The First Small Steps on the Winding Road to a Better Urban and Rural Future

Article excerpt

THERE are many beautiful roads that wind through the rolling hills of the Eastern Cape. They dip and turn through the many meanders that make up the rural backroads of the former Ciskei and Transkei, through scenes of pastoral beauty and almost bucolic serenity.

Away from the main towns, there is a quietness about the countryside, a stillness and an emptiness. You drive past homesteads that are crumbling, kraals that are empty, trading stores where the BB Tobacco signs flap listlessly in the breeze, the shop doors hanging off their hinges, the owners long gone.

Drive through the towns, and there is an air of listlessness, an air of bored despair. The only crowds are around the bottle stores and the pension payouts. There is an absence of young men and women. It is the pensioners and the children who remain.

Following the contours of the hills, the switchback dirt roads rollercoaster from town to town, and alongside most of the main routes there is a railway line running parallel as it links places such as Ugie, Maclear, Barkly East and Elliot, then down through Dordrecht and Queenstown to the ports of East London and Port Elizabeth.

But the rails are like the rails in the Michelle Shocked song: "The L&N don't stop here anymore." It's a haunting lament to the memory of childhood, when "the coal carts rolled and rumbled past my door/but now they stand in a rusty row all empty/cause the L&N don't stop here anymore".

In the Eastern Cape, the lines are still there, curving away into infinity. Some of the wooden sleepers have been stolen, to grace yuppie gardens, or for fence posts or firewood. The goats and cattle graze between the lines, without fear of being run down by a train.

Because the trains don't run any more. And the little towns that were once the heart of a vibrant rural economy are slowly dying as more and more commercial farmers find they can't make the cut and leave the land. And as more and more young people leave their homesteads in search of the elusive buck to be made in PE, George, Cape Town.

In the vastness of the Northern Cape, there is a similar migration: younger people, bored with the sameness of life in Upington, Springbok, Nababeep, Kakamas, are migrating to the Western Cape, some to seek work as labourers - but others because they are highly skilled and can make more money down south.

Yet others are hitting the long road south for sadder reasons - they are being evicted from farms that are no longer economically viable, or from farms where the farmers have decided it is easier to mechanise than conform to South Africa's progressive labour laws. …