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Mandela's village: Rural poverty endures

Rural South Africa remains mired in poverty, even Mandela's birthplace.

Editor's note: This series about Nelson Mandela's home village describes South Africa's past and points the way toward its future. Where tradition vies with modern leadership. Where Mandela was no saint. Where Mandela’s legacy inspires future leaders.

MVEZO, South Africa — In the village where Nelson Mandela was born, women still walk two hours each way to fetch water.

Mvezo’s sole water tap hasn’t worked for months — a common problem — and so each day the village’s girls and women trek downhill to the Mbashe River to fill their water jugs and then climb back home. The lucky ones have a donkey to carry the weight.

This part of South Africa, the rolling hills and round huts of the Eastern Cape province, was the birthplace to many of the country’s top anti-apartheid leaders, including Walter Sisulu, Chris Hani, Steve Biko and Oliver Tambo, in whose honor the Johannesburg international airport was renamed. Two of South Africa’s three democratically elected presidents — Mandela and Thabo Mbeki — were born here.

Despite its famous sons, serious poverty persists in the villages of the Eastern Cape, one of the South Africa’s poorest provinces. Tin shacks huddled in the townships around big cities such as Johannesburg and Cape Town may be the most outwardly visible evidence of the continuing poverty and vast inequalities in South Africa, but it is the countryside where hardship is most severe. More than 40 percent of South Africa’s population lives in rural areas, where the poverty rate can be as high as 85 percent, according to South Africa's Human Sciences Research Council.

Many poor rural communities lack basic services such as water and electricity, as well as decent housing and access to health care. In South Africa as a whole, life expectancy decreased by nine years between 1990 and 2010, and now stands at 52 years, according to the U.N.’s newly released Human Development Index. In terms of its overall ranking on the index, South Africa lags behind several other African countries, as well as emerging markets such as Brazil, Russia and China, although it is ahead of India.

Although Nelson Mandela was successful in ending apartheid, South Africa’s continues to grapple with persistent rural poverty and with severe enduring inequities. More than 16 years after the end of apartheid, Mandela’s African National Congress party has failed to significantly lessen the poverty in rural areas.

When Mandela returned to the Eastern Cape in 1990 after 27 years in prison, he was shocked by how little had changed since his youth. He visited the village of Qunu, where he had lived as a boy, and found the villagers more politically aware — but just as poor, if not more so.

In the years that followed, there was little improvement. Even as president, Mandela hadn’t wanted to fuel tribalism by being seen to favor the Eastern Cape, and so he gave the struggling area no special attention.

The Eastern Cape province is a land of undulating, bare hills that runs from the Indian Ocean to the inland mountains and deserts. Mvezo, a village at the end of a bumpy dirt road off the highway, is poorer than other communities that are more easily accessible, such as Qunu, which is on the main N2 highway and has seen some development in recent years.

Village women in Mvezo still cook in the exact way described in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography: “My mother cooked food in a three-legged iron pot over an open fire in the center of the hut or outside,” he wrote.

This method hasn’t changed in nearly a century. In Mvezo today, smoke rises from cast-iron pots smoldering over outdoor fires, such as the one in front of the home of Nowentele Luhadi, a grandmother who is not sure of her age.

Luhadi cooks on the ground outside her family’s trio of round huts, known as rondavels, roughly built from mud and straw but painted in eye-catching turquoise and white. The family, numbering up to 13 people when all are in the village, sleeps on mats in only one of the huts because caved-in roofs and other problems have made the other two inhabitable.