All set about with fever trees

2012-12-03 00:00

GHOST country. The N2 takes you through it as you drive north to Mkuze, where you will find the head offices of the uMkhanyakude District Municipality. uMkhanyakude is the Zulu name for the yellow-green trunked, faintly luminous fever trees endemic to the area. uMkhanyakude means “seen from afar”. German missionaries called the trees ghost trees — geist baum.

I was driving further on to Ndumo, just short of the Mozambique border. The same day The Witness had run a story about Ndumo being earmarked for development into a town. I happened to be in Hlabisa on another story and was sent to have a look.

Turning off the N2 towards the Lebombo Mountains and leaving ghost country behind, you drive up the side of the mountain range on a road you didn’t think could exist, carved into the cliffs. Cresting the ridge and heading for Jozini, there are tantalising glimpses of the vast Jozini Dam, a mini Mediterranean under a blue sky, popular for its tiger fishing.

It’s another 50 kilometres from Jozini to Ndumo. One minute the road surface is smooth and new, the next you’re playing Pacman with potholes waiting to swallow you up. Not a road to drive at night.

The closer you get to Ndumo, the tar — pocked or otherwise — gives way to dirt. Ahead the horizon flattens out, north to Mozambique, west to Kosi Bay. Ndumo is the last stop where visitors to either destination — or to the Ndumo Game Reserve that hangs from the borderline — can stock up with food or petrol.

Although it merits a dot on the map, Ndumo, located in Ward 16 of Jozini Municipality, is not much more than a collection of shops — Pep stores, a Spar, a branch of Ithala bank, a post office and a bottle store — laagered around an Engen garage. Skeletal wooden market stalls line the dirt road leading to the centre, which is surrounded by a wire fence that can be locked and gated at night.

A few other crude slabs of buildings scatter the bare earth outside the fenced perimeter, but the real Ndumo is to be found in the surrounding waves of low-lying hills and bush. Drive the dirt roads fanning out from the shopping centre and it soon becomes clear that this is a densely populated rural area.

“You saw the roads coming here; they are all gravel,” says Aaron Thusi, the bottle store owner. “It’s a poor area that’s looking forward to development.”

Which explains why Thusi was excited to see the story on the front page of The Witness that I had brought with me, reporting that development was on its way. The story featured the official handover of Census 2011 to KwaZulu-Natal Premier Zweli Mkhize. A key element of the story had Mkhize outlining the development of a new town at Ndumo.

The uMkhanyakude district was the surprise story of the census, says statistician-general Pali Lehohla. Less than 40% of the area has electricity, but it also has a very young population, with the highest number of school attendees in the province, and the area has grown by over 15% since the last census in 2001.

Mkhize said uMkhanyakude had huge development potential and that the KZN government was developing a town there — the Ndumo of the future.

The proposed new town began life as the Ndumo Learner Support Centre Programme, a modest-sounding affair, first mentioned in the premier’s State of the Province address in 2010, when he announced the planning and construction of the Ndumo School of Excellence. “It is an integrated, multi-purpose and multisectoral project of the government that will address the needs and revitalise the Ndumo area while contributing to the rural development strategy, improve quality of education, provide secure and high-quality teaching for orphans, disabled and many vulnerable children.”

At the census handover, Mkhize said the project was part of the provincial government’s small town development programme to stem the tide of rapid urbanisation.

Things were slow to get off the ground, but Education MEC Senzo Mchunu inspected the site in September and November last year to assess the needs of those in Ndumo.

The Education Department was appointed the lead department in charge of co-ordinating all the other departments involved in the project, which include the Health, Arts and Culture, Sports and Recreation, Agriculture, Roads and Transport, Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Human Settlements, and Economic Development and Tourism departments.

Judy Dlamini, deputy director general education: institutional development support, has been appointed project leader and co-ordinator, while the Public Works Department is the implementing agent monitoring tendering, contracting and construction. Meanwhile, Treasury is busy on a funding model which, following input from all the sector departments, will finance the budget currently projected at over R400 million

Now matters have sped up and there are two meetings held each month to assess progress, says Dlamini. A programme-steering committee, consisting of representatives of all the departments involved, meets on a monthly basis and is preceded a week before by a stakeholders meeting held at Ndumo involving community members, department officials, the local tribal authority, traditional councils and the Jozini Municipality.

Two existing schools, Mthante Commercial and Technical School and Ndumo Secondary School, will be “collapsed” into the “school of excellence”. “It will be a fully fledged technical high school offering all the subjects,” says Dlamini, “plus a boarding establishment for 200 pupils drawn from the surrounding area. The designs for this are finished and it’s state-of-the-art, not just a huge block, but homes. More like a campus.”

Three other schools in the area will be upgraded and provided with facilities they are currently without, such as computer rooms and media centres. “We are bringing quality into Ndumo,” says Dlamini.

Other projects forming part of the Ndumo Programme include food gardens and commercial agricultural projects, clinic upgrades, the upgrading of existing roads and the Ndumo airfield, as well as a new road and bridge across the Pongola to link Ndumo to the east, a library, 1 000 low-cost housing units, cluster homes for orphaned and vulnerable children, a number of tourism-related projects and various water-supply projects.

“There is a high level of commitment from all the departments involved,” says Dlamini. “All departments have submitted commitment letters and their list of project types. Ninety percent of the departments have committed to funding and the money is ring-fenced.”

“People need to see tangible delivery,” says Dlamini, but she is emphatic that the people of Ndumo will not have anything they don’t want imposed on them. “Projects must be in line with the needs of the community. They must be what people really require — it’s all about sustainability.”

Hopes are high at Ndumo. “This project means a lot. We are very happy about it,” says Zuma Malwane, a Ward 16 committee member involved in the monthly project meetings. “This is a poor area and it will mean more job opportunities. It also means that those from the area who graduate from university with degrees or diplomas will come back and find work here. It will stop people going to the cities.”

Construction in the area is expected to begin early in 2013 and, according to Malwane, be completed by the end of 2014. I ask him what I will see when I come back to Ndumo in 2015. “Lots of nice buildings,” he says.

Leaving my copy of The Witness with Thusi and Malwane, I start the long drive back to Pietermaritzburg. Not far from Ndumo, I stop on a bridge to take a photograph of a river. A car coming from Ndumo stops next to me and the driver winds down a window. He had read the newspaper I had left behind. “Hawu! This is going to make our little town another PMB!” Bright future beckoning, he drove off before I could ask his name.


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