It was January 2000. Heavy rains in the north-eastern parts of KwaZulu-Natal were causing mayhem for rural communities and across the border in neighbouring Mozambique where search and rescue teams from the South African National Defence Force were in full force.
Apart from the impact on the environment and livelihoods of these heavy rains in this relatively poor part of southern Africa, health problems loomed large. Because of the subtropical climate and topographic features (vast flat lands), the region is a malaria hotspot.
Commercial farmers and development agencies call this place Makhathini Flats. Locals call it Mhlabuyalingana (the land is level, owing to vast flat lands and indigenous trees of same height). Besides lush bushes, predators, swamps and sand dunes, only the colonial border and inconsequential language varieties separate communities between Mhlabuyalingana and Mozambique.
I spent two weeks in this place doing research on behalf of Monsanto. The research firm I worked for had thought we would be able to collect data on farming practices in the fertile region which Monsanto needed in order to expand its business in the area: Monsanto was convincing local smallholder farmers to adopt its genetically modified seeds for maze and cotton, arguing that the people of Makhathini Flats needed more cash crops such as cotton in order to increase their yields and therefore reduce poverty.
I had a team of fieldworkers who criss-crossed villages from Pongola Dam, Obonjeni and Kwangwanase, collecting data on farming practices and preferences. Our assignment was on a tight budget and schedule so we had to defy the swamps and mud and ignore malaria sufferers in order to get data and get out of that unfamiliar territory as soon as possible.
We were too young to comprehend the political economy of the area and the ultimate negative net effect of application of the data we were collecting. But we had work and could explore various parts of the country as researchers.
Three things fascinated our curious minds, all of them being inseparable parts of South Africa’s heritage.
- Locals told us how cars stolen in South Africa made free passage through this area next to Ndumo Game Reserve into Mozambique.
- We woke up at midnight to peep through the windows hoping to see tokoloshes (zombies) and baboons associated with witchcraft. After all, Mhlabuyalingana is renowned for great izinyanga (healers) and abathakathi (witches). We were enthralled by the prospect of witnessing the legendary tokoloshe. Alas!
- It was our real first encounter with isithembu (polygamy) at close range.
It is the last two that I am recalling here.
Mr Dlakadla (real identity protected), in whose homestead we lodged, was 39 years old. He had six wives. The youngest was a niece of the first. The story was that his in-laws arranged this marriage as part of thanking him for being such a good son-in-law. He had 19 children and was expecting his 20th whose birth would coincide with his 40th birthday, so he claimed. He seemed tantalised by this tale.
In the hours we spent in the Dlakadla homestead and the neighbourhood, we learnt of legendary stories of polygamy and witchcraft.
Most of the high school girls we interacted with told us, like their older sisters, aunts and mothers, that they expected to transit to motherhood in their early 20s. Tertiary education did not feature much in their aspirations.
In a focus group interview one could not help but frown at the general nod when one answered, “Farming is important to me but I always pray that when they pay lobola for me, I must be the first one otherwise if he already has other women, they must accept me and love me like their younger sister. I hope that they don’t cast some evil spell on me so I have bad luck and struggle to have children “[tone might have changed after 15 years since that interview].
How could it be, I asked myself. How can a matriculant in Mandela’s South Africa be preoccupied with marriage and coexistence with senior wives? I had known of polygamy from my Inanda neighbourhood which is dominated by multitudes of polygamous Shembe congregants. But in my pedestrian mind, it never occurred that such could be the existential preoccupation of young school-going girls.
In fact I know it was not. After all, we grew up together and none of this ever arose in my community.
Observing my palpable bewilderment, Dlakadla’s teenage daughter simply laughed at me. She had a beautiful yet cheeky smile. She didn’t say much in the focus groups. Word had it that she was a bookworm and her father demanded that she read stories to her siblings. That too sent me into some grey zone. Too many story-lines that didn’t immediately connect.
Leap to heritage month of September 2016.
As fate would have it, flying to Cape Town last week, I sat next to a suited lady on the national carrier. After a minor confusion about who was to sit where, we settled. The ice was broken by this confusion and so a conversation would follow, starting with common disgust at the national carrier’s decision to serve kiddies-like snacks instead of hot meals without altering the ticket price.
Save the inconsequential details. She told me she came from Mhlabuyalingana and worked as a banking lawyer in a big firm in Sandton. I knew she was from KwaZulu-Natal as she had given me her clan name instead of surname. I have lived in Joburg long enough to know not to expect such from a Sowetan, for example. In Jozi you can date for four months without knowing your partner’s surname. It is part of the heritage of the migrant labour system.
Like those colonial and apartheid-era self-affirming Eurocentric anthropologists, I would then claim my vast knowledge of Mhlabuyalingana, regaling her with memories of my half a month adventure in the area. I volunteered the name of the hardworking smallholder who tilled his corn and cotton fields all day and tended his livestock in between. Mr Dlakadla was a great guy, I concluded, wondering what became of him and Monsanto’s dangerous escapades.
She smiled, exclaiming, “Are you that researcher guy from Durban who was scared of mosquitoes; the guy who was questioning my father about the logic of farming cotton where there were other profitable crops…?”
Damn, it’s a small world!
She turned out to be the bookworm who read to her siblings. She and a few of the girls from that interview passed matric and got government loans to study at university. She is now a proud lawyer in Sandton. She is still single, she said gently. “I have overstayed my welcome in the age of singletons according to my community’s standard,” she continued.
How could that be, I pondered. She is a maritime lawyer doing some complicated stuff in a milieu dominated by males. How did she survive law school without getting noticed, asked my naïve self.
Back at Mhlabuyalingana, she said, Mr Dlakadla was still going strong, tilling the land and raising his children with five of his wives. One had died from severe blood loss a few years ago. She was attacked by a predator that had escaped from Ndumo Game Reserve. It is not clear which animal attacked her as she was collecting grass for the grassmats she and the other older wives weaved. Like at St Lucia (now Isimangaliso Park), some in the community remain apprehensive about the parks as they view them as one-sided national heritage benefiting those who own or work there.
Since the community protest which saw many animals being purposefully killed to make a point about safety, authorities here have improved the fence to prevent the escape of wild animals. And so it has become rare for humans to be attacked by predators. Often when wild animals escape they attack livestock.
Her death was really tragic in many ways. She was like a master in the weaving of crafts much loved by the tourists who pass through the area to destinations like Kosi Bay for scuba diving. Their grass mats and other handmade crafts were sold by some of Dlakadla’s senior wives while the junior ones tended the fields with him.
Curiously, I asked about those hot subjects of polygamy and umuthi. She didn’t say much about the latter save for joking that she could send lightning to burn my house if I told a lie or robbed her. About polygamy, she believes the matter is not well understood in South Africa especially by the urban people and those educated to believe in western modernity which promotes Judeo-Christian culture, which abhors cultural practices such as polygamy. She asked why it is not an issue in Muslim communities where it is also practiced.
This was a fascinating discussion as it defied the very influence of urbanism and education that she was talking about. She spoke proudly of her heritage, her many siblings and mothers who loved them and encouraged them as children. She told of her loving father who treated everybody equally and wanted his children to go to school. Everything defied the stereotype.
Unfortunately, two hours was not enough for this conversation. With the help of social media, it shall surely be continued.
For some this is not a typical South African story. It is an oddity occurring in the margins of patriarchy. Whereas for others there is nothing new really.
As we observed heritage day, or King Shaka Day as my companion insisted on calling it, we may have been reminded of the need to be tolerant and understanding, to recommit to the project of building a culturally diverse but united South Africa.
We should set aside our prejudices and engage in conversations that promote nation-building instead of disunity – which often results from judging and looking down upon people’s cultural backgrounds.
Like the mighty Nile River, South Africa is made up of many tributaries giving life to our heritage, meaning to the present and the path a future.
And yes, next time you meet someone, ask him/her what his/her surname is. That might score you a point or two, while averting possible incest! DM
Ngcaweni is co-editor of the forthcoming book Nelson Mandela: Decolonial Ethics of Liberation and Servant Leadership (Africa World Press).
The name Dlakadla is used to protect the real identities of the family.