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.
A mobile clinic provides basic health care, but in case of emergency, patients must be transported to the nearby town, a slow and uncomfortable journey. There is no transportation to get into the next big town, and this lack of transport is a big concern for villagers, said Luhadi.
But, she added, the most difficult part of life in Mvezo is the daily hikes to get water from the river because of the village’s broken tap.
“What we need most is water,” Luhadi said.
The village of Mvezo used to be located next to the river, but the apartheid government forced all villagers to resettle on top of the mountain as part of the “betterment” scheme, under which land sizes were reduced and people were forcibly moved from their homesteads.
Under apartheid, parts of the Eastern Cape were forced into two “homelands,” the Transkei and the Ciskei, puppet states controlled by the government. To try to escape the poverty, most men from the area would head off to the gold mines of Johannesburg, where they worked in desperate conditions to earn money for their families. Today the former “homelands” are still among the poorest areas of the country.
The king of the Thembu people, one of the main tribes of the Eastern Cape, recently appointed Mandla Mandela, grandson of Nelson Mandela, to take over the traditional chieftainship of Mvezo, explaining that it was a rare opportunity to spur development and gain international attention for the village through the celebrity power of the Mandela name.
“It is one of the lost corners of the country,” said King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo in an interview at his Great Place in a nearby village. “I felt it would provide chances for Mvezo.”
Rayne Mandela, widow of Nelson Mandela’s second-born son, works closely with her son Mandla and serves as acting chief in Mvezo when he is away. In an interview, she admitted that it is not healthy for the villagers to draw water from a river where donkeys, cows and other animals also drink. The villagers are supposed to boil river water and add a drop of bleach to purify it, but those who are born and raised in the area don’t bother with such precautions, she said.
Few tourists make the trek to Nelson Mandela’s birthplace, and those who do have nowhere to stay. Mandla Mandela is trying to change this through the construction of a hotel, self-catering rooms and a backpackers’ lodge, part of a larger development being built in the village.
Rayne Mandela says that she has met visitors from South Africa and beyond who wished to spend time in the village where Nelson Mandela was born, but were deterred by the lack of a hotel. She is hoping that the construction of tourist infrastructure will lead to greater development and the improvement of living standards for villagers.
“In the long run, we know we won’t get people coming to Mvezo until they can stay the night,” she said. “Tourism would help to develop quite a lot of things in Mvezo.”