Learning to gain trust and give hope

May 18, 2001

Outside a disused trading post, men on horseback drive ambling cattle across a timeless pastoral landscape bathed in autumn sunlight.

Inside the store, Michelle Cocks seethes with frustration. Ms Cocks, a botanist, has been working for Rhodes University's Institute of Social and Economic Research advising on a land restitution project in part of the Ciskei former homeland near Alice.

A group of former farmworkers has been trying to buy land that the government bought from their white employers in the 1980s. Ninety families have been grazing their cattle on nine farms, building a reasonable income but lacking the security of tenure. With the help of institute staff, the Masakane villagers have bought three of the farms, bringing security and freedom from the threat of incursions by neighbours.

But the Eastern Cape government, which agreed to the transfer in principle in 1999, has yet to release the title deeds. Promised in May 2000, the word is that they will be forthcoming in June 2001.

Ms Cocks has moved on to a new project but feels morally bound to do what she can to press the villagers' case with the provincial bureaucracy. "It is incredibly frustrating," she says.

A few kilometres outside East London, the women of Ngxingxolo have returned from an expensive, time-consuming and ultimately fruitless trip to the city to try to sell their beadwork and garments to tourists. Revenue from the crafts brings money into a community that has suffered from the atrophy of agriculture.

Under the guidance of institute staff, the villagers have diversified into small-scale pig and poultry farming, but there has been only limited progress in the development of viable alternatives to agriculture and there are constraints of time and resources on the support the university can provide.

The tensions created by these limitations are evident in the relationships between institute staff and the communities with which they work.

On the edge of East London, a coastal city economically dependent on the DaimlerChrysler motor plant, the institute is helping representatives of communities displaced in the 1950s from mixed neighbourhoods to create a museum in the city.

Working on the lines of the District Six museum in Cape Town, researchers are assembling a photographic and oral archive charting the communities that were broken up by enforced removals under apartheid; their working lives, leisure and music. The museum will play a key role in a tourism strategy for the province.

Older people are being enlisted to tap their memories. For many, the memories are strong, undiminished by a generation of oppression. They share the spirit of resistance that enabled the inhabitants of Duncan Village to drive out the apartheid administration and set up their own community council.

But some of the community feel that they are being exploited to benefit the careers of the researchers. They are pressing for practical guidance in areas where institute staff have limited expertise and too many demands on their attention and time.

Just 35km from Grahamstown, Rhodes's main campus, is the Great Fish River, the disputed boundary between the British and the Xhosa for much of the 19th century. There, the inhabitants of the former Ciskei have been left with limited employment opportunities. Social benefits provide the most significant stream of income. Agriculture is based on subsistence.

Tim Andrew, of Rhodes's department of ichthyology and fisheries science, has helped villagers exploit fisheries. Only a handful of villagers is involved - their catch is either consumed by the fishermen and their families, bartered or sold at the side of the nearest highway. But the project has shown the potential of fisheries as an environmentally positive way of bringing in income.

It also captures the dilemma for universities. To engage with the transformation process, they must gain the confidence of the previously disadvantaged majority and maintain their involvement long after the fixed term for a project has run out. The sector has tough lessons to learn if it is to adapt to the demands of a country undergoing a sensitive transformation.

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