The first time I visited Mthatha, 2009, parents were refusing to let their kids walk to school for fear they would be raped and virtually every lamp-post was plastered with flyers for same-day abortions. The second, 2012, as I drove in, a young beggar with filthy clothes and a dirty face knocked on my window when I stopped at a set of lights – to distract me so his two companions could open a rear door and rifle my bag. A few blocks later, when I pulled over for directions, the woman I asked initially told me to get out of town. “You shouldn’t be out here alone,” she said. “Tsotsis [gangsters] are everywhere.”
When Nelson Mandela’s body is flown to Mthatha in the Eastern Cape Saturday ahead of his burial Sunday in the nearby village of Qunu, he will be returning to his home and to the heartland of his African National Congress (A.N.C.) – and also to one of the most egregious examples of A.N.C. failure in power. Today while cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town enjoy a new cosmopolitanism, a third visit on Wednesday confirmed once again that transformation is far less marked in the Eastern Cape. So do the statistics. A full 88% of people of the province’s population still live below the poverty line, according to government figures, millions of them in the same township shacks and grass-roofed huts that they occupied under apartheid. Government services are dire to non-existent: power, if it exists, can black out for days, while provincial statistics show 78.3% of the population have no running water and 93.3% have no sewers, prompting intermittent outbreaks of cholera. HIV/AIDS rates run at 13%, rising to a third in some townships. Unemployment is officially 41%, though non-governmental studies put it at 70%.
The destitution nurtures an epidemic of violent crime. The South African Police Service says the Eastern Cape has the country’s highest homicide rate and Mthatha’s, at 130 people per 100,000, is three times the provincial rate and one of the highest of anywhere in the world. Most horrifying are the rape statistics. The SA Medical Journal found rape in Mthatha rose from 39 per 100,000 women in 2001 to 417 in 2006. Since studies indicate that at most only 10% of rapes are reported, it concluded a more accurate but still conservative figure was 1,300 per 100,000 a year. That’s 45 times the equivalent figure in the U.S. and makes Mthatha a contender for rape capital of the world. Grimmest of all, children are at particular risk. The study showed 46.3% of the victims were under 16, 22.9% under 11 and 9.4% under six.
Apartheid left an atrocious legacy in the Eastern Cape. South Africa’s white supremacist social engineers divided much of the province into two areas it designated autonomous black homelands, Transkei and Ciskei, which it continued to rule as puppets but cut off from any government spending. The injustice of that racial marginalization fueled a wave righteous rebellion which bore many A.N.C. leaders – Mandela, and also Oliver Tambo, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Chris Hani, and Govan and Thabo Mbeki, as well as Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko.
Among them was Laura Mpahlwa. Born in Johannesburg in 1929, she was among the first to move to the South Western Township (Soweto) when it was designed a black dormitory town after apartheid was set up in 1948. In the 1940s Mandela moved from Qunu to Johannesburg, then Soweto. Mpahlwa went the other way, going to work in as a nurse in Mthatha hospital in 1953. “Back then, it was mud huts all the way from East London to Durban,” says the 83-year-old, referring to two major coastal cities.
With Transkei’s government little more than an apartheid puppet, the struggle was as fierce in Mthatha as Soweto. Mpahlwa’s first son spent five years on Robben Island for subversion, her second fled into exile and her third was tortured. Mpahlwa herself helped smuggle A.N.C. leaders in and out of South Africa from Transkei.
In 1981 Jennie and Chris McConnachie also settled in Mthatha. American Episcopalian missionaries originally from Britain, Chris’s profession – orthopedic surgeon – gave the pair a pragmatic purpose. They set up a fund-raising group, the African Medical Mission. With it Chris built Transkei’s only orthopedic hospital at Bedford outside Mthatha while Jennie established a clinic in a squatter camp on the eastern outskirts of the city whose Xhosa name – Itipini, meaning “In The Dumps” – described it physically and spiritually.
In 1990, Mandela was freed after 27 years in prison. In 1994, he became South Africa’s first black president. Mthatha was ecstatic. “There was such euphoria,” says Jennie, now 72. “It was such an amazing thing. We felt so hopeful.” There were also some immediate improvements. “People got lights,” says Laura. “Some got water. Work started on roads. There were social grants.” Still, when the A.N.C. asked Mpahlwa to become an MP in the new parliament, she declined. “I was scared,” she says. “Deep down I knew in my heart it was too big a position. I wasn’t trained for it. I wouldn’t cope.”
Other A.N.C. members did not share her modesty, with predictable results. The government of the new, free South Africa still left some of its people short of what they needed – books, teachers, medicine, roads, houses, jobs – and failed to protect many from what they didn’t. “Drugs, high rates of teenage pregnancies and HIV/AIDS,” says Mpahlwa. “There was mismanagement, misuse and, very disappointing, a lot of fraud.”
When Chris finished Bedford hospital in 1996, Mandela himself came to open it. “Nowhere has the legacy of apartheid been more shocking than in the state of health care in the former Transkei region,” said the then President at the inauguration ceremony, describing the hospital as “the difference between life and death” for the people of the Eastern Cape. Bedford symbolized the new hope of a remade country, said Mandela. It had been created “against all odds” by an inspiring spirit of “partnership which has come to characterize our young democracy” and would serve as an example of how a united South Africa would “build a better life for all.” Showing me a cracked photograph of a smiling Chris with Mandela at the ceremony, Jennie says: “It was the proudest day of his life.”
Chris died in 2006. By then Bedford could run without him. The same could not be said of Itipini. In many ways, the township was the lowest of the low in South Africa. Shacks were built from scrap metal and cardboard, there was no sewerage, transport or power, 3,000 people shared just two taps, unemployment was 80% and HIV/AIDS incidence at 33%. As well as the clinic, the mission ran a snack hall, a homework club, a soccer team, a recycling operation, a choir and a vegetable garden. After Chris’ death Jennie stayed on because she was needed but also because, despite everything, Itipini was a community. “Every year was a joy,” she says.
That charitable view was not shared by much of the rest of Mthatha. As a place of tiny alleyways and hidden corners unknown even to the police, Itipini had a reputation for harboring muggers and junkies. Years of simmering resentment exploded on April 20, 2012, when a group of men from Itipini murdered a liquor store owner in the neighboring suburb of Waterfall. Two days later, the two communities held a meeting overseen by the police. According to Karen Langley, an African Medical Mission volunteer who was present, Waterfall residents demanded Itipini be demolished. Several said they would burn it down. They gave the Itipini residents one week to vacate. The police did not intervene. On the night of May 1, a group of Waterfall residents set fire to eight Itipini shacks. When the police arrived, says Langley, they did not try to stop the arsonists but instead beat and arrested the residents. Families began moving out. On May 9, the police returned armed with rifles and announced through a bullhorn that all residents must leave immediately as they would return with bulldozers the next day. This they did. By the evening, Itipini no longer existed.
The authorities, it turned out, had no plan for how to re-house Itipini’s 3,000 people. Thousands wandered into Mthatha, seeking shelter from relatives or friends, hitching rides out of town, sleeping rough. A total of 268, including 24 children, moved to an empty Rotary Hall a mile away, which the Waterfall residents immediately threatened to burn down too. The authorities fed that group for two weeks, then stopped, complaining of the cost. Jennie stepped in though she says she too will soon be forced wind down her operations. “How can I fund-raise for a community that does not exist and a project that has been flattened?” she asks.
In the behavior of the A.N.C. authorities in Itipini, there were echoes of the actions of the apartheid government. At its core, apartheid was built on a thuggish, malevolent insistence that blacks were to be viewed not as individual human beings but collectively, as an inferior class. Black poverty was taken as self-evident proof of black inadequacy. Mandela, his comrades and a few white renegades were communists – Godless subversives. But the bigger picture was that the people they represented were backward as a people – they couldn’t help themselves – and if whites and blacks were separated by mental and cultural development, it made sense for them to be separated by geography too. Blacks as a group were the problem. So blacks as a group had to be moved.
It was that thinking that led Pretoria to drive bulldozers through troublesome townships, such as Sophiatown, a black neighborhood in Johannesburg, which was leveled in 1955. Blacks should return to their homelands, the apartheid authorities told thousands of newly homeless families. Close to 70 years later, Karen Langley said Mthatha’s police were also telling Itipini’s residents to go home to their villages.
Has fear and inequality created such division in Mthatha that it was in some ways regressing towards apartheid? In some ways. Jennie says the first time she felt truly afraid in 32 years in South Africa was at a meeting with the Waterfall residents after they demolished Itipini. “If somebody had said ‘Get her,’ I really feel they might have,” she says. “I felt surrounded by hatred.” Adds Mpahlwa: “Look at this town now. Mthatha is a more threatening place now. You used to be able to walk around alone at night. Now you can’t talk to people, can’t even look at them or they’ll stab you and take whatever they want.” She sighs. “It wasn’t a better life for all,” she says. “It’s so sad.”