Opinionista Richard Raber 25 November 2015

Responses to rural communities are shaped by prejudices

The idea that rural people are not clever or lazy is simply incorrect and damaging. This image represents a bankruptcy of empathy, as well as a lack of insight into the realities of many rural communities.

Richard Raber

Richard Raber is a Canadian-born activist currently based in New York City. Previously the Mail & Guardians Thought Leader platform as well as New Politics and others have featured his work. The authors writing does not necessarily reflect the views of any organisation he is or has been affiliated with, and are also subject to change. Richard can be found on Twitter @RaberRichard. This September, he will become a master's degree candidate at the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation based in Venice, Italy. Other works of his can be found at http://richardraber.blogspot.co.za/

Through my involvement with a coalition of community-based organizations, I have had the fortune to engage communities across rural KwaZulu-Natal. During this time many things have become apparent: There are many communities lacking electricity, yet power-lines can be seen everywhere, presenting a ubiquitous image representative of the continued exclusion of these communities in the new dispensation; there exists a dynamic, organic democratic ethos, expressed by local activists and communities, amidst a formal political atmosphere that is both deaf to this spirit, while caught in philosophical stasis; Present is a hybridity of identities unique to the turbulence of the modern experience.

Underscoring all of the challenges facing rural communities in KwaZulu-Natal is a fundamental lack of exposure, these communities and their concerns are invisible both to South African, and international society; fundamentally, decolonisation and freedom for all begins with the most excluded – rural women and children.

The aforementioned image of grinding rural poverty (lack of running water, electricity, extreme unemployment) alongside an advanced electrical grid, is an aesthetic of very real exclusion. Economic justice has not been achieved for many South Africans including nearly all in KwaZulu-Natal’s rural communities, many of whom belong to the 16.3 million reliant on social grants.

Moreover, many rural people, especially young women, face barriers often incomprehensible in the urban context including ukuthwala (which translates roughly into “pick up and carry”), a previously consensual courting act that in some communities has rapidly mutated into nothing short of abduction, sexual violence and forced marriage of girls as young as 12. In addition to the trauma experienced by these young girls (for which virtually no formal mental health resources exist) they are often expected to drop out of school and bear children, forcing them to stay in these toxic relationships while removing opportunities for economic autonomy.

Contributing to, and often creating, the plethora of social and economic challenges facing these communities is the traditional governance structure and lack of state presence in the rural areas. Most communities reside on land that falls under the purview of Ingonyama Trust; state land in the trust of the Zulu King, administered by traditional councils. Before delving into the ramifications of the Trust, it is important to explain how it came about.

Passed just days before the 1994 election, the Ingonyama Trust Act served two functions. The first of these was that it maintained social cohesion insofar as it was the political currency needed to ensure that the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) participated in the elections. The Trust also served as a deal between the National Party (NP) and IFP, perceived as a reward for the latter’s violent collaboration against the ANC, and a guarantee that the latter’s base would have a safe space, should things have gone sour after the election.

Vital to the Trust is that it ensured the dominance of traditional governance in much of rural KwaZulu-Natal. While mandated by the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act of 2003 to include female representation on councils, this is not necessarily respected in practice. In one community, with nine female councilpersons, seven have given up due to blatant disrespect and exclusion. One of the two remaining female councilpersons explained that when she tries to speak she is told that she will not be listened to because she “crouches to urinate.”

At the meeting where this revelation came out, local women, many of who are illiterate, were unaware that discrimination on the basis of gender is unconstitutional. Gender discrimination is widespread especially in the realm of control over land; almost no traditional councils will designate land to women in their own right. For fear of eviction, women and children often stay in abusive relationships and living situations, at the peril of their emotional well-being and opportunity for social mobility.

As the position of tradition governance has been enshrined on Trust land, concurrently, this has meant a lack of state presence. Ostensibly, the presence of the state appears to be limited to social grants – which are necessary for basic social cohesion and stability, as well as the development of highways and electrical grids – which is necessary for the facilitation of the market. The relationship of the state to the community is important because with exception of the examples listed above (and perhaps a few other mild interventions), with the fall of apartheid, the function of the national state has not changed in former KwaZulu-Natal Bantustans. With this vital power structure unchanged, (aside from the political violence of the 1980’s-90s) this begs the question, how deep could the post-1994 transformation be in these communities?

The state’s absence also makes it easier for capitalist exploitation to be achieved. This is best illuminated by the influx of mining projects in the province. Without a strong state presence it is far easier for mining interests to pass the necessary vetting processes, simply by bribing or influencing corrupt traditional leaders. Moreover, this issue is heightened by the lack of educational opportunities for citizens, who often do not know their rights, that they must be consulted, and that they do have the right to refuse relocation. This has profound effects for urbanites, as it creates the dislocation of rural communities and upheaval that both fuels, and is characterised by the transcendent reach of neoliberalism.

Recognizing the correlations between the challenges faced in rural communities with that elsewhere enables us to learn from, while bringing rural communities into a shared struggle. Evident at workshops hosted by Rural Women’s Movement (RWM) is an ethos of togetherness, acceptance and positivity, fused with a recognition of self and community, as rural women – forged activists, meet to discuss concerns, share information, food and stories. Most impressive is that the act of listening continues even through the most controversial of topics. For instance, recently a roomful of grandmothers, mothers, daughters and a few sons, discussed virginity tests – a controversial and needless to say, personal issue. The community members approached the practice from positions across the spectrum, but those who fundamentally disagreed with each other patiently listened, and discussed with one another their viewpoints. We could all learn something from this. Moreover, in my observations, the term most frequently used at workshops has to be umpakathi, or community, certainly emblematic as to how challenges are approached, and as to how individuals conceptualize of themselves.

The continued emphasis on community, and thus one’s upbringing, is also evident in basic customs. For instance, to begin every workshop community members introduce themselves, giving their name (itself a story) and community. This reflexive location-of-self demonstrates that these rural, often illiterate women, who are actively meeting to better themselves and their communities, recognize an inherent flaw in liberalism. While their attendance and activism signals that individuals are empowered to write their own stories, the location of self, points to the fact that we are not all starting in the same proverbial book. This practice is a tangible melding of the best in liberalism, an emphasis on human agency, with ubuntu.

This community-based ethic also infuses itself into actions communities take against injustice. The best example of this is in eMangweni, where previously ukuthwala had been rife. In August 2015, the community celebrated five and-a-half years without an incident. This change occurred because community members who were fed up with the practice, reached out and engaged their neighbours. Critically, this engagement included the perpetrators, who were not simply ostracised from the community, but in this sense, through engagement, were reintegrated into a stronger public. This was only possible because an issue of gender-based violence was not conceptualised of as simply a women’s issue, but a social issue. The solution, thus, involved not simply women, but men too. All the more incredible given the aforementioned systemic and interpersonal patriarchy.

There is a lot more to learn from eMangweni’s experience, perhaps an exploration of the process would lead to clues as to how a society deems some members as excludable or disposable. This is the case elsewhere as well, including my central Canadian hometown where the Red River has taken on new meaning, as young indigenous women are far too often pulled out, brutalised or murdered.

Underscoring the lessons to be learned from rural communities, are chiefly two imperatives in terms of identity. First, that the challenges of rural communities become visible to the public at large, and not isolated from other mass struggles. Second, that this exposure will challenge all-too pervasive conceptions of rural persons. Paradoxically, rural people (particularly women) are often conceptualised as the gatekeepers of tradition or the authentic, yet also pathologised as simple, uneducated, illiterate and lazy.

The static conception of rural society, while ostensibly positive or well-intentioned, presents an image that is damaging to the agency of rural people. It does not accurately reflect reality. Cell phones are ubiquitous, and through processes including mineral exploitation and migrant labour, rural communities do not simply stand outside of the modern global economy. Further, this image gives credence to proponents of distorted cultural practices (such as ukuthwala) that either do not reflect historical practices, or have not transformed traditions in a way that maintains and respects core values, while negotiating modern realities. Ideally, proponents of this conception of stasis would peel back their layer of analysis, and call for change to the structural inertia that is Ingonyama Trust.

For perhaps more obvious reasons, the idea that rural people are stupid or lazy is simply incorrect and damaging. This image represents a bankruptcy of empathy as well as a lack of insight into the realities of many rural communities. The detrimental effects of widespread malnutrition can prevent individuals from reaching their potential, and thus perhaps from a distance, negative perceptions of the work ethic of rural persons can be created.

Truly unfortunate about both perceived identities of rural people is that neither involves actually engaging rural communities, but rather is based in perceptions generated from afar. In this regard, the rest of society is missing out, as South Africa is urbanising and (like any other society) continuing to reinvent itself, this is an opportunity to see how some of the most excluded negotiate this continuous transformation.

Operating from an ethic embodied by the last must be the first, it is time to take an honest interest in rural KwaZulu-Natal, and to make these communities visible, while linking their challenges to mass movements. Moreover, it is a perfect opportunity for all to learn from a different set of experiences while fighting negative, frankly simplistic, conceptions of rural society. DM



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