation of the Mpophomeni wetland as an integral part of their ecotourism initiatives, highlighting the importance of community-based environmental man­age­ment in general, and of wetlands as critically important conservation areas in particular, especially since the wetland lies in the headlands of the strategically important uMngeni Basin.

The slow but sure success of ZMTE — which now has a staff of five — has placed the once-neglected township of Mpophomeni firmly on the tourism map, attracting increasing numbers of local and international tourists.

Mpophomeni was founded in 1972 when black people were forcibly settled there during the apartheid era. The white-owned farm Montrose was expropiated for the purpose. The owner, Guy Lund, was so upset at having to leave the home he loved that he committed suicide. His ashes were scattered over the land.

“People here believe he remains with them in spirit,” says Mchunu. “They believe he’s still with us. The older people remember him as a very kind and friendly person — he would help people to get married, help with lobola.”

There are plans to restore the farmhouse which currently houses the Mpophomeni municipal offices, while another section contains a ZMTE office and a display on the history of the farmhouse, as well as items featuring the Sarmcol strike of the eighties — the majority of the workers lived in Mpophomeni. There is also a picture of five-year-old Nokulunga Gumede who was run over by a Casspir on March 21, 1991. She has given her name to a Wall of Reconciliation commemorating the 120 people who died in the political violence of the early nineties.

It is this rich history that ZMTE brings to the attention of visitors, cleverly capitalising on the township’s location just off the R617, the main tourism route to the southern Drakensberg. “At Easter, or when there’s snow, and in the summer, people come to the berg,” says Mchunu.

“During the festive season, fewer people are going to the beaches these days, they like the mountains. From December 16 we will get a lot of traffic.”

The new Gateway Information and Craft Centre will be situated on the turn-off from the R617 overlooking the rehabilitated wetland. “This has been championed by the department of Local Government and Traditional Affairs as part of the eThekwini-Msunduzi-uMngeni corridor development,” says Sanele Ngubane, uMngeni municipality’s tourism manager. “We put in an application for funding and this was one of the projects approved.”

Mchunu is determined the centre will not be “another cultural village” but will give visitors a taste of the township even if they just drop in for a cup of coffee. It is hoped that work will begin on the centre in January and that it will be completed in time for the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

According to Le Cordeur, there were earlier offers to build a centre but the time wasn’t right. “There were no local crafters then to take ownership. The local community needs to own it and it takes five to 10 years to train up crafters. You don’t build a centre and then train crafters. Now the people building the centre will be the community and the crafters themselves. If the people own it, the centre will be the crowning glory of the project.”


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