May 21st – the Homelands

Today I drove from Fort Beaufort to Kokstad, with a detour via Queenstown and Ladygrey and Barkley East. A long drive, some 700 kms, but the detour turned out to be fully justified, by my first views of the Drakensberg. This is South Africa’s central mountain chain, and its highest, with peaks to almost 3500 m.

view of the Drakensberg
the Homelands, with Ciskei in yellow and Transkei in orange

However, starkly contrasting with the beauty of the Drakensberg is the landscape in the Homelands to the south, Ciskei and Transkei, where I also drove through. The Homelands, also called Bantustans, were created by the South African Apartheid regime in the 1950s to establish a sort of quasi-independent territory for Blacks, outside the areas where the White people lived. Well, not so independent that I could not drive in and out without being stopped – for the white person there are no limitations, only blacks need a reason to leave and enter white areas. And there are plenty of reasons, of course, because the total land surface of the Homelands is some 15% of the country, and is supposed to house 75% of the population. Without any local economy to speak off, as the agricultural land is of poor quality, suffering from soil erosion and overgrazing. So most black people find work outside their homelands, in white-owned factories or on sumptuous white-owned farms. However, no work, then you must return to your Homeland, assigned to you by your ethnicity. Which essentially turns the Homelands into a labour reservoir for white South Africa, without the responsibility to look after their workers. Charming.

I had read about this situation, of course, but seeing it is believing. Entering Ciskei, suddenly there were huts built everywhere, along the road, in the fields. Gone was the vastness of the scenery I have been admiring everywhere in this country, gone was the emptiness. Until I left again, back into the wilderness, the views of the Drakensberg.

Transkei is much bigger, and driving through for a couple of hours, allowed me much more time to reflect on what I was seeing. How shall I put it? Where I have been saying so many times, in the last few weeks in South Africa, that I had to adjust to a much more developed image of Africa, here I was back in Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe. Back in the Africa that I had come to appreciate in the years I lived there, but also back in the poverty, back to the basics. Houses here are not decorated anymore, no nice gables, no nice gardens, no flowers. Roads are poorly maintained, full of potholes, and littered with car wrecks, often burnt out, or upside down.

the sad reality of the Homelands, degraded soil and randomly constructed accomodation

Many of the houses are rondavels, round huts, well-constructed and sturdy. Many are close to each other. Cattle and sheep are grazing along the road, and in between the houses. And there are people living here, there is a lot of activity. In one of the towns I see hundreds of people gathering, a colourful sight. The lack of white faces is conspicuous. Of course they don’t stick to the pavement; there is no pavement. It is all a bit chaotic, but it is lively. Unlike in the rest of South Africa, which, come to think of it, is quite sterile compared to this.

After a while I noticed that most of the men I saw were all quite a poor lot, they didn’t look very healthy. The women, on the contrary, looked much stronger, well fed, some quite good looking, and proud. And then I realised that all the healthy, strong men were absent, of course, working in South Africa for white South Africans, to support their families back in the Homelands. No wonder these places are not economically viable, they have never had a chance.

next: last stop is the Drakensberg

cattle being driven across the main road through Transkei
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