Opinionista Sabelo Ndlovu 16 September 2020

Covid-19 and the youth of Madundube – a microcosm of rural South Africa

My home village of Madundube has two things in abundance: Land that is subject to a poorly defined communal property regime and an assembly-line-like supply of minimally educated youth. The youth are similarly rich in two resources: Time and unrealised productivity. Let’s put the two together.

The rural hamlet of Madundube lies about 40km south-west of the Durban CBD along a pothole-riddled dirt track off the Griffiths Mxenge Highway.

Despite being the childhood home and final resting place of founding African National Congress Youth League president Anton Lembede; despite being situated along a thoroughfare connecting the rural hub of Umbumbulu to metropolitan Durban via South Africa’s second-largest township, Umlazi, Madundube is woefully underdeveloped. The town is plagued by frequent and protracted but off-schedule power outages (sometimes lasting days at a time), subpar infrastructure even by rural standards, and unemployment. With a population that is 100% black, crippling systemic poverty, limited titled land ownership, gendered division of labour and inequality, the town is a homage to apartheid South Africa and a Struggle veteran’s fever dream.

How bad can it be, you ask? Here’s a short story to illustrate: some years back, a modest but key bridge at the navel of the town collapsed when an overfull river washed away the compacted dirt pavement, leaving the boulders in the foundation exposed. Consequently, the bus line servicing the community was interrupted: the site of the bridge became the new terminus. Families who lived east were returned to the pre-constitutional reality of walking as far as 10km the rest of the way to their homes, sometimes bearing like donkeys heavy loads of their monthly bulk groceries.

Weeks elapsed. Local authorities failed to act. Not until a handful of local youth took the initiative was relief had. Four young men gathered stones from along the length of the riverbed and wheelbarrowed soil from the surrounds, filling the gaps in the bridge’s foundations so that the road could again be used. In lieu of finding a sustainable way to invest in the quartet, the local councillor rewarded them with a braai of beef and booze.

This is my community. But make no mistake, I’m a privileged member thereof. How so? I got out.

Nowadays, my knowledge of the community is mostly mediated through my parents’ and childhood friends’ experiences. My occasional visits, too, offer some insights. I jumped at the opportunity to see my parents toward the end of August 2020 after President Cyril Ramaphosa had announced the de-escalation of the Covid-19 disaster to alert Level 2 and the recommencement of open interprovincial movement.

I shifted down into second gear as the car rolled forward from tar on to gravel, a dust storm rising about me and my body vibrating as if I were a mechanism in a pneumatic drill. Being as prone as the next person to romanticise home, everything was foreign and familiar all at once. The single-storey schools on either side of the road, the rolling hills, the incoherent patchwork of homes – some fancy and others dilapidated mud-muffins topped with corrugated iron, and vacant field upon vacant field which would be covered with sugar cane and assorted crops at different points in the year. (My parents later explained that it had been a terrible harvest.)

Shiftless and marked with the degrading label of isithusa nyoni (scarecrow), many turn to alcohol or any drug they can find to quicken the clock. I needn’t describe the well-documented cycle of poverty and attending ills. These are the problems. What are the silver linings and solutions?

And, of course, young men and women – some whose faces I vaguely remembered – walked the road and footpaths like spectres or clustered at the village stores and spaza shops. The images clung to my mind’s eye – as they always did – until the love that awaited me at home tore through them.

Although University of Pretoria Professor Sheryl Hendriks estimates that rural communities represent in the region of 40% of South Africa’s population, there has hardly been any mention of the pandemic’s impact on them. The focus has been decidedly on urban areas, primarily the inner cities and townships — the townships being more populous and visible, speak more resonantly and stand proxy for the black experience. It is clear that not all poor communities are equal. The townships’ monopoly notwithstanding, they do not represent all black lives.

During my customary walk around the neighbourhood the following day, I stopped on my way to chat with several passers-by. It did not escape my notice that masks were for the most part nowhere to be seen. What I heard from most confirmed that which my parents had told me on our many calls during our prolonged separation: life had come to an almost complete standstill and hunger was at an all-time high.

I expected to find misery amplified, yet was surprised to learn of rampant hunger despite the government having rolled out social relief grants through the Social Security Agency of South Africa and the Solidarity Fund’s contributions. I’d disseminated details of the grants to a few friends, asking them to do the same, and I knew some had already benefited. Plus, food packages had been made available throughout the country. Why should there be hunger? Perhaps not many applied in the end for the grant? Maybe applications were rejected? Perhaps food aid was not distributed evenly according to assessed needs? Whatever the answers, this was an alarming state of affairs. Still, this is not where I would like to dwell.

In this community, the elderly are covered by a government seniority pension, children by a social grant. The youth – the gap gen – remain considerably neglected and vulnerable. For many, life stalls after high school, irrespective of their school-leaving results. Their parents or other members of the extended household, even when they work in the city, struggle to lift them out of poverty. Shiftless and marked with the degrading label of isithusa nyoni (scarecrow), many turn to alcohol or any drug they can find to quicken the clock. I needn’t describe the well-documented cycle of poverty and attending ills. These are the problems. What are the silver linings and solutions?

China is a world-renowned paragon of rapid, seemingly miraculous emergence into economic prominence. Among the numerous markers of its renaissance is its transformation of rural economies and largely successful fight against poverty in the countryside. Fan et al observed that “government expenditures that have the highest impact on poverty and growth include education, agricultural research and development, and rural infrastructure (roads, electricity, and telecommunications)”. While all these points are relevant to Madundube’s development hopes, telecommunications and agriculture attract special significance in my vision for the town.

It seems to me that the town has two things in abundance: land that is subject to a poorly defined communal property regime and an assembly-line-like supply of minimally educated youth. The youth are similarly rich in two resources: time and unrealised productivity. Madundube is a livestock and crop farming community, but the industry receives no investment. Some rural communities around the country have been relatively shielded from the financially ruinous impacts of the pandemic and lockdown measures due to thriving agricultural activity. Agriculture being an essential service, all these young people who have been completely idle during the lockdown could have been working the fields, contributing to food security while enjoying gainful employment.

I am tired of forgetting when the minutiae of my life flock to my mind as I drive away. While I make plans, strive and meet targets, these people – any of whom could have been me had conditions been different – sink further into a bog of idleness, despair and hopelessness.

Beyond the routine pleas for the government to sow capital into this community, there are smaller, more nuanced objectives to be set. First, bring information infrastructure – even on a small scale, to this area. Data prices in South Africa are too high for poor young people to be left to rely on the telecoms giants. Rural settings are notoriously information scarce. This reinforces poverty patterns over time. The young in rural areas are most in need of remote access to information, but it is their city-dwelling peers who have everything at their fingertips. Even setting up a small mobile library or internet stations in the community hall would make a significant difference. In addition to providing access, we need a programme to teach the young to get the most out of the internet: not just surfing Facebook.

Second, we need to build a skills development programme to run in or alongside the regular school curriculum in the community. The skills should centre on rural life with modules in crop cultivation, livestock management, woodwork, general maintenance of rural land, basic construction and mechanics, application for registration of land title, financial literacy, forming farming cooperatives and markets, setting up a business, and agricultural supply-chain management. This way, we can begin to change the destructive unitary narrative that holds that opportunity always lies elsewhere, everyone is destined for higher education, and transformation equals conventional professional success. 

This is the story of many a rural community. Madundube is just an example. Why should anyone care, though, about a podunk agrarian village? For the simple reason that it is a human settlement, its occupants have needs and aspirations like all other people, but they are relegated to the margins of society where indignity is a staple.

I am tired of forgetting when the minutiae of my life flock to my mind as I drive away. While I make plans, strive and meet targets, these people – any of whom could have been me had conditions been different – sink further into a bog of idleness, despair and hopelessness.

Pork barrel strategies around local elections time are not enough. Meaningful programmes such as those I’ve attempted to outline above are what we need to trigger real change. If we are hit by another natural or artificial disaster, it should find our community’s young people in a position to weather the storm through continued agriculture and related production. That in tandem with a reduction in rural brain and resource-drain when more of the young see and find prosperity at home will be the measure of success. DM

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  • The head shaker to me – as much as I sympathise and empathise with those who life in “townships”, I live in a posh area adjacent to one and employ people who live “on the other side of the road” – is: at what point do the 40 %of South Africans who do live in these sad edifices of neglect, face reality and say – “we could have had our miracle country, but our party and our government failed us, They stole it.”? Although, to be fair, what’s the alternative?

  • As you say, this is the sad situation replicated in numerous villages around our country. I cry over the loss of human potential that could have helped us win the battle against poverty. Our government is too hopelessly immoral, inept, corrupt, criminal And careless to do anything. I am excited by the ideas that you propose. I KNOW that it will work. However, they need the support and backing of a caring government. Such support will be followed by similar from the private sector. The people of our country have enough ubuntu. Oh, if we had a different government.

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