Our future can be found in the Transkei

William Saunderson-Meyer says one day we will all be Bantustan citizens


One day we will all be Bantustan citizens

I was in another country this week. Or to be accurate, in what once was supposedly another country, the Transkei. 

It is an exceptionally beautiful place but also a depressing reminder of what South Africa might look like in a generation, if land expropriation and redistribution take place as currently conceived by President Jacob Zuma’s government.

The Transkei was different from the other apartheid-era Bantustans – “reserves”, or “homelands”, or “self-governing states”, or “independent nations”, as the nomenclature was repeatedly changed to reflect evolving National Party policy and propaganda. 

The Transkei was the first homeland, it was the biggest one and it had considerable territorial integrity, unlike most of the other Bantustans, which were spatially disconnected parcels of land. For these reasons, and because of its rich agricultural land and tourism opportunities, the Transkei was the only one that was conceivably viable.

Yet, even with everything going for it in terms of resources, it never did blossom. It never shook off its poverty and the fact that it was little more than a labour reserve, first for the mines, then for the industries of South Africa’s economic hubs in Cape Town, what is now Gauteng, and Durban-Pietermaritzburg.

Despite two dozen years of well intentioned but inept African National Congress government, not much has changed. At heart, the Transkei remains that patch of familial land to which many Xhosa-speaking South Africans return during holidays, from their jobs in the economically productive heartlands. 

Agricultural development remains poor, despite fertile soils and good rainfall. Tourism, despite the savage beauty of its Wild Coast, one of the few unspoilt coastlines in the world, is minuscule compared to what it could be.

A decade ago, I hiked part of the Wild Coast, overnighting in the few hotels that are strung along the coast. This week I did it again. The experience, like previously, was one of entering a time warp, stepping back 40 or 50 years. 

The places are comfortable but uninspiring, were it not for the splendour of their settings. Here and there, there’ve been a few building additions, the construction often a bit haphazard and amateurish.

Hospitality, though warm and genuine, is below the standards that serious tourism demands. The group I was with happened to have a substantial number of vegetarians but despite being alerted beforehand, the non-meat options were mostly that dull old stand-by, the omelette. Or fish and chicken, which in rural SA apparently count as vegetarian options.

Despite grandiose plans, agriculture remains overwhelmingly subsistence. The Eastern Cape, of which the Transkei and the other Xhosa-language homeland, the Ciskei, are geographically significant parts, is a mess, with economic and health indicators that are worse than the national norm.

The trunk road running north-south through the Transkei has improved marginally. But the branch roads that actually take one to the places along the coastline that could and would draw international tourists in their droves, are atrocious. 

The N2 Wild Coast Toll Highway, which would have a significant economic impact on the Transkei, remains stalled by environmental activists. The half million jobs that it is estimated the road would create over 30 years, are in one of the poorest areas of SA. The greenies who have thwarted its construction are overwhelmingly ensconced in the wealthier suburbs of SA’s major cities. 

But the core problem faced by the Transkei is not difficult to diagnose. It is not unimaginative hoteliers, or incompetent farmers. 

It is a simple matter of property rights. It is the curse of communal land tenure under a chieftainship system. Without the right of the individual to own property – meticulously demarcated, mapped and recorded in a transferable title deed – the Transkei will never realise its phenomenal potential. 

At present everyone, from subsistence farmer to hotel “owner”, exists at the whim of the chief who controls the land upon which they are essentially squatting. A Permission to Occupy (PTO) certificate would have been issued on the say-so of the local chiefs and registered with various government departments for administrative purposes.

But the PTOs are legally flimsy, offering very little protection to their holders. They cannot be sold, ceded, bonded or inherited. They can be revoked on a whim.

The “radical economic transformation” that Zuma envisages involves the seizure of land without compensation. It also envisages that in rural SA the “traditional authorities”, the chiefs, will hold considerable power in the dispensation of land.

That means that the Transkei scenario will be repeated endlessly through the land. It will mean corruption, patronage and insecurity. 

And it means that the economic stagnation that blights the Transkei, despite everything that is going for it, will be replicated throughout rural SA. So the apartheid dream, perversely, may yet be realised, in that one day all rural South Africans will be Bantustan citizens.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye