Welcome Wood, Ciskei, South Africa — The old woman trudges barefooted along a rocky back road, her hair covered by a black turban in the traditional manner of the Xhosa people. She passes fields that were farmed for generations by her Xhosa ancestors. Today, they are part of a commercial pineapple plantation. A sign warns her to keep out and forbids her to pick the fruit.
A car filled with white fishermen throws up enveloping dust clouds as it roars past her on the way to the mouth of the Kei River. The river mouth occupies an important place in Xhosa tribal tradition, but today whites-only holiday retreats cluster around it.
However, the South African government claims it is busy restoring to the Xhosa people much of their ancestral land, in a process it likens to decolonization.
But it is a distinctly peculiar form of decolonization that the government has in mind.
For it is forcibly uprooting South Africans of Xhosa descent from across this white-ruled republic, and is relocating them here in the remote, rolling expanses of the Ciskei. (Ciskei means "this side" of the Kei River; Transkei means across the Kei.)
The Ciskei, as was the case with neighboring Transkei, is probably destined to the excised from South Africa and dubbed an "independent" country. That independence is likely to be recognized only by other former tribal reserves-turned-republics -- Transkei, Bophutswana, and Venda -- and South Africa itself.
Other nations refuse to recognize the independence of these reserves or black homelands on several grounds. One is because of the people dubbed "citizens" of them have no direct vote on the question of independence. Another is that the population of these reserves is determined on ethnic grounds.
In fact, if the Ciskei becomes "independent," not only the area's 666,000 residents theoretically lose their claim to South African citizenship, but also an additional 1.4 million persons living elsewhere in South Africa.
There is strong, sometimes bitter, opposition to the homelands policy of South Africa. A commission investigating the future of the Ciskei found that 90 percent of the Xhosa people preferred "one single multiracial government" for South Africa, and a majority rejected "independence" for the Ciskei.
Yet one well-informed black activist predicts the Ciskei government, headed by Chief Lennox Sebe, will decide on independence sometime in 1981, public resistance notwithstanding.
"Definitely next year," the source says, "I'm sure."
The homeland government, this informant adds, has succumbed to the blandishments -- and the pressure -- of the South African government.
"They are just stooges," this person says of the homeland leadership. "They do what the central government says to do, even if it's not good for the people."
Indeed, the South African government continues moving people to the Ciskei -- many against their will -- in preparation for the day it can denationalize them.
Most are placed in what the South African government calls "resettlement camps." These often are simply barren patches of ground, far from cities or job opportunities, and sometimes lacking even adequate water and sanitary facilities.
One such camp is Welcome Wood. Government critics say it was obviously named by a person with a sense of the absurd. Several years after its inception, Welcom Wood has wter taps, pit latrines, a modest health clinic, a collection of corrugated-tin shanties, and little else.
Even the notion of rebuilding ethnic solidarity becomes a bit strained here. Most of the residents of Welcome Wood were evicted from Upington, a "white" town some 450 miles away.
They had been living there for so many generations that most spoke only Afrikaans, the language of the main white ethnic group, and yet were expected to converse with their Xhosa-speaking neighbors in this, their "homeland."
The land itself is, over large areas, monotonously rolling, rocky hills. With the persistent drought in the Ciskei, it was almost monochromatic, although recent rains have brought green back to the gray slopes.
In other areas, there are fertile valleys, bisected by magnificent kloofs (ravines). Experts say they could become a breadbasket, with an investment of around $400 million in irrigation projects. But such an amount is unlikely to be forthcoming, before or after independence.
The Xhosa people are often pictured in tourist brochures in their traditional skirts, ornamented with colorful beadwork. In fact, one has to look to find people who still follow such traditional ways. In many locales, traditional thatchedroof huts have given way to corrugated-metal shacks, and people wear tattered Western-style clothes.
It is fairly easy to get lost in the Ciskei. Most of its rural roads are unpaved, and its singposts merely ciphers. In fact, it is impossible to tell where the Ciskei ends and "white" South Africa begins.
One farmer, for example, insisted that his homestead was on "white" land. But the huts were his labor force lives, a scant hundred yards up the hill, were in Ciskei, he said.
Though Ciskei is spread in patchwork fashion across the southeastern portion of Cape Province, some whites still resist the consolidation of the homeland.
"After, all," grouses one white woman, "we can't give them everything."