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FW de Klerk. Picture: Mike Hutchings/Reuters
FW de Klerk. Picture: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Almost three decades after the official end of apartheid, thousands of South Africans still make the same arduous journey apartheid forced on them from the former homeland of KwaNdebele to Pretoria and back. They do so to work, seek jobs, buy and trade goods.

It’s a journey that was documented by American journalist Joseph Lelyveld in Move Your Shadow; South Africa, Black and White, and by documentary photographer David Goldblatt. Lelyveld and Goldblatt rode a Putco bus that left KwaNdebele at 2.45am to arrive at Marabastad outside the Pretoria CBD three hours later.

Putco buses still ply the same route. The journey has become synonymous with Moloto Road, dubbed the road of death because of the many fatal  vehicle accidents over the years.

Moloto is not an exception. SA is full of areas apartheid condemned to the periphery of economic activity and opportunities. And post-apartheid governments have done little, if anything, to reverse this, leaving millions of South Africans to do the best they can in the circumstances.

Successive post-apartheid governments have for almost three decades been discussing how best to ease the burden of South Africans who live on Gauteng’s periphery and are forced by socioeconomic circumstances to travel into the country’s economic hub to eke out a living.

And the residents of the former homeland aren’t waiting for government. They are finding ways to make the best of their circumstances by, among other things, doing what the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO), has described as attempts “to survive and pursue their aspirations” and build “dynamic local economies from below”.

A recent report by the GCRO documents how discussions on what to do have stalled because of the differences within the government on what the most effective approach to the development of the periphery would be. The GCRO is a partnership between the University of Johannesburg,  University of the Witwatersrand, the Gauteng government and the SA Local Government Association.

“Differences of opinion and policy approach — which pivot on whether it would be better to facilitate the continued, but safer, mobility of peripherally located commuters through massive rail development, or to encourage population relocation to Gauteng’s core — have meant that development efforts have so far remained largely uncoordinated. In turn, the gains that a negotiated process around a broadly common agenda could potentially yield have remained constrained,” says the GCRO.

While successive governments have been debating what to do with people living in the former KwaNdebele territories, the people living there have to continue with their lives the best way they can.

The GCRO report says there’s “social and economic development” already under way, driven by the residents. This is happening within the same spaces the government has designated as the constituent parts of the Moloto Development Corridor.

The GCRO describes the approach of the proponents of the rail development as “a modernist vision of an insulated transport tube providing faster and more efficient movement” of people between the former KwaNdebele areas and the metropolitan core were the shops and jobs are.

On the other hand, the opponents of the rail development would rather go for “mass relocation” of people in the former KwaNdebele homeland areas to a new metropolitan location. This, explains the GCRO, would result in the barriers of the apartheid past finally giving way “to planned settlements that can absorb many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of previously frustrated urban opportunity seekers”.

“Both positions are unified in seeing ‘the periphery’ as only a site of ongoing dislocation and despair. As such, both are blind to the existing agency of city-sized populations already making their lives and livelihoods in the liminal locations of former KwaNdebele that they currently occupy.”

The GCRO calls for a different developmental approach, one that takes into account how the residents of the former KwaNdebele homeland have dealt with the hand apartheid history dealt them.

It notes that even though people living in the former KwaNdebele homeland are relatively poor, they have “some sources of income as well as notable signs of entrepreneurial activity”. These sources — which the GCRO describes as not insignificant — include social payments and informal trade.

“These income streams represent facets of an incipient urbanism that may be strong enough on its own terms to support local economic growth, which could be fostered by appropriate investments in the areas earmarked for the development of the Moloto Corridor.”

It ain’t gonna happen any time soon though, because to successive ANC governments development corridors are an empty slogan. And for millions of South Africans the long, arduous journey to where economic opportunities are continues.

• Sikhakhane, a former spokesman for the finance minister, National Treasury and Reserve Bank, is editor of The Conversation Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

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