Prospects bleak for Ciskei blacks after 'independence'

Venerable Mzolisi Mpondo has one of those grizzled ebony faces that find their way onto African travel posters and post cards. But tourists in this white-ruled country would have a hard time finding him. For he is one of hundreds of thousands of black people that have been shunted to desolate rural areas of the Ciskei tribal reserve in furtherance of the South African system of apartheid, or separation of the races.

Apartheid has, as one of its goals, the physical removal of black people from cities and farmlands that whites claim for their own. The result: concentrations of black people in the country's rural areas, far from employment opportunities, and often in conditions of abject poverty.

Nowhere has the policy had more devastating effect than here in Ciskei, in the south-central part of South Africa. According to Rhodes University researcher Nancy Charton, some 350,000 people have been resettled into the area. In the process, large parts of isolated Ciskei have been turned into rural slums.

The statistics look pretty bleak. Infant mortality in some areas is over 10 percent, according to a physician working in the region. (By comparison, the infant mortality rate in the United States in 1978 was 1.36 percent.) Malnutrition is evident among half of all two- and three-year-olds, according to some surveys. Annual per capita income in 1976 -- the last year for which figures are available -- was estimated at only about $275.

The real-life situation belies even those bleak statistics. Tens of thousands of people are living in overcrowded squalor, mired in poverty. Yet, instead of launching plans to improve these areas, the South African government has plans to declare them "independent" on Dec. 4 of this year, when it officially excises Ciskei from the white-ruled South African Republic.

That move, according to the government's critics, will allow it to disclaim further responsibility for the rural slums that it has created in furtherance of its racist policies.

The South African government defends its actions, however, arguing that it is really giving "self-determination" to the black people of Ciskei.

"Our policy," says one official, "is to have separate governments for every national group."

"What's going to happen to this place after independence?" asks a community worker, gesturing towards a densely-packed agglomeration of shanties known as the Oxton resettlement camp.

At Oxton, tens of thousands of people have been jammed onto a wedge of land in haphazard fashion. Most of the mud, tin, and clapboard shanties are separated from each other by only a few feet. The outdoor toilets of some households stand near the fron doors of adjoining dwellings, yet this crowded camp is surrounded by rolling acres of vacant land that the government has reserved for cattle grazing.

Nearby is another camp, called Zweledinga, which in the Xhosa language means "promised land." People moving here were promised arable land. Some are still waiting, after nearly five years, in a transit camp denuded of virtually all vegetation. Amid rocks and rubbish, people share tiny plots with pigs, goats, and scrawny dogs.

Mr. Mpondo is one of the relatively fortunate people who have been given some land on which to grow crops. But his half-acre plot is hardly sufficient to feed himself and his six grandchildren, whose parents are away working as migrant laborers in south African cities.

Nevertheless, he is carefully tending his small plot in the hope that the vegetables it produces will help him make ends meet. A university study reckons that a family of five in this area needs a monthly income of at least $200 for bare subsistence. Mr. Mpondo's family of seven has no other income than his $44 monthly government old-age pension.

That is why, on even the hottest of days, Mr. Mpondo can be found cultivating rows of tiny cabbage seedlings. One grandchild, naked except for a tattered sweater around his shoulders, works alongside him.

After all, Mr. Mpondo explains plaintively, "This is all the land I have."

Still, having land at all places him among the relatively fortunate few. One survey reportedly found that of more than 350,000 rural residents in Ciskei, only 27,000 have land. And, according to a recent study, half of the Ciskei land is moderately or severely eroded.

Some 30 miles away, yet another resettlement camp -- called Thornhill --sprawls over an unpromising hillside. Red gashes of erosion cut through rows of mud huts spread irregularly over a distance of some two miles.

Old pictures of the area show cattle grazing in shoulder-high grass. But that was when the land supported only a few white farmers, not thousands of dispossessed black people. Too many people, goats, and cattle have caused the disappearance of virtually all the natural vegetation -- and much of the topsoil.

About the only thing scarcer than grass here is employment. One woman, who moved to Thornhill three years ago, says, "There is no work here. We have no jobs."

The same is true of Glenmore, a fenced-in concentration of pine-planked, box-like structures near the "white" university town of Grahamstown. Some 3,000 people have been moved to Glenmore, supposedly as the first-wave of an envisioned 20,000 people in a planned black city.But the government here abruptly shelved the plans, leaving Glenmore's residents in rural isolation with virtually no employment opportunities.

Now, the people of Glenmore have been told they are to be moved to yet another resettlement camp. That, according to experts, has only served to further dispirit the people and take away the incentive to make improvements to their present camp.

"Why plant crops," asks one, "when they may not be around to reap them?"

There are a few showcase development projects in Ciskei. One, for example, is an irrigation scheme near the Sada resettlement camp, bringing water to cornfields. Yet there are apparently no plans to bring water to a squalid mud-hut settlement nearby. Housing several thousand people, it is called the "village of tears," for, as one man explains, "the people were crying when they came here."

And now that they are here, what will happen with "independence" in the offing?

"I just don't know," says one worker. "The government created Ciskei as a reserve for migratory labor, but there are no jobs for these people. What happens to them?"

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