I am writing this on a tablet in complete darkness, the only sound being the howling south-westerly winds that deliver the characteristic winter chill to the evening. Other than the wind, the croaking of the frogs in the river valley below is the only other noise. In the morning, the sun will rise over the Indian ocean, revealing the beauty of the land.
But those lush green forests and golden rolling hills are just about the only great things you'll find in Mpondoland; and indeed in many parts of rural SA.
Of course, most of the people here have plenty of time to soak up the sun. That’s because there’s not really much to do. There’s certainly no industry and not much opportunity to participate in the economy.
Yet until about 20 years ago, those same hills and valleys were their own livelihood. They were a hive of activity, with peasant farmers producing food for the nation.
Today, it’s a different story. The children of the area get on with their daily routine of a long walk to a poorly resourced school to get some education.
The parents can only hope these children will stay and complete their schooling years. If so, they get to attend the nearest nursing college or teacher training college, so they can be employed for life in the civil service. (Many matriculants won’t even be that lucky.)
After they complete their studies, they’ll escape from the village at the earliest opportunity. They will flood the towns and cities looking for whatever opportunity they can get.
But in the minds of their parents, however, this education would enable their offspring to be first in the jobs queue when the SA Police Service or the SA National Defence Force next call for recruits.
These will be the lucky ones.
Statistics SA tells us that only about 50% of children who start school are able to stick out the twelve years to get a matric. Even then, only half of the matriculants pass with a good-enough mark to get into a tertiary education institution.
For the rest, adult life will be a long struggle for menial jobs. Their male parents at least used to have the mining industry as a reliable provider of income.
But things have changed over the past 30 years.
For one thing, the practice of mining companies finding cheap labour in rural areas dwindled. Indeed, as Alan Paton put it in Cry, the Beloved Country: “What is it worth, this mining industry? And why should it be kept alive, if it is only our poverty that keeps it alive?”
It got worse as commodity prices tumbled thanks to weak global demand, shrinking what was left of the mining industry. That meant those redundant mineworkers came back home, and poverty became as permanent a feature of rural SA as the hills themselves.
But it needn’t be like this.
The land has been lying fallow since SA’s democratic government began paying out pitiful amounts of cash to pensioners and other indigent groups.
Those grant recipients are now double the taxpayer base from which they derive their income. This can’t be sustained for much longer.
Rather, it is possible to fashion a new economy out of the labour and land that lies unused. Instead of grocery handouts by politicians, tractors and seeds would offer not only longer-term relief from hunger pangs, they would also provide work and business opportunities.
Coupled with title deeds, this sort of solution could create a new class of taxpaying farmers.
It was government that systematically killed off agricultural activity in rural areas when it forced the peasants (through unfair taxes) to abandon their land to become cheap mining labour. Now government can facilitate a return to the land.
It is time to reinvent ourselves. If rural SA provided the labour to fuel the country’s industrial economy in which it had no stake, imagine what it could do to an agricultural economy that it owns. Never has a country been so poor that could have been so rich.