In Search of the Other Nkandla
Former president Jacob Zuma isn’t the only one with roots here
Jacob Zuma’s infamous R246-million homestead may have helped cost him a presidency, but it’s brought new interest (and roads) to the Nkandla district of Zululand, encouraging exploration of one of the most beautiful and least-known parts of South Africa.
However, it wasn’t just Jacob’s place my cousin Sue and I were set on seeing when I picked her up at King Shaka International Airport one muggy Durban day, and headed up the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast to Eshowe. It was another homestead, some 60 kilometres from his, on an isolated farm at Qudeni.
That’s where our mothers, Joan (mine) and
Kay Tissiman, grew up amid dense forests, waterfalls and soaring krantzes – a place of such loveliness that they spoke of it all their
lives, shaping our own love of nature.
Our stay that night was with the man who was to be our guide – Hugh Lee, grandson of the Bishop of Zululand, and part farmer, part politician (a former Member of Provincial Legislature for the area), part historical raconteur. But Hugh, I’d recently discovered, is more than that to me – his uncle, Philip Lee, was the great love of my mom’s life, a story that has always moved me.
Joan and Philip met in Nkandla – the pretty, young farm governess and shy, lanky agricultural officer hit it off at once. Then World War II broke out and Philip enlisted with the Royal Natal Carbineers, sailing with the 1st SA Infantry Brigade to North Africa in July 1940.
When he returned on leave in January 1943, he proposed, and they married. Four months later Philip embarked again. ‘He left at 2am,’ my mom would say. ‘It was heartbreaking. It was pitch-black outside. He waved. I never saw him again.’ Philip was killed in action outside Florence ten months later, from a shell splinter in his chest. Some years after the war, Joan remarried, and had me. My middle name is Lee…
Recalling the wartime romance took Sue and me through gin and tonics with the genial Hugh and his wife Renée, and lent poignancy
; & farmhouse where Joan grew up with Kay and their siblings, Peggy and Robin, before she met Philip.
We rose early, and after fuelling up on Renée’s farm breakfast (home-grown granadillas with thick yoghurt, and toast with farm butter and eggs), set out with Hugh and his Eshowe pal Roger Gaisford, a retired geologist and passionate amateur historian.
The two have now learnt that it’s best to start any tour of the Nkandla district with its hottest attraction and “get it out of the way”. Not that the Zuma homestead is out of the way yet, politically or legally, as his successor President Cyril Ramaphosa and the courts figure ways to deal with it and a slew of corruption charges against Zuma. Should he be convicted, the state could confiscate the homestead for having been built using the proceeds of crime.
The drive to Mthungela, nearest village to Zuma’s costly kraal, is breathtaking, the carefully coiffed hills of sugar cane gradually giving way to higher ones left in grass that ripples in the sunlight. The hills are speckled with traditional homesteads, occasional
beehive huts hunched among rondavels with cattle-kraals, and a growing number of modern block houses, pimped in bright paint and roof tiles brought back by city workers on pilgrimages home.
The P15, once pitted with potholes, slides smoothly by, resurfaced to a state befitting presidential cavalcades and the German luxury vehicles beloved by Zuma’s wives (a seventh was in the wings at press time) and offspring (22 and counting).
And there it sprawls, circled by security fencing – more village or game lodge than homestead, though hardly indicative of the taxpayers’ millions allegedly poured into it; a cluster of double-storey thatched buildings surrounded by standard rondavels, the distant sandstone outcrop of Kranskop joining them to give the world a monumental finger.
We follow a dirt track around the complex, but the infamous R4-million ‘fire pool’ is sadly not visible. We content ourselves ogling a smart soccer field and tennis courts just outside the fence, unused and silent, while local kids laugh and wave as they kick a ball between stick goalposts in the veld nearby, and a goat laps from a dripping tap.
With our focus now firmly on our own Nkandla homestead, Hugh negotiates a maze of dirt roads to where the Tugela River cuts a vast valley through primeval thorn scrub.
It’s a dramatic, apocalyptic landscape, and Roger informs us that the Tugela Fault Line runs nearby, between the Earth’s great Nubia and Somalia tectonic plates.
It begins below Port Shepstone on the South Coast and runs up KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho through north-eastern Africa, part of the great Rift Valley system. Periodically the plates move, he says, triggering tremors, and every 500 to 1 000 years, a major earthquake. Another, say some scientists, is overdue…
We cross the broad, red river at Jameson’s Drift, and follow the Kranskop/Qudeni road up past Dolwana, bushveld giving way to rolling green hills as lovely as those Paton described at Ixopo, some 250 kilometres south, in Cry the Beloved Country' & dark, forest-tangled ridge of Qudeni (Rooster) staggering across the skyline like a cockscomb.
Hugh turns onto a raw dirt track and we bounce between soaring, deeply striated cliffs and a smattering of huts on what was once Belworth or Glen-Marvel farm. This was where our grandparents, Jane and Rowland Robert Tissiman, built their home and raised our mothers, on land acquired by Rowland’s father John Joseph, a cavalry major and adjutant to Lord Kitchener in the Anglo-Boer War.
The track peters out at a kraal, and we are greeted by the family of the gracious local
induna, one Mbatha. Yes, they remember our family, especially the old man, known as Dambuza, the One with the Shambling Gait. Mbatha’s father worked with him for years. But they have bad news. There is nothing left of the long-abandoned farmhouse.
While Hugh is ushered into Mbatha’s kraal for cold beer, and soon deep conversation with a bevy of local men, Roger leads Sue and me on foot through lush grass wandered by mottled Zulu cattle, into the beautiful horseshoe-shaped Matiqwa valley below Qudeni peak – at 1 740 metres, the highest in Zululand – to see what we can find. Our moms had told of Rowley building their home above a gorge fed by three rivers, below a stand of trees.
We head for a thicket before a deep forest-clotted ravine, drawn by several gum trees stretching pale arms above the other growth – aliens once planted by many farmers at their homes. And as we push our way through branches, vines and brambles, we find them: the moss-wrapped ruins of low walls. The base of a water tank or kiln. A pile of half-baked bricks. We each pocket a brick fragment – Sue as a memento for her mom, now 93 and living with her in Cape Town; me, to put under the fever tree in our Durban garden where my mother’s ashes lie.
After the apartheid government took power in 1948, they evicted not only people of colour. Our grandparents’ farm was expropriated and incorporated into a Bantustan, and is now part of the Ingonyama Trust under the control of King Goodwill Zwelithini. Our grandfather eventually settled on a small banana farm on the KZN South Coast. But nothing ever came close to Qudeni in his eyes, or our moms’.
Then in the 1960s, Mbatha informs us back at Hugh’s 4x4, those tectonic plates moved, and an earth tremor shook Qudeni, destroying the farmhouse. Today only the land remains. Neither stripped of trees nor smothered by aliens, as our mothers had feared, it’s as wild and beautiful as ever.
Mbatha’s people, hungry for jobs, hope to start a tourist venture here, he says. But government is moving to repeal the Ingonyama Trust Act (at the time of going to print), which would see the land the trust controls return from tribal leaders to state ownership for redistribution.
Whoever ends up running this spectacular slice of country, we muse, plucking burs from our jeans as we motor slowly away, we hope they will be given help to protect it while profiting from it – so all our children, and their children, can enjoy it in the years to come.
TOP LEFT: The Brocklee farmhouse, home of the Lee family, that has deep roots in the area. Guests have included Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini.LEFT: A family picnic in one of the gorges on the farm – Robin, our grandfather Rowland Tissiman, Kay, Joan and Peggy.
ABOVE: Qudeni mountain, highest in Zululand, rises above the farm while deep, thickly-forested gorges open in the foreground. ABOVE RIGHT: Hugh and Renée Lee with their farm furbabies. RIGHT: Just before the family farm. Grooved krantzes catch the shadows.
LEFT: Elegant Shembe elders en route to church.RIGHT: Local children happily play soccer with makeshift posts, near a smart, unused soccer field and tennis courts next to the Zuma homestead.
LEFT: Signs of our progress on the P15 to Nkandla. BELOW: Nkandla’s biggest landmark, the Zuma homestead, with Kranskop behind it, giving the world the finger.
ABOVE LEFT: Mossy ruins– all that remain of the homestead our grandfather built, making the bricks with clay from the farm and baking them in a kiln he constructed. The yellowwood floors and ceilings from the forests. ABOVE RIGHT: Roger Gaisford leads the way towards a thicket with gums, a clue that it could be the site of the homestead. LEFT: Our moms Joan (left) and Kay Tissiman. RIGHT: The Belworth farmhouse in its day.