We spent a lot of time in a car travelling through South Africa. I was fascinated by the sights and sounds of daily life as we traveled. We moved through farmland and towns, both large and small. The main roads were very good. Parts reminded me of western Pennsylvania where I grew up, parts reminded me of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada while others reminded me of the deserts just east of the Sierra Nevada. The Garden Route along the Indian Ocean was reminiscent of Big Sur. It was a very interesting experience.
We spent much our time in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. It is a governmental jurisdiction made from 2 former provinces: KwaZulu or Zulu homeland and Natal, an area inhabited mostly, by descendants of European settlers and Indian immigrants brought to South Africa generations ago as indentured labourers for the sugar plantations. One part of the former Natal, which we drove through, reminded me of Pennsylvania with its rolling hills, farms with silos, cattle grazing and some towns with very German sounding names. I was most fascinated by the rural areas of the former KwaZulu homeland.
The Zulu are one of the subgroups of the Nguni people who migrated from central Africa some say as early as the 12th century, others the 15th century. The Nguni were pastoralists; subsistence farmers who primarily herded cattle along with some sheep and goats. Some subgroups of the Nguni live in villages but the Zulu live in isolated homesteads – small family farms. Traditionally, the area is communally owned and males who would be the head of the household must get permission from the king to establish a homestead – this still holds good in some rural areas today. Each homestead is a cluster of huts for various family members surrounding a cattle byre or ‘kraal’ (corral). Huts were traditionally a beehive shaped structure made of thatch with a floor paved with cattle dung. As society modernizes, the thatch huts have been replaced by rondavels; round huts made of mud and stone, cement block or other, more modern material. The roofs can be thatch, or corrugated metal. The rondavels are increasingly being replaced by conventionally shaped homes with more modern building and roofing material. Cattle graze the land communally but are brought to the corral overnight. In older times, the corral served another surprising purpose – it was the burial place for family members. The Zulu have great reverence for their ancestors and having them buried in the corral keeps their spirit close to look after them. When travelling through the KwaZulu area, one sees hillsides dotted with these homesteads.
The Zulu and other Nguni people were traditionally herders; keeping mainly cattle and goats. Their prize cattle are recognized today as the unique Nguni breed. From what I have read the Nguni cattle are descended from Zebu (Indian) cattle and were further hybridized as European stock was introduced to Africa. To these herders, livestock meant wealth. It takes 11 cows to buy a bride and a wealthy man may have several wives. The fascinating thing about these cattle is that they are classified by color. In the Zulu language are several very distinctive, almost poetic names for the different skin patterns, and there can be much debate around what type a particular animal may be.
We noted that the strip mall phenomenon common in the US is not prevalent in South Africa. The smaller towns we traveled through all had busy main streets with markets. On Saturdays the markets were packed with people buying and selling goods. Another interesting feature are the rural taxis. They appear to be 15- 20 seater ‘minibuses’, owned by small independent companies as well as individuals. Those who live in rural areas rely largely on these taxis to commute to towns and cities for work and shopping, but ‘conventional’ bus services also run. Relatively few rural people have cars.
In other rural communities we passed through, we noted that the settlements were more village-like. These ‘villages’ appear to be laid out in in a haphazard fashion with dirt roads and paths between the lots. Much of this land is owned communally and, where this is the case, a person must ask the local inkosi (king) for permission to build a home.
South Africans of western origin tend to live in the more conventional structures on streets laid out in grids like we are used to seeing in the US and have access to most modern amenities, (though I don’t believe the McMansion craze which has hit the US has hit there). In today’s South Africa, suburbs are much more integrated than during the Apartheid era, but there are still clusters of communities of similar ethnic origin found throughout the country. Unfortunately, with a wide dichotomy between rich and poor still very prevalent, crime remains an issue and I was troubled by the many homes in more affluent neighborhoods which are fenced and gated, often with razor wire topping the fence.
It was a fascinating journey. Observing the culture was as interesting to me as observing the wildlife.
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