South African spinoff land spurs self-reliance

A cold wind whips through Rosebella Matambeka's thatched rondavel. But she tosses her overcoat into a heap on the floor to model a full-length skirt she has made from sheepskins.

She turns from side to side, showing the skirt from every angle. Neighbors converge on her home with their own handiwork, covering a table with sweaters, floor mats, hats, and bags - all crafted from sheep wool and skins.

The display marks something of a mini-revolution for this rural backwater of South Africa called Transkei. For generations, sheep have been slaughtered on important social occasions. But only recently have the 3 million Xhosa-speakers of this hilly region along the Indian Ocean coast begun to make clothing and household goods from sheep.

The change is due to a new effort by Transkei to urge its citizens to become more self-sufficient.

This rural state, which South Africa designated an independent country in 1976, has only two resources to exploit: manpower and agriculture. With more than 60 percent of its male labor force living and working outside the Transkei, women are being urged to play a prominent role in the local economy.

Gustaaf van Beers, a third-world economist who is winding up three years as an adviser to the Transkei government, says Transkei sorely needs to gain guidance and control over development funds that would normally be exercised by a ''donor.''

South Africa provides the rural region with roughly 10 times the average per capita aid granted to most developing countries, he says.

But Transkei is beginning to do some economic planning of its own. It has just produced its first five-year development plan, which cites China as an example worth emulating for self-reliance and growth achieved during years of political isolation.

If there is a silver lining to the Transkei's own political isolation, it may be that it is learning to look inward for economic solutions, promoting more self-reliance, instead of relying on South Africa.

One of the basic problems it must overcome is resistance to development from segments of its own population. People of the region are divided into two camps. The ''reds,'' named after the color of the blanket that is a traditional piece of clothing, are resistant to change. The educated ''school people'' are those pressing for rapid development toward a more Western culture.

Selling wool to traders, as Mrs. Matambeka's neighbors do, fetches about 60 cents per sheep - often less than the bus fare to take the wool to town. But with training, Transkei women are eventually expected to produce vast quantities of woolen goods, which can be handled in bulk as a commodity for sale.

Perhaps the most basic need in Transkei is an increase in farm output. The region is 94 percent rural, but produces only 20 percent of the maize that is the staple of the local diet. The state-owned Transkei Agriculture Corporation is trying to introduce cooperative farming to increase productivity and efficiency.

Most homesteads are allocated a small plot of farmland by the local tribal authority. Traditionally, farming is done individually, producing a tremendous amount of duplicate effort. The agriculture corporation has moved into select communities of ''school people'' and offered to provide state assistance and training if the families will try farming their lands together.

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