Umbumbulu, just forty kilometres away from Durban, is one of the many rural areas that form part of the eThekwini Metro jurisdiction. It is a place of great beauty, with clear blue skies juxtaposed with verdant green hills and valleys. Comprised of 25 smaller districts, Umbumbulu and its surrounding areas is home to more than a quarter of a million people; people who live lives that are not vastly different to those of their parents and their grandparents. They are subject to the rule of chiefs and indunas, and their main source of employment is nature itself.

Umbumbulu is paradise. But it is an under-serviced paradise with virtually no economy, a place where much suffering has taken place. I spoke to two men, Sipho Khuzwayo and Senzo Makhanya, about life in the area, a life that is defined both by nature’s bounty and by a lack of economic resources. Khuzwayo and Makhanya are fortunate in that they have jobs. They are employed as security guards at the local municipal offices. Apart from employment in one of the handful of shops that constitute Umbumbulu’s town centre, there is virtually no means of earning money in the area. As Khuzwayo said, “If you want to live, you must plant. Even me, I need a job.”

His R1 200 a month salary doesn’t go very far, even in Umbumbulu, and the tedious nature of his work gets to him. “We are crying for jobs,” he said. “I can do any job – woodworking, planting. I still have my power. I want to use it.” Khuzwayo told me that he is a trained welder, and can also do many other things. It is one of the ironies of life in South Africa that there is a skills shortage, and yet people like Khuzwayo and Makhanya are only nominally employed.

They both said that life has not changed much for them in the past decade. There are more roads, schools and clinics in Umbumbulu, and electricity and water is gradually being delivered, but the fundamental problems that the communities face remains the same as ten years ago. uMbumbulu Magistrate’s Court is situated near the police station. 

On the issue of crime, the men were divided. Makhanya said that there is no crime in Umbumbulu (crime being separate from violence). Khuzwayo laughed derisively, and said that there is, indeed, crime. They quickly reached consensus that there is crime in some areas – mostly housebreaking – and no crime at all in others. Makhanya lives in the Sgwebeni district, and said that life is peaceful there. The two mentioned the political violence that continues to plague the area, but asserted that it is restricted to certain districts.

The people of Umbumbulu live a subsistence existence – the kind of economy that hippies dream of – living almost entirely off the land. They do so in an incredibly beautiful environment, but try living that dream when the money economy is sparkling in the corner of your eye, its arterial roads cutting into the green, rural heart of the land.

Try paying for school uniforms, prepaid vouchers, taxi fares (the nearest commercial centre is Kingsway, more than twenty kilometres distant). Try obtaining the most basic essentials of modern existence, with no money at all.

Driving through this haunted Eden, we saw goats grazing on a hillside. “Do you like to eat goat?” Khuzwayo asked. “No, I don’t eat meat?” I responded. “Not even cow?” he enquired with a whiff of incredulity. Later, as two goats crossed our path, he imparted: “I like to eat goats. He’s very nice.”

A few days before I visited the area, one of the erratic storms we’d been having swept through Umbumbulu, the wind tearing off the roofs of many houses. As I drove along the meandering dust and gravel road with Khuzwayo, he pointed out collapsed structures. If you look carefully, the landscape is littered with the evidence of former buildings sinking back into the earth. Literally. In the rural heart of Umbumbulu, where I imagine sustainable architecture isn’t much of a buzzword, the houses, like nearly everything the eye can see, will eventually return to the earth without much fuss. There is not even a plastic bag in sight.

Those who were left homeless by the storm – and there were many – took refuge in their neighbours’ homes. The storm in Umbumbulu and the resultant housing crisis didn’t make the news. Rural areas are largely excluded from our media-based reality.

This heartbreakingly lovely landscape is marred by more than poverty, unemployment, increasingly freakish weather and a separation from broader society. For decades Umbumbulu has been the site of sporadic political and faction based violence, and many of the homes that dot the landscape have been abandoned. The source of the conflict is, according to Khuzwayo and Mkhanya, land and boundaries, as well as too much idle time. Violence is more likely to break out on holidays and at weekends.

Still, despite the darkness and the suffering that lies in these beautiful hills, both men acknowledged that there is a quality of life here that cannot be found in an urban environment – particularly one where poverty and unemployment are only marginally less likely than in these fertile valleys.

Sipho, who hails from Umkomaas, has spent the past decade living in Umbumbulu. He told me that he spent a year working in Durban, but returned toUmbumbulu. Sometimes it is too hot, but he likes it, he said. Senzo was more emphatic. “I was born here. I live here. I will die here,” he said with a broad grin. He doesn’t want to be anywhere else.

The very greenness of Umbumbulu, particularly after all the rain we’d been having, represents the possibility for some relief from the poverty and unemployment that defines life in the area. Water has to be carried over long distances – even with the recently introduced system of municipal water delivery. Residents can only, for the most part, grow enough food for their own needs. But when the water pipes that are gradually connecting the homesteads are all laid down, this sprawling community could, without too much additional infrastructure, transform itself into a small-scale organic farming community.
People farm for themselves with almost nothing, and sugar cane is increasingly being farmed independently by a few people and sold to private companies. With the current premium on organic produce, such an approach might allow these rural communities to engage with the modern economy, while at the same time maintaining their way of life.

As I entered Umbumbulu, the road was flooded with school kids on their way home, with the excitement of the approaching holidays in their hearts.

Leaving the area at the end of the day for the metropolitan landscape of Durban, I couldn’t help but wonder about the future of all those young minds. Would they stay in these God-given valleys, as generations had before them, and engage with the land and their traditions? Or would they feel the lure of the city, all that it offers, and all that it takes away?

To get to Umbumbulu, take the N2 south out of Durban. About 20 km after the airport turnoff, take the Kingsway/Umbumbulu turnoff and turn right to Umbumbulu. Drive for 23 km and turn right into Umbumbulu town.

Written by Peter Machen

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