Volume 15 Number 1
Citizen Power in South Africa
01 February 2002

In the dying days of the apartheid era, the inhabitants of Stutterheim, South Africa, took their future into their own hands. William Smook visits a town which has undergone a remarkable transformation.

Nestling at the foot of the Amatola mountains in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, Stutterheim looks like any of the country’s 500-odd rural towns. But its people have wrought something the politicians only promised in 1994’s democratic elections: new infrastructure, job creation, education programmes and new dignity for a population targeted by the worst of apartheid policies.

This almost miraculous progress was achieved by quietly determined local folk, not by career politicians brandishing rhetoric and legislation in a faraway parliament. Perhaps that’s why it’s been so effective.

Stutterheim was a product of a pioneering spirit and of conflict. When white settlers first staked their claim on the land, there were bloody wars with local black tribes. More than a century later, in the 1960s, apartheid legislation decreed that black residents of the area should be relocated to the ‘homeland’ of the Ciskei. Forced removals ensued and no new infrastructure was built for blacks outside the homeland.

By the late 1980s, this policy had borne bitter fruit. Stutterheim was a microcosm of South Africa: white and black communities were physically divided and mutually suspicious. Conditions in black townships were appalling: in one area there were three taps providing water for 8,000 residents.

Unemployment and crime were rife. Stutterheim was a hotbed for political activity and with no avenues open for blacks to voice their grievances, tension and political unrest grew. There were clashes between township youngsters and police.

In 1989 a nine-month consumer boycott against white businesses began. Stutterheim became like a ghost town. Fourteen businesses closed. The boycott was a double-edged sword, bringing hardship on the black residents, who had to travel 50kms to King William’s Town, the nearest town.

With political parties such as the African National Congress (ANC) still banned, Stutterheim had a strong civic movement. This effectively ran the townships. The black town councillors, while elected, were not recognized by the township residents.

Township youngsters rigidly enforced the boycott, recalls Tom Dyantyi, now Manager of the Stutterheim Business Advice Centre. ‘They’d check your cash slips and see where you’d bought your stuff. Life was cheap. It was pretty tense.’

In response to the crisis, the mayor of the day, Nico Ferreira, organized a town meeting with the civic leaders. The fact that the meeting took place is astonishing, given the mood of mistrust and hostility. It helped that Ferreira and his fellow councillors weren’t political appointees—all had stood as independent candidates. He recalls: ‘We made it known that we weren’t interested in party politics and we had opposition, from left and right.’

There were several covert meetings in isolated venues, as the black residents established whether Ferreira was sincere. He was told: ‘You can’t know who our true leaders are, because they’ll be locked up if you do.’ But eventually he was taken to meet Chris Magwangqana, a political activist (since then mayor and now Chief Executive Officer of the Amahlati district, under which Stutterheim falls.

Those who brokered and attended the meeting were risking their lives. Ferreira later learnt that a neo-fascist white supremacist group had planned to assassinate him. Black participants in the meeting faced similar threats. The house of Max Judy, one of the organizers and now Manager of the Stutterheim Development Forum (SDF), was firebombed. One meeting to introduce Ferreira to black leaders had to be aborted when an angry group of black hotheads gathered outside the house. The police didn’t look favourably on the idea either.

But the meeting went ahead on 6 May 1990, with Magwangqana presenting a list of demands, both national—such as the release of all political detainees—and local—such as the consolidation of local government structures.

It’s acknowledged that the town meeting was a turning point for Stutterheim, with both sides showing willingness to compromise in the interests of progress.

Magwangqana said later: ‘I took a risk. Many people did not want to talk. We made a conscious and realistic choice to focus on development—we wanted to couple will with reality.’

In her book on the Stutterheim story, Making a difference (Vivlia, 1997), Barbara Nussbaum writes: ‘The profound power of the simple act of listening (has emerged) as a theme worthy of note.’

The councillors and civic leaders resolved to develop dialogue and work on solutions to problems. They conceded that they couldn’t solve the national issues, but committed themselves to working on the local ones. The consumer boycott was lifted, catching the beleaguered shopkeepers off guard.

The group worked on the basis of good faith, rather than developing an exhaustive constitution and protocols. The focus was on meeting needs, rather than hammering out definitive blueprints.

Funding was secured from the Independent Development Trust (a non-government organization) to provide services to 900 residential stands. International funding has since become available.

Left to right: Stutterheim Development Forum Director Nico Ferreira, Stutterheim Business Advice Centre Manager Tom Dyantyi and SDF Manager Max Judy

The Stutterheim Development Forum was founded, aimed at expediting the development of infrastructure, jobs and education. Its leadership was chosen by the community and it ran as a non-profit organization, working with the municipality to ensure that projects made it through the red tape.

Instead of contracting big corporations, the residents were taught to do the work themselves. Once the residents had learned a trade, they were taught business skills. Ferreira says: ‘Skills without entrepreneurship won’t work. If you’re a plumber or a builder you need to know how to tender for a contract and so on.’ They could then make a living as bricklayers, plumbers or carpenters.

Training was provided by skilled artisans, many of whom could only help at night. The white townsfolk helped by teaching skills or raising funds.

‘It meant that people who had never been employed before were able to provide for their families,’ Judy says.

‘Once people saw what could be achieved by working together and that they were driving the development themselves, not some authority, then there was no time to dwell on the past.’

Judy notes that now, 12 years later, the government is trying to foster community forums: ‘You can’t legislate unity. It must be in the hearts of the people, whether you’re dealing with Afghanistan or Stutterheim.’

The SDF set up action committees to address planning, education, works, economic development, health, agriculture, tourism and recreation.

One particular area of success has been education. South Africa’s migrant labour system spawned a system where the men are away for most of the year and the women work in the fields or the towns. As a result small children are cared for by their grandparents and later left to their own devices.

The SDF set up a programme to involve mothers in the education of their children. Some have opened their homes to about 25 pre-school children, and nearly 3,000 children are involved. Lois Kleyn, head of the Stutterheim Education Trust, says: ‘We try to provide basic materials such as paints and crayons, but the mothers generally provide their own furniture and whatever else they need from recyclable materials.’

Apartheid bequeathed an education system that was utterly skewed, with black schools politicized, run-down and understaffed. But the area now has an educational system aimed at giving school leavers an opportunity to earn a living. Kleyn says the Education Department doesn’t interfere: ‘If we waited for the go-ahead we’d still be in a quagmire of red tape. In the meantime we have to meet the needs of the people. We also have to try to bridge the huge divide between the community and school.’

Of every 100 kids finishing school this year, she says, three will find formal jobs, three will go on to further education and 94 will be unemployed. ‘So we have to ensure not only that they have a good education, but that they have the skills to become self-employed.’ With 50 schools in the area using the education trust’s system, thousands of youngsters are being given a better chance at a proper education.

The teachers themselves are learning new skills, particularly in how to teach science. Stutterheim’s education trust has become a satellite campus of Rhodes University and this year will offer a Further Diploma in Education.

Stutterheim already has the highest number of technologically literate teachers in the country. Each has completed a 300-hour, part-time course in computer literacy. Kleyn says the classes have a 98 per cent attendance rate and zero per cent dropout rate. The trust’s computer centre also teaches computer skills to 900 rural youngsters each year.

Another benefit of Stutterheim’s cooperation with Rhodes University is the counselling service offered by psychology masters students in the area. It provides much-needed access to skilled counsellors and valuable experience to the students.

Other programmes under way include Thunga-Thunga, a tourism authority that includes the Mgwali Cultural Village, township tours and home-stays with families. A tour route will incorporate scenic coastal roads and national parks. Those participating in the scheme will be able to buy shares in it and own it.

Connie Kekana, who runs Thunga-Thunga, says of the changes in Stutterheim: ‘It reached a point where we could either fold our arms and wait for someone to help, or we could do it ourselves and improve the lives of those around us.’ And the experience is spreading—so far 140 South African towns have begun implementing guidelines drawn up by the SDF, with workshops subsidized by the Open Society Foundation.

Magwangqana says the emphasis in the area is on clean governance, new infrastructure and the alleviation of poverty on farms through cooperation with farmers. ‘It’s not about black and white anymore, but about what we can achieve.’
William Smook

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