Culture and wealth

2010-05-12 00:00

DUMA Pewa’s article in the Weekend Witness of May 1, suggesting a constitution based on African values, refers.

I often holiday on the Wild Coast, a rural area where African culture prevails, and I have observed the advantages and disadvantages of this culture.

In Nguni society (that in the Transkei), the community is the fundamental unit whereas in Western society the unit is the individual. Nguni religion is also fundamentally different and may be described as one of family spirit worship, i.e. the spirits of their ancestors are important in their lives and cattle form a link between the living and the spirit world (which inhabit the same spaces).

In the Transkei, the local people own the land communally. This means that they — and their holidaying guests on the Wild Coast — have complete freedom of movement. There are no fences and one may walk wherever one wishes. Residents thus have a real sense of owning the whole country.

Nguni communal culture is an ideal system for survival at a subsistence level. The advantages are that everybody survives, everybody has a role, and no one falls through the cracks. Everyone has a sense of belonging and nobody feels alienated.

In the past, other than the death sentence for “witchcraft” (perhaps a form of taxation of people who became too powerful) individuals were never punished. There were no jails, for example, in traditional Nguni communities. When a crime was committed — rape, for instance — the chief would oblige the perpetrator’s clan to compensate the victim’s clan with sufficient cattle to obviate the need for private revenge.

The big disadvantage of the communal system is that the people remain materially poor. Although, historically, Nguni society was stable, it was stagnant. The system suppressed individual enterprise, so there was little technological or other development, and the society remained poor and technologically backward.

Much thought has been given to ways of ameliorating poverty on the Wild Coast. The area has tremendous tourist potential and many see realisation of this potential as a way of increasing the wealth of the local communities.

Historically, local white traders realised some of the potential by building rustic cottages to rent to holidaymakers and many of these establishments grew into hotels. In the apartheid era, their white owners were obliged to sell to the Transkei Development Corporation (TDC), which, in turn, sold to black people. Within a short period the hotels almost all collapsed and the TDC was obliged to repossess them to preserve their capital. After 1994, when the Transkei was reincorporated into South Africa, many were resold to white entrepreneurs and are now thriving again.

A similar thing happened with trading stores. Throughout the Transkei, white traders established stores for two-way trade with the local residents, many stores dating back to the 19th century. Under­ the apartheid policy, the white owners were obliged to sell to the TDC, which then sold to black people­. Again, many of the stores collapsed within a short period­ and now exist only as ruins, despite the fact that the Nationalist government was very anxious that its policy should succeed, and thus provided extensive training for aspirant black traders.

Port St Johns once existed as a white enclave within the communal territory of Pondoland. Productive farms on either side of the Mzimvubu River sent produce by boat, down the river, to a farmers’ market in town and surpluses were shipped out by sea or road to East London and Durban. With the establishment of the Republic of Transkei, Port St Johns was incorporated into this territory and whites were obliged to sell their properties to blacks. Very shortly the farms all collapsed into ruins; the farmers’ market no longer exists and Port St Johns now relies on imported food.

A number of tourism business ventures, mostly bankrolled by the European Union, were established to enable the local populations to benefit from the tourism potential of the Wild Coast. Millions of rands have been spent, yet almost all the ventures have failed.

What can we make of all this? Why have these ventures failed?

It appears that a rural “community”, where most of the members are unskilled, is not a suitable organisation for the running of a business. Who will be the boss and on what basis? Who will take responsibility? Who will do what work? Who will get the rewards? With these questions unresolved, community-based businesses, be they farms or whatever, invariably fail. Many community-based enterprises ultimately collapse in a morass of rivalries and jealousies arising from a lack of trust between individuals, between the government and the community, and a lack of transparency and enforceable accountability.

I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible for a traditional rural community, as such, to manage a business enterprise. This leaves me with the uncomfortable thought that it may be their very culture that keeps many rural Africans poor.

This should be considered before we take up Pewa’s suggestion of a constitution based on African values. I would welcome alternative views.


• Clive Dennison is an emeritus professor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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