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For the white South Africans who trickled to this valley idyll in the Karoo desert, an oasis of willow trees and picket fences, the village of Nieu Bethesda promised a good life. Potters, painters and writers snapped up handsome century-old houses and made the village an artists’ retreat, a tiny community free from crime and pollution, with a night skyscape of gleaming stars.
The Owl House of the late Helen Martins, an avant garde artist who filled her home with mosaics and sculptures, became a national heritage site. The playwright Athol Fugard immortalised her in a celebrated play, The Road to Mecca.
With a population of just 70, Nieu Bethesda seemed to embody the imagination and creativity of a South Africa reborn after apartheid. But now another South Africa, one of poverty and inequality, has crashed into it, exposing segregation, racial tension and government neglect.
Black families from Pienaarsig, a nearby township of 1,000 people, are abandoning their overcrowded settlement and moving down the valley in donkey carts to build a new township beside the village. The self-styled “invaders” are erecting tin shacks on the municipal land that fringes Nieu Bethesda. Six families have moved in recent weeks and dozens more are expected.
“We are fed up being poked around. We need space to live,” said Isaac Kasper, 63, as he lined the floor and walls of his new home with cardboard.
The migration has shattered the illusion of tolerance. At ill-tempered public meetings the prospect of hundreds of shack dwellers on the doorstep of a nearly all-white village has been rejected as an eyesore that will bring social problems. Some white residents want the site turned into a conservation area for flora and fauna, citing the “possibility that the [endangered] riverine rabbit has been sighted in this area”. They say medicinal plants such as Sutherlandia, which can be used to treat HIV-related illnesses, flourish locally.
The black community has responded angrily, claiming conservation is a pretext to perpetuate segregation and turn a blind eye to inequality. The dispute, touching nerves still raw 11 years after apartheid officially ended, is mirrored across South Africa where millions lack access to proper housing, water and other basic services.
Townships outside Johannesburg, Cape Town and other cities sprawl ever closer to well-heeled suburbs. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has warned of a backlash from those enduring dehumanising poverty. “We are sitting on a powder keg,” he said.
Stirred by a spate of riots across the country over a lack of basic services, the ruling African National Congress has promised to do better. “Everything that government does will stand or fall, succeed or fail, depending on what happens at local government level,” President Thabo Mbeki said earlier this month.
Nieu Bethesda is a microcosm of South Africa, said Alf James, 49, one of the few white residents to welcome the settlers. “That is why it’s so important it works here, that whites and blacks accept each other as members of the same community.”
There have not been riots in the village but some whites felt menaced when hundreds of township dwellers marched to demand housing and to proclaim their intention to occupy a 350-hectare (875-acre) site of municipal scrubland called Koeikamp.
The contrast between village and township, the result of apartheid-era planning, is vast. The former, shaded by poplars, willows and oaks, hosts families on plots of about 1,000 square metres. They have a sports club, swimming pools, gardens and flushing toilets.
In the barren, sunbaked township, less than a mile up the hill, a similar size plot hosts seven low-cost bungalows, some with three or four families each. Long-drop toilets in outhouses smell, and attract flies.
According to Dorah Oliphant, 53, a creche supervisor, seven out of 10 households have cases of tuberculosis, the result of overcrowding and HIV. The primary school barely functions, jobs are scarce and alcoholism is rampant — the staple drink is a harvest wine that costs 22p a litre. “People drink to forget,” said Ms Oliphant.
During apartheid the whites who inhabited this backwater in the Sneeuberg mountains north of Port Elizabeth tended to be conservative Afrikaner farmers. As their number dwindled they were replaced by city-born middle-class whites, many of them English speakers with artistic backgrounds.
They hired gardeners and maids from the township but there was virtually no integration. Whites worshipped at their own church, were buried in their own graveyard and socialised in their own pubs. Only three white children attended the township creche despite a consensus that it was well run.
“Supposedly liberal and sophisticated individuals arrived and attempted to uphold antiquated ideals with attitudes of intolerance,” said Mandy Smith, 29, a disillusioned white resident.
A common sight is white employers driving sports utility vehicles with labourers standing on the rear bumper, clinging to the roof, even though seats inside are empty.
“You can’t have labourers at your table. They’re stinky. It’s not done,” said Christian Roberts, 77, a retired police brigadier who runs a grocery shop.
Township residents said they would not have minded the segregation so much if a promise to build 200 low-cost houses had been kept. “Our problem is not with the whites but the government,” said Ashley Horn, the township’s housing committee chairman.
The area’s municipal representative, Arthur Knott-Craig, admitted the housing crisis had been neglected and blamed the provincial authorities.
Like an increasing number across the country, Molly Van Heerden, 52, who shared two tiny houses with 29 relatives, has lost patience with the government and is preparing with her husband and four children to move to the new settlement down the hill. “We want peace and privacy, that’s all. As long as whites don’t interfere with me I won’t interfere with them,” she said.
The white community is bitterly divided. A few welcomed the settlers’ initiative but most opposed it, claiming that the shacks will ruin the view and deter tourists, the village’s main source of income.
Tempers flared at public meetings when it was proposed the site be turned into a nature reserve. Others have moderated their opposition, saying they would accept “pockets” of new dwellings which blended with the village aesthetic. “We have no objection to people living [beside us] with the same size property as us. To us that is integration,” said Charmaine Haines, a potter.
Wilmarcio Maswan, 21, a township resident who went to the prestigious Rhodes University, said Nieu Bethesda should not be singled out for its segregation. “I saw the same thing at Rhodes in the dining hall.”
The student shrugged. “Our democracy is only 11 years old. We need more time to put the past behind us.”
(Posted on December 29, 2005)