TESSA DOOMS | SA is in desperate need of a rural development plan

Being born into villages, countryside towns should not be a life sentence of indignity

Tessa Dooms Columnist
Jabu Rikhotso on a donkey cart with his kids. He is transporting 49 water cans of which some he will sell to those who need water because water is scares at Homu village in Guyani, Limpopo where he stays.
Jabu Rikhotso on a donkey cart with his kids. He is transporting 49 water cans of which some he will sell to those who need water because water is scares at Homu village in Guyani, Limpopo where he stays.
Image: Thapelo Morebudi

SA is an urbanising country. This assertion is made in the National Development Plan 2023 of SA as it makes a case for a focus on urban development as a fast-track for efficient and effective delivery of basic services.

But are we urbanising by choice or by force? More than 32% of people in SA live in rural towns and villages. This translates to a figure of upward of 19-million people who live, work or raise families in rural contexts, while millions more call rural villages home long after having migrated to urban cities for what is considered better life opportunities.

While 53% of South Africans lived in rural areas in 1960, after decades of an incremental decline in rural populations the last 10 years has seen a dramatic drop of 10%, as the quality of life for particularly Black South Africans has significantly deteriorated in the face of a collapse of government service delivery.

Mass urban migration in SA is not a function of development of cities, but of a gross underdevelopment of rural villages and towns. Black young people are not running toward development, but away from chronic neglect by a failing state.

In urban parts of SA, load shedding has become the ultimate symbol of the collapse of basic services. For rural communities, load shedding barely features on a list of grievances about the impacts of a failing state on the lives and life chances of families and communities.

I spent time in Moletjie and Marias Hill communities last week. These Limpopo communities are village communities, respectively 50km and 90km outside of Polokwane, the nearest big city. Both have typical characteristics of rural villages. The are surrounded by long stretches of gravel roads and limited access to any transportation services.

There is a sparse spattering of streetlights, most often Apollo lights provided privately by mining companies or other local industry players, rather than the state. Unreliable access to water or electricity, often with no access for weeks or months. Told that their communities are too small, it is difficult to spot schools and clinics in rural communities.

A community with a primary school will be told without irony that there are not enough children in the area to warrant building a high school. In the absence of viable and safe high school options many youth drop out of school, set up for failure unless they leave for more urban settings far away from families, support and structure.

In Moletjie, primary school pupils could be seen at 10am walking back home from school, because squandered resources means no provision can be made for meals at school.

SA is in desperate need of a rural development plan.

When rural communities are forced to normalise living without basic human rights like water, sanitation, safe roads, food, healthcare and education there is almost no point in talking about developing an economic life for individuals, families or communities.

Even when people can see vast tracks of land and are motivated to farm, their efforts are limited to backyard gardens as local authorities gate-keep access to communal land and commercial farmers exploit local workers. SA is silently and systematically stripping away the life-chances of rural communities. Beyond youth unemployment, adults trapped in cycles of hopelessness have become perpetual volunteers and interns.

Being born into a rural community should not be a life sentence of indignity, marginalisation and paternalism. It should not be reduced to real life hunger games as people compete for basic services and success is based on who gets out first.

Rural life in SA deserves to be a better life. People should be able to choose to live in a rural area without compromising their dignity or eliminating their options.

The 19-million people in rural SA are not second-class citizens simply waiting for their turn to try to make it to the leafy city suburbs of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. They should not have to fight demarcation wars to prove themselves worthy of basic services.

Ultimately, it is not population sizes keeping rural areas under-serviced but poor planning and a lack of political will. Spatial inequality was a hallmark of apartheid. May we strive to build a future SA that preserves our dignity and promotes our development regardless of which corner of this beautiful land we call home.

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