eMacambini: Holding onto Paradise

(This is the full version of an article first published in The Weekender.)

Holding onto Paradise

The proposed development of eMacambini will destroy the life of a rich rural community as well as one of KZN’s most beautiful landscapes, writes Peter Machen

If you drive up the North Coast of KwaZulu Natal, you’ll see what was once little than a series of small seaside towns gradually morphing into something that increasingly looks like Jo’burg. Currently the twin epicentres of this urban spread are Umhlanga and Ballito, but the virus is spreading around the province. It has already filled the once semi-rural suburbs of Hillcrest and Waterfall with strip malls and gated communities and threatens to take up wherever there is a beautiful view waiting to be destroyed.

As pre-planned reality displaces the very notion of the organically evolved village and town, these new locations of middle class human habitation – be they Tuscan, Balinese or grossed-out modernism – have become the literal embodiment of the so-called “end of history”. It all fits perfectly. And inside the gated, monitored and regulated communities, that troublesome world out there that is so filled with violence and terror becomes no more than a channel on your television screen.

A little further up the coast, an hour and a half’s drive away from Durban, a local community is challenging this notion of the end of history. They are defending a richly lived rural life against a virus that is even more destructive to the natural cycles of the planet than the Jo’burg virus: the Dubai virus. And they are doing so against a movingly beautiful landscape in which they have lived for generations. A landscape in which there is little extreme poverty, no violence and no crime, and where community is more important than political affiliation.

I first read about the proposed development of the Amazulu World Theme Park in eMacambini in a local paper. The planned development by Dubai-based Ruwaad Holdings would occupy 16 500 hectares. In addition to the theme park, plans include a shopping mall eight times the size of Gateway, a game reserve, six golf courses, residential facilities, sports fields and a R200 million 100m high statue of Shaka Zulu at the Thukela river mouth.

In that article there was no mention of the eMacambini community that was going to be displaced, no mention of the 29 schools that would be demolished, the 300 churches, the three clinics, the brand new RDP houses. No mention of the ancestral graves that would be displaced. No mention of the absurdity of a beyond-vast Zulu theme park that would destroy everything that is Zulu about the area – which is to say everything.

The community of eMacambini also first heard about the Memorandum of Understanding signed between the Province and Dubai-based Ruwaad Holding in the media. Many of them were aware of talks between their chief, the province and two companies in Dubai. But they had not been informed that their entire world had been promised away by provincial leadership. Only later did the provincial authorities, led by Director General Kwazi Mbanjwa, arrive in eMacambini. They were unaccompanied by provincial Premier S’bu Ndebele, who together with Mbanjwa, spearheaded negotiations on the project and threatened the community with land-expropriation.

Anti-Removal Committee member Khanyisani Shandu recalls the meeting. “It was a top-to-bottom kind of approach – ‘we as government are telling you that it is going to be like this’.” But he also says that the province has no legal power to take away the community’s land. “The community owns the land. That is indisputable”. And having examined the proposal, the people of eMacambini gave a clear rejection of the project. But that was the last time that the province – or anyone else from government – engaged with the community.

On 26 November, more than 5000 residents of eMacambini marched to the Mandeni Municipal Offices to deliver a petition to Ndebele and threatened to blockade the N2 and R102 if they did not receive a response from him. Ten days later, after having received no response, the community occupied the roads in protest and blockaded them with burning tires. And so, the story made the headlines for the first time. But predictably, there was little analysis of the events that had lead to the blockade.

The main response that the community received was the full fury of the local police force who attacked the protestors with tear gas and rubber bullets, and, later, allegedly forced their way into people’s house, arresting some people who had not even been at the blockade. During the course of the violence, at least 50 people were shot at, and 10 people hospitalised. The response from the ANC was to condemn the protests, adding that they were “unfortunate and unnecessary”. The Youth League meanwhile cast the IFP as political instigators in the events. For the eMacambini community, such responses are just further fodder for their disillusionment with the former liberation movement. The community seems to have been abandoned by the same forces that two decades ago would surely have fought side by side with them. Now the state sends it police force. But it sends no leadership, no-one to help sort out this dirty mess.
As they eMacambini Anti Removal Committee says, “There will be no compensation for what we will lose. There will just be a swop of land – a 500 hectare township for 16 500 hectares of beautiful and free land with rivers, valleys, pastures and beaches. In the townships there will be nothing for free. We will have to pay rates there. Here we are growing sugar cane, vegetables and fruit. Here we are raising cattles, sheep and goats. Here some of us survive on fishing.”

The community of eMacambini had defended their land for centuries, surviving the threats of colonialism and apartheid intact. “And now” says Shandu, “this so-called people’s government is happy to remove us. It’s really terrible to say the least.”

He also stresses that the community’s response to the development has got nothing to do with party politics. “We have all now came together in solidarity to say this is a pure theft of the land. The Premier has been saying that the people of eMacambini are rejecting development. But this is not development. It’s theft. It’s absolute theft.”

Meanwhile, Inkosi Khayelilhle Mathaba , the local traditional leader who was sidelined in negotiations with Ruwaad, points out that Ndebele will shortly be leaving his position as Premier to go into business. And he says that he has documents which state that Ndebele will personally get 10% of the shares in the development. Ndebele has also refused to give Mathaba and the community the MOU signed with Ruwaad Holdings.

Apart from the sheer ludicrousness of events, something else struck me about my visit to eMacambini. I have driven all over KZN and often speak to people in rural communities about their experiences. And the most consistent and resounding cry, from Umbumbulu to Bothas Hill is “we are poor”. By contrast, the residents of eMacambini say “we are rich. We are not poor. We are rich.” Those were almost the exact words used by nearly all the people I spoke to. And vitally they acknowledge that their access to land makes them rich. And they all realise that their removal from their land would send them straight into poverty.

They also acknowledge that they do not hold all development in contempt. They are in favour of development that would help them become richer – in the broadest meaning of the word – rather than poorer. But they do not want their landscape to change. There is a great African cliché in which the beauty of the African landscape exists in stark contrast to the poverty of its people. It is refreshing that this is not the case in eMacambini. Here people live functionally between modernity and tradition.

Those who talk of African solutions to African problems should come to eMacambini where land, grass-roots democracy and mutual respect have come together maintain a reality that is the very essence of sustainability. Of course, the African Solution seekers might not like what they see. They might object to the lack of development, to its distance from modernity. And they probably wouldn’t see the similarities between the community of eMacambini and the Tuscan farmers who are trying to maintain their traditional way of life, just as small rural communities all over the planet are doing the same, from Alaska to India.

Mathaba and the community of eMacambini will soon be taking the matter to the country’s courts. It seems likely that they will be successful in maintaining their land and their autonomy. And if they are, it will not simply be a victory for themselves and their land, but for all those South Africans who are in favour of self determination and sustainability over rampant development.