The un­her­alded beauty of the Eastern Cape

The Star Early Edition - - POLITICS -

XHOSALAND! I’d for­got­ten its beauty. Mul­tos years since I tramped these rolling hills at all.

Never be­fore have days gone into am­bling its coasts and val­leys with mind in neu­tral and soul in flight.

The sheer ter­rain is just a part, big part though it be. Ev­ery stretch we’ve walked, Wild Coast or Bor­der or var­ied points be­tween, has been an­other world-beat­ing land­scape.

Zu­l­u­land nabbed the name some­how, Val­ley of a Thou­sand Hills, but there’s an in­jus­tice in that, like the way that the pub­lic mind recog­nises the Zu­lus’ war for free­dom and over­looks the nine Xhosa wars. They’d bet­ter bring in the brand guys. “Hill of a Thou­sand Val­leys”?

What adds to the vista is huge rest­ful strings of peri-ur­ban home­steads in re­cur­ring colours, punc­tu­ated by vivid emer­ald green and shock­ing pink. Eco­nomics passes harsh judg­ment on these dwellings, like on river es­tu­ar­ies. Ra­tio­nally, they are bad news – wa­ter be­ing wasted in the sea, hu­mans liv­ing in un­vi­able units – but to the naked eye the appearance of calm coun­try life is de­li­cious.

A typ­i­cal homestead is four build­ings in match­ing colours, of­ten with a fenced mealie patch or veg­gie patch and a Jojo wa­ter tank.

Plus a wood­pile, an art­work in its own right, long straight branches laid end to end in a neat rec­tan­gle.

One day some­one will trans­port one to an avant-garde gallery in Paris or Lon­don. It’ll be a sen­sa­tion, like Andy Warhol’s soup tin.

The fence is an art­work too, its posts com­ing across as wood stat­ues. Mainly it’s there to keep the goats from chow­ing your mealies, al­though some stretch high with a barbed top layer, de­ter­ring hu­mans from an­nex­ing those mealies.

That’s one of the two brands of crime around here. The other is sheep theft. Not cat­tle, it seems, or pigs, which roam un­marked, but ev­ery sheep is branded with a sym­bol, a + or an 0 or an X, on its side or head or back. And plenty of homes show bur­glar-bars, so the wide cruel world can’t be en­tirely off duty.

But for a vis­i­tor, strolling through the far fur­thest Xhosa cor­ners is the most harm­less ac­tiv­ity imag­in­able. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is friendly waves, with greet­ings in warm sen­ti­ments and guess­able words.

We know that these homes have bred doc­tors and ad­vo­cates and di­rec­tors, and we find 10-year-olds whose English sounds in­born, but we’re sur­prised at adult mouths be­ing more in­no­cent of English than our mouths are of Xhosa.

What’s changed is the ubiq­ui­tous phone, of course, and fairly fre­quent so­lar pan­els. What hasn’t changed is a lot: peo­ple carry wa­ter in buck­ets, they carry wood, their gro­ceries, their pro­duce; they’re women, they carry it on their heads.

Ridicu­lous driv­ing hasn’t changed. We re­peat­edly en­counter ap­par­ent sui­cide mis­sions, nar­rowly fail­ing, or jamthe-in­ter­sec­tion mis­sions abun­dantly suc­ceed­ing.

Ridicu­lous pas­sen­ger­ing, too, cans and tins rou­tinely fly­ing from ve­hi­cle win­dows. Walk­ing one 2km stretch of re­cently tarred road, I count 21 places where shat­tered glass bot­tles have ground into the tar­mac. And no­body dis­poses of dead dogs and horses, ugh.

A change I find in­ter­est­ing is the life­saver who is vis­i­bly em­bar­rassed to not know what the sea tem­per­a­ture is.

This is a dou­ble change. Twenty years ago he wouldn’t have ex­isted, a black life­saver. Ten years ago he would have thought “who cares?”

An­other is that ev­ery­one now takes the fail­ure of the Eastern Cape gov­ern­ment as a fact of life, talk­ing of its fail­ing schools and func­tions in a to-be-ex­pected way, as of flood or drought dam­age.

But hey, that’s not the point right now. The point is thanks to a beau­ti­ful place for the beau­ties that it of­fers.

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