That South Africa is navigating an economic tempest is by now plain for all to see. The winds battering our nation’s sails include, but are not limited to, low economic growth, high unemployment, inequality, rising inflation, as well as an energy crisis.
These are tough times, indeed.
There are arguably fewer regions of the country where the full measure of the current challenges can be observed as it can in KwaZulu-Natal. From the onset of Covid-19 and the lockdown battering one of the provincial economy’s mainstay sectors, tourism, to the unrest of July 2021.
And just as the province was clawing its way out of those troubles, catastrophic floods in April this year wrought untold devastation whose full human life, humanitarian and economic impact is still being tallied, months later.
In times like these, it’s easy and perhaps tempting to throw our arms up in despair or helplessly wallow in our misery. It’s just as easy to take to the commentary box and merely amplify the critical, cynical or disillusioned voice. There is no “right” human response to crises that we experience as a collective, but whose full impact we feel and deal with individually, and I do not purport to prescribe one in this contribution.
It is however possible, and arguably more helpful, for all of us to put our shoulders to the wheel in responding to these vexing challenges of our time. If there has ever been a time that calls for engagement, active citizenry and leadership from everyone in our own spaces and spheres of influence, that time is now.
Reimagining the role of traditional leadership
In this environment, the institution of traditional leadership cannot and must not stand on the sidelines, emerging only to sound the occasional lament about the poor material conditions of the people we lead and our marginal or diminishing influence in governance.
This is so because traditional leadership in this country draws its legitimacy from its connectedness to the people’s sense of community, history, and notions such as the identity, heritage and roots of many South Africans as these concepts find expression in a dynamic, values and rights-based modern democracy.
Simply put, in this period of great social flux, the time is ripe to reimagine traditional leadership’s role in the country, by re-centring the institution at the heart of communities and their economic and social development, as well as taking a lead role in seeking solutions to the crises ravaging our communities.
Only when traditional leadership’s relevance in the contemporary context is demonstrated consistently through positive, change-yielding, community-attuned actions, will all rumblings and grumblings about our purpose in a unitary and democratic republic be emphatically silenced.
It was with ideas like these gnawing at me that some time ago, I began to ponder my contribution to responding to the economic challenges faced by the community I lead, the province in which it is situated, and indeed the country.
It occurred to me that as today’s traditional leaders, our contribution to community-building does not have to be restricted to the starting up of community gardens, food aid and charitable works, or building care facilities and the likes, as noble and crucial as these are. Today’s crises call for a new breed of traditional leader.
In his weekly newsletter in March last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa described this new breed of leader as “developmental monarchs” who see themselves as “not just custodians of heritage but also as drivers of economic prosperity and progress”.
The rise of the ‘developmental monarch’
Encouragingly, this sea change is already beginning to happen. The National House of Traditional and Khoisan Leaders’ endorsement of the InvestRural master plan last year is but one example. The contributions of some of my colleagues in the mineral-endowed parts of North West are also worthy of acknowledgement.
In all these efforts of traditional communities and leaders taking the lead in economic development and innovation, it is clear from the village of Phokeng in North West to the pueblo of Isleta in New Mexico in the United States, that part of the winning formula involves harnessing the natural, geographic, historic and cultural endowments of our locality to build and diversify economic activity.
It is within this sweet spot of developmental envisioning and planning that the recent milestone we reached as a community is to be understood. We as a community, through the Bekezela Community Foundation, have clinched a partnership with global sailing’s ultimate ocean race, the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. This will see Umhlathuze (Richards Bay) play host to the South African stage of this epic race that sees a fleet of yachts circumnavigate the globe, covering 40,000 nautical miles (about 74,000 kilometres) in 11 months.
The race is a major event on the global calendar and was founded by legendary sailor Sir Robin Knox-Johnston who made history in 1969 by becoming the first person to circumnavigate the globe solo and non-stop. He describes the race as “the only race that is open to non-professional sailors and gives them the chance to conquer the Everest of the seas, a circumnavigation of the globe.”
Circumnavigating the globe; navigating troubled local economic waters
Having keenly observed the economic and developmental benefits that current Clipper Race stopover destinations have been able to harness, we are convinced we can do the same for our picturesque region of Umhlathuze, the province of KwaZulu-Natal, and indeed our country as a whole. The first step has been completed in that the over 700 diverse crew from all over the world who participate in the race in each edition, as well as their travelling supporters and spectators, have been hooked. The next step is to reel them into Umhlathuze in the 2023-24, and 2025-26 editions of the race.
Once they’re here it is up to us (and we plan) to treat them to the best of South African, KwaZulu-Natal hospitality and ubuntu. It is up to us to build community excitement and participation in hosting the event, knowing full well that the eyes of the world will be on this breathtakingly beautiful gem of a region tucked away on the east coast of our country. Already, that community excitement is mounting in Umhlathuze.
Through an ambassador scheme, the Bekezela Community Foundation is preparing to start offering local people from rural communities the opportunity to apply to take part in the Clipper Race and receive training to become crew on this race around the world. This fits hand-in-glove with our commitment to restoring, cultivating and protecting African culture and heritage by strengthening, developing and empowering rural communities.
We honestly can’t wait. Other Clipper Race stopovers such as Derry-Londonderry in Northern Ireland are counting the benefits in the millions of pounds in revenue, and no less than 600,000 visitors in the 10 years that that city has been a host port. We relish the opportunity to top that and become the Clipper Race crew’s favourite stopover destination, while fully exploiting the inshore economic and cultural activities that our hosting will generate.
Umhlathuze will now stand shoulder to shoulder with and be mentioned in the same breath as other host destinations such as London, New York, Seattle, Punta del Este, the Whitsundays, Qingdao, Bermuda and others. The IsiZulu expression “nawe Mhlathuze awumncane” (Mhlathuze you are indeed not the least of all) seems apt.
At a symbolic level, this milestone also affirms the pride and dignity of the community I lead under the Mpungose Traditional Authority in Eshowe. While the first ships from Europe infamously docked on South African shores in the 17th century, in circumstances that would viciously strip us Africans of our dignity for centuries, today a proud dignified people in control of their destiny open their ports to trade, commerce and leisure, and their hearts to friendship and fraternity, on their terms.
This is what the buzzword “oceans economy” means. This is our small contribution to the steady realisation of the goals of the South Africa Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan. Importantly, this is our response to the president’s challenge to traditional leaders that “the most fitting legacy of great leaders is that the seeds of development they sow during their tenure grow into mighty trees that protect and shelter their communities for posterity.”
This is our humble seed. We hope it will grow into a mighty tree and shelter our communities from the ravages of poverty, unemployment, inequality and under-development. DM