When you come out of the storm

It is another day of bad weather much like the vast majority since I have been at Zithulele. Overhead the blue sky of the morning has gone and in its place dark storm clouds have gathered. Deep rumblings of thunder are echoing out over the valleys and the rain is coming to join the gusting wind which slams doors shut and whips curtains about.

The hospital staff community and non governmental organisation (NGOs) staff have just met to discuss the situation that is affecting us all. An update from Ben Gaunt has apprised of us what is going on and what we might expect in the next few days.

The drum rolls of thunder from above have a particularly ominous feel about them today.

This is nothing to do with health care, absent drugs or lack of X-rays or ambulances. Remarkably the ambulances are back (to their previous hopeless normality) and 29 staff from the Mthatha drug storage depot have been suspended and Medecins Sans Frontieres staff drafted in to cope with the drug distribution emergency.

Now the problem is a local one; however it is symptomatic of several much wider issues in this society

Although this is a democracy, and proudly so, power on the ground in the Eastern Cape is still dominated by tradition. There is a system of ‘chiefs’ based on family ties. The local chief is the ‘headman’ to a group of the population and although the land is government owned it is kept in Trust by him making him effectively the local landowner. He is subservient to the Great Chief (a sort of regional manager) who can overrule him in most if not everything. The exact details are obscure, at least to me. Notwithstanding this the headman is a locally important figure and largely responsible for the welfare of his community. He should know about all the important events and problems of his people. The hospital admission sheet documenting the patient details such as name, address, date of birth and religion (of which there are a remarkable number of variants) also has a section for entering the name of the person’s headman.

The thunder is getting louder. It is strange how primal is the sense of unease it engenders

None of the land on which Zithulele stands is therefore owned by the hospital. It has been ‘lent’ to the Church to build on to provide the healthcare facilities. The actual partition is complex with at least two local chiefs owning areas which adjoin on the hospital site.

The local chief is a young and rather hot headed man regarded by many as a trouble maker. His territory includes some of the community usage properties which have been used by NGOs and the hospital for community based projects and work. He also has a long running dispute with the Pastor of the church overseeing Zithulele. This relates to a disagreement over a tap, and a goose which was run over – clearly world shatteringly important issues.

Lately a very small but vociferous section of the local unemployed and disaffected ‘youth’ have got it into their heads, encouraged, or at least certainly not discouraged, by the local chief, that the NGO staff and volunteers are living on land next to the hospital which should be returned to them for ‘youth’ activities. Additionally (they say) the NGO staff have taken jobs which the local people should have.

We have had an uneasy few days when a number of our colleagues who are doing utterly splendid work in the community and the hospital have had to face somewhat hostile locals asking for their keys. Some of these are girls in their teens on their first volunteering attachment overseas. No keys have been handed over but it is more than unsettling working in this remote region to be confronted by aggressive local teenagers.

The thunder has been joined by visible flashes of lightning and the gap between is narrowing. The storm is gathering over this little community.

One can sympathise to an extent with the grievances. They see little that is positive in their own future and therefore take out their frustration on an easy local target – externally funded organisations providing outsiders with jobs and having accommodation while living on ‘their’ land. This simplistic and erroneous perception is creating a difficult situation.

It is perhaps symptomatic of the educational level here that there is so little understanding of how much good these people are doing and how many locals they employ, whose jobs would also go if the NGOs closed down. Over 100 locals are employed because of the presence of the NGOs.

There was a belief that the local chief had been put under pressure of some sort. That was until today when, at a meeting ostensibly designed to discuss the dispute, he stage managed it to restrict who could speak and what they could say. John, who represented Zithulele, apparently made a crystal clear and compelling presentation of the position as it really was and is, but the meeting had been prearranged in terms of the agenda and the attendees (no locals other than the troublemakers). The chief at one point said that ‘even if we go to jail we should not be afraid because it is our land’.

After this ‘meeting’ the chief and his cronies went to stand outside the wire fence surrounding the disputed buildings and his followers waited for him to show he really was prepared to go to jail. Strangely the presence of the police, who have been a magnificently calm and really reassuring presence, suddenly seemed to drain his resolve and he decided that cutting the fence and risking incarceration perhaps could wait for another time.

Throughout the week appeals have been made to the Great Chief to make a final judgement on the situation and meetings too tedious too enumerate have been occurring daily.

The local chief has made a few errors so far. He has recommended repossessing land and buildings which are actually on another chief’s territory. A climbdown ensued.

Today he demonstrated his humanitarian concern for ‘his’ community and their welfare in the most graphic way.

The therapists here had organised a Christmas party for all the children with cerebral palsy. Thirty mothers and their children from the rural population, who it has to be said live some of the toughest existences around, were gathered for a party in the Community Centre when they were ordered to leave forthwith. They were told they were not part of ‘the community’. Certainly it is a show of unarguable bravery and boldness to take on thirty women and their disabled children. It is the mark of a man of courage and vision and my level of respect for him has changed significantly as a consequence.

The thunder is right overhead. A simultaneous enormous flash and deafening crack of thunder and the lights flicker off momentarily

At the meeting today we were updated about the current status. It is thought unlikely that anything serious will actually happen. For reassurance however those volunteers and NGO staff who live in hostels on church land have been advised not to stay there tonight. Spare rooms and sofas are fortunately available in other flats in the main residence compound.

If there is no action taken to avert this latest episode in a chapter of unbelievable events that have been occurring at Zithulele – even in my short time here – then the local people are going to be the main and very serious, losers.

The irony is that if these few activists were taken out of the equation the last thing that the vast majority of the populace would wish for would be the disruption of the only competent health care facility for miles around.

It is now dark and the rain is beating down; a sound that has become almost background noise for me since I arrived.

The police force in the UK call rain ‘the policeman’s friend’ as crime falls in wet weather. Let us hope that it dampens the local hotheads and there is a dawning of common sense and common purpose.

Surprising to an outsider like myself is the bizarre level of autonomy afforded to a loose cannon like the local chief, making it seem to all intents and purposes a mediaeval society; surely not an image that the South African government want to portray to the rest of the world.


“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
― Haruki Murakami

3 thoughts on “When you come out of the storm

  1. Andrew, just read the entire blog from beginning to end… and what a read!
    Thoroughly enjoyed it.. so interesting reading all this from a visitors point of view. And you truly write beautifully. Also had a bit of a lesson on local birds.. found myself googling them as they were mentioned 🙂 You should write a book.. I for one would definitely read it.

  2. Great blog entry.
    Really enjoyed reading and learning a bit about the actual problem. My sister is a community service physio there so I have been filled in to a degree about this annoying and potentially damaging issue. It’s uncanny how humans crave drama. It’s normally best illustrated in rural areas where there’s not as much ‘exciting’ stuff happening as in the city. This leads to restlessness, boredom and the ‘need’ to manufacture drama. One hopes that sanity and foresight prevails!

    We faced similar grievances when I worked in Manguzi, northern KZN in 2007 when the Health MEC for KZN at the time came up for an official visit and held a meeting in the community hall where she proceeded to tell everyone present to beware of the umlungu doctors, they there for money, and they must be cautious when taking the ARV’s that these doctors are dishing out. This led to rage amongst our senior and long serving doctors who removed her picture off the wall and dispensed it into a more suitable place. However this was spotted by a traitor and before long this particular doc was being investigated, threatened and I believe ultimately led to his departure for ‘greener’ pastures…which resulted in a massive loss for the entire community.
    One needs to be very weary of these sorts of uprisings as the potential losses to the masses of innocent people far outweigh any gains for the few.

    Keep up the writing….

  3. Andrew, myself and husband Pete Grant were at Zithulele 2009 for a year (me doctoring, him running Jabulani). I devoured your entire blog and found it a spellbinding read. It really brings back the flavours smells and emotions of being there so vividly.

    It makes me so sad (but not so surprised) to hear of recent events. Thank goodness for the resilience and strength of the zithulele team.

    Please keep writing. I have been reading it w whilst feeding my 4 month son during the night and finding those wakes much more enjoyable so thank you.

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