Wild Coast mourns man who inspired anti-toll, anti-mine activism


Samson Gampe, who died aged 86 on 5th January 2017, has proved to be one of the biggest obstacles to state-sponsored ambitions to tame the Wild Coast with two related mega development impositions; the Xolobeni Mineral Sands project and the N2 Wild Coast Toll Road, explains John Clarke.

In tribute, the following edited excerpt from John Clarke’s book The Promise of Justice opens a window into uTata Gampe’s remarkable wisdom, oratory and groundedness in the soils of the Amadiba Wild Coast community, explains Clarke.  

Photo: The Shore Break

A hero of the local community

uTata Samson Gampe helped me realise why the N2 Wild Coast Toll Road and the Xolobeni mining venture are so wrong for the Mpondo people.

He was one of the most outstanding heroes of the community mobilisation against the mining project. His homestead is situated close to the point where the new greenfield section of the proposed N2 highway starts. His strength of character was equal in strength to the physical might of his biblical namesake. It was Samson Gampe’s words to Minister Buyelwa Sonjica that brought the temple crashing down, figuratively, on the aspirations of MRC and its partners.

Nonhle Mbuthuma and Samson Gampe live between the Mzamba and Mphahlane rivers in the Amadiba Tribal Administrative Area on the Pondoland Wild Coast of South Africa. The area is collectively identified as the Sigidi community. If the Toll Road goes ahead, Nonhle and Samson will find themselves on either side of a barrier dividing a previously closely-knit rural community in two. This will play havoc with long established patterns of socio-cultural interaction.

Nonhle’s personal testimony has been excellently told through the medium of two films.  In 2009 Don Guy’s 11 minute film Pondo People won for him the SAB Environmentalist of the Year award.     

In the film, Nonhle acknowledges that the intense resistance to the threat of mining by the older people in her community, had prompted her own need to understand the reasons for their resistance. This quest had plunged her into the depths of local, national and indeed global politics – aspects of life she never imagined she would need to fathom when she was a young girl, playing happily with her peers amid the dunes and estuaries of the Wild Coast.

WATCH: Before the Shore Break

Pondo People in turn paved the way for a full-length feature film The Shore Break directed and co-produced by Ryley Grunenwald and Odette Geldenhuys filmed between 2011 and 2013 and released in 2015, which has served to amplify the story on the international circuit, winning several awards at various documentary film festivals. www.theshorebreakmovie.com, With some outstanding cinematography The Shore Break captures his melancholia – his dread at the thought of his ancestral home being taken away from him. There is now a word for it: solastalgia.  Akin to nostalgia it arises when one’s home is taken away, a now well documented ‘form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change, such as mining or climate change. Coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2003, it was formed from a combination of the Latin word solacium (comfort) and the Greek root –algia (pain)’  .

Nonhle Mbuthuma is young, female and educated; Samson Gampe was elderly, male and, by his own admission, ‘unable even to write my own name – but I know better than any young person when the end of the month has arrived, and how to feed my family,’ he told me.

For all his lack of formal education, Mr Gampe could boast of more than sixty years of vocal participation in traditional tribal imbizos. As a proud young Mpondo warrior he had cut his teeth in the resistance to the ‘betterment planning’ scheme of the apartheid government. This led, ultimately, to the Pondo Revolt of 1960, which occurred in the same year as the Sharpeville Massacre.

An avalanche of state forces were mobilised to quell the revolt but Mr Gampe escaped arrest by hiding in the deeply forested gorges. He lived to keep alive an oral history of that saga, so that young Mpondo people like Nonhle could draw wisdom from his traumatic experience when they confront new challenges to their land rights and cherished cultural traditions.

In my role as a social worker attending an imbizo, I had been privileged on more than one occasion to witness the astonished expressions on the faces of senior government officials and politicians when confronted by Mr Gampe’s eloquent orations. He warned them not to trifle with the deeply held attachment of the Mpondos to their ancestral lands. Although unable to read a newspaper, he showed astounding political acumen while articulating a coherent vision for community well-being.

In vain the smartly suited visitors would then try to make the case for why mining should be allowed – as a catalyst for ‘development’ that would provide jobs for young people, like Nonhle. They reasoned that young people nowadays had aspirations that could not be satisfied by Mr Gampe’s traditional rural subsistence lifestyle.

That would be the cue for Nonhle to rise to her feet to scold the officials for their presumption. ‘What makes the Mpondos different from all other South African citizens?’ she would ask. ‘Why do we have to sacrifice our land and our identity in order to get roads, electricity and municipal services?’

Predictably, after such awkward questions the meeting would come to a hasty conclusion. The suited visitors, with furrowed brows betraying their bewilderment and confusion, would seek refuge behind the tinted windows of the convoy of 4x4 vehicles parked nearby, and then drive away as fast as the poor roads would permit. Mr Gampe would proudly mount his Pondo pony and return to his well-maintained rural homestead, waving farewell to Nonhle and the lively Mpondo people. Local participants would disperse on foot, still singing mocking songs about the mining protagonists and opportunistic politicians – songs which, if one could understand the Mpondo dialect, would be their oral equivalent of a clever Zapiro cartoon.

The dune mining controversy had made Samson Gampe something of a film star and he featured in various TV reports (available on my YouTube channel Icosindaba). Without electricity and thus access to national TV, it occurred to me that Mr Gampe had probably never seen the TV reports produced by Don Guy of 50/50, that had kept the nation informed. So Nonhle and I visited Mr Gampe and his proud wife, Maduzemlungu, at their homestead to show them the video footage.

The author and Samson Gampe. Photo: Cheryl Alexander

My logging of a process note in May 2009 records:

"As I loaded the portable DVD player, Mr Gampe remarked, “Hey John, what is this clever gadget you are bringing?”

They watched the screen intently while I filmed their obvious satisfaction and delight. Nonhle then interviewed him, in a free ranging conversation in the local Mpondo dialect. The interview gave me even more insight into what made this remarkable man tick. In conversation with Nonhle, Mr Gampe said, “The only thing I need money for is to buy cooking oil. But I can do without that too.”

Samson Gampe may be cash poor but he is wealthy beyond all conventional economic measures.

After the interview I emerged into the yard where his grandchildren were playing and his wife offered me a bowl of juicy oranges harvested from their orchard. As a guest in the Gampe household I experienced a true sense of a family with a quality of life – “the art of living, and living well” as Aristotle once defined the purpose of economics. Despite his illiteracy and lack of formal education, Samson Gampe epitomised the classic definition of the “art of household management’’ – what Aristotle termed Oikonomía. This is in contrast to the art of money-making or Khrématistiké. What passes for economics today should strictly speaking be labelled ‘chrematistics’, as modern economics bears little resemblance to the true Aristotelian conception of economics.

But the elation I felt after my visit to Mr Gampe’s homestead was short lived. Circumstances conspired to present me with a tragedy and a conundrum that distresses me every time I think about it.

While driving away on the rough roads a very distressed young mother ran up to my car to plead for our help, followed a few paces behind by her brother carrying a baby wrapped in a blanket. Through her tears she pleaded with us to give her a lift back to her homestead, some 15 km away toward the coast. We learned that her child had woken during the night with a high fever. At first light she and her brother had walked the approximately 15 km stretch to the clinic. Alas, the clinic staff had been unable to do much for the child because the clinic did not have the necessary medication. She was turned away with a desperately sick child in her arms. Trying to control her tears she said that the child had died in her arms as she sat dejected on the roadside, yielding its frail life to the onslaught of what should have been, if not a preventable infectious disease, at least one that should have been treatable.

With her brother holding the dead child wrapped in a blanket, for the first time in my life my off-road vehicle, a favourite recreational vehicle among the well-heeled-and-wheeled in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, became a hearse. I drove the grieving family as far as my vehicle would safely permit on the bad roads, back to their homestead, so they could commence the sad process of burying their little baby girl.

Images from the biblical account of the travels of Jesus through the Galilean countryside, healing and ministering to people in similar distress, came to mind. But the best I could do was to pray with them, a prayer that was as much an effort to bolster my own doubtful faith as to console them. In another feeble gesture I gave them each one of the oranges that Mrs Gampe had given me, and (somewhat self-consciously, as one enslaved to chrematistics rather than economics) I gave them also a R100 note that I happened to have on me.

Nonhle and I returned home in confused and angry silence."

Photo: Cheryl Alexander

Mrs Gampe’s oranges

Leaving Nonhle in Port Edward, I drove on to meet my friends, Bishop Geoff and Kate Davies in Durban. I was looking forward to their consolation and pastoral support, to help me process this traumatic experience.

Driving back to Durban I speculated whether the baby would still be alive if the proposed Wild Coast N2 Toll Road, which Geoff had led a hitherto successful civil society campaign to prevent, had become a reality. I do not believe the baby would have survived. I reasoned that it would probably have made the mother’s walk even more difficult, because it has been designed to pass between her home and the clinic, and would be fenced off with a limited number of underpasses along the route.

But, with some of Mrs Gampe’s oranges still in the bulging pockets of my jacket to remind me of the early, joyful events of the day, it didn’t need much speculation to conclude that the construction of the Toll Road would spell the end of the thriving subsistence livelihood enjoyed by Mr Gampe and his family. The preferred route will pass within a stone’s throw of his homestead and almost certainly destroy the freedom, autonomy and wellbeing they presently enjoy. Just another tragic instance of an oikonomía lifestyle (i.e. ‘people coherent with themselves, the community and the environment’) being buried under concrete and tarmac by the chrematistic turn that modern economics has taken. As I reluctantly paid the R17 toll fee at the Port Shepstone ‘troll’ plaza, it occurred to me that the practice of tolling roads illustrates perfectly the ascendency of khrématistiké over oikonomía in modern developed society.

But, I have to concede, the high-speed motorway that commences at the ‘troll’ gate enabled me to complete a journey in one hour that would have taken twice as long before the motorway was constructed. I was in time for my rendezvous with Geoff and Kate, who invited me to join their dinner party. My modest contribution to a sumptuous feast enjoyed in a beautiful home of their friends was to give my kind hostess another of Mrs Gampe’s oranges, in gratitude for her attentive and consoling response when I related the extreme contrasts of my eventful day.

Leaving their home well-fed and comforted, I had one other priority commitment. It was to meet with Kevin, the husband of a couple who have been close friends for over thirty years. His wife Nolene had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and Kevin happened to be in Durban on business, affording me the opportunity to do what true friends do – spend time together.

Kevin was staying in the home of family friends in Kloof. I entered through the elegant wrought iron gates and came upon an imposing old stone and thatch Kwa-Zulu Natal home. Kevin’s hosts were away but he invited me in and we soon settled in the comfort of a beautifully decorated lounge. We talked for ages. Kevin shared with me Nolene’s amazing journey through her operation and chemotherapy. After the stress and confusion of the day I was reminded of the beauty of the human spirit when it is open to Grace.

We walked to the car and as we said our good-byes I realised that I still had one more of Mrs Gampe’s oranges left in the pocket of my jacket.

‘Take this, Kevin. There is a story to be enjoyed when you peel away the skin.’

* In tribute to uTata Samson Gampe, The Shore Break will be screened on Wednesday 11th January at 18:00 at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, 26 Melville Road, Illovo Sandton. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with John Clarke, and Margie Pretorius of Sustaining the Wild Coast. A collection will be taken to assist the Gampe family. RSVP to johngic@iafrica.com.   

* Samson Gampe's funeral will take place in Sigidi village near Bizana on Saturday, 14 January.

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