South Africa

South Africa is an astonishing country. It has 11 official languages and a multitude of ethnic groups. Its economy is the largest in Africa, but it is rife with inequality and crime. Its embattled democracy is ruled by the party of struggle against apartheid, but it has made remarkable compromises with the shrinking minority of whites who still control many of the economic resources. 

I experienced a brief glimpse of this strange and marvelous country when ECHO sent me, along with a fellow intern and our head of research, to the Ukulima research farm in Limpopo Province to kick off the planting season on ECHO’s section of the farm.

ECHO is currently in the middle of a five-year study focusing on leguminous cover crops and their interactions with sorghum and maize under various low-input farming methods. We have a number of different trials going as a part of this study, but the main goal is to gather rigorous data on legumes which ECHO has determined have potential as cover crops across sub-saharan Africa. These are species like Lablab purpureus (Lablab, Dolichs), Mucuna pruriens (Velvet Bean), Canavalia ensiformis (Jack Bean), and others, that ECHO has been working with for a while, but thanks to a grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation now we are able to more fully quantify why these crops have potential, and study their interaction under various systems of cultivation in association with grain crops.

A Jack Bean sprout bursts from the soil:


Zai holes, a water conservation technique from West Africa:


In addition to doing some planting, we got a chance to look at the wildlife while we were in the area: Image




Another strange twist to our adventures was a trip to a now-abandoned property which was once home to a quixotic shrine to Afrikaner heritage. The Afrikaners, or Boers (the Afrikaans word for farmer, which they took on as a name for themselves) are descendants of Dutch colonists who were encouraged to settle near the Dutch trading post in Capetown so that they could farm and supply the traders with a food supply. Later the British took over Capetown, and, dissatisfied by English rule and wanting to expand into better farmland a group of Boers known as the “voortrekkers” loaded up in covered wagons (think Oregon Trail, but in Africa) and headed into the bush.

From there, things got complicated. The Boers set up several autonomous republics, but when the British began expanding their own colonial designs outside of Capetown they found these republics in their way. The British tried to take over the Boer republics, but they met fierce resistance, led by this guy, Paul Kruger:


As you can see by the shrine, he was seen as a hero. Regardless, the Boers eventually lost and their republics were absorbed into the union of South Africa. Afrikaaner nationalists like the man who made this memorial saw this as a terrible tragedy. This would be like the British re-conquering America after the pioneers had already settled the West. 



The houses above are model Boer dwellings built to commemorate their agrarian beginnings. It was an attempt to recapture an idealized vision of the Afrikaaners before the British ruined everything. But of course, the story above leaves one massive glaring omission: the black South Africans.

As it turns out the voortrekkers’ trek took place during a period in history now known as the mfecane–a word that means crushing or scattering. This scattering took place as the result of expansionist warfare undertaken by a confederation of clans which would eventually be called the Zulu. Before the rise of the Zulu kingdom there had been a careful balance in power between the tribes in southern Africa. Historians are divided on what triggered Zulu expansion. Some blame the introduction of corn–and therefore the ability to feed a standing army. Others point to the charismatic leadership of the chief Shaka, who introduced conscription and new, deadlier tactics to local warfare, Regardless, the balance was broken and warfare spread across the region, displacing whole people groups.

So when the voortrekkers moved East they encountered only scattered opposition until they reached Zulu territory. From their perspective they were only filling empty land.  Obviously this was God’s will that they settle this rich, uninhabited farmland. The only thing stopping them was the expanding Zulu hegemony.

The resulting battles ended in Zulu defeat (guns vs. spears). But it was enough of a struggle that the history worked its way into the Afrikaner religious imagination. Until recently one battle where 3,000 Zulu warrior were slain was remembered as the Day of the Vow, when God blessed the Boers with victory in return for a covenant of remembrance and thanksgiving. The day–December 16–is now known officially as the Day of Reconciliation, in an attempt to re-brand it for the realities of multi-ethnic South Africa.

Which brings us to the present. Afrikaners gained an electoral majority of the white population (the only population allowed a vote) in the Union of South Africa in 1948. The Afrikaner-dominated National Party ruled the country from that point until 1994. This is the period when apartheid (separation or apart-ness) was instituted, based on the long-held belief among Afrikaners that the races were created separately by God and should be institutionally separated by the state.

Of course that system, which relegated the majority–black South Africans–to a tiny portion of unproductive land was unjust and untenable. You all probably know about the struggle against apartheid and the rise of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. The result, in post-1994 South Africa has been a struggling but active democracy, still hobbled by vast wealth inequality but moving toward a more inclusive prosperity. But progress is slow. Even while I was there the newspapers were full of internal struggles within the ANC government and strikes at many of the mines that form a large part of South Africa’s economy. They have a hard road ahead of them. I wish them well.

Postscript: Travelers have a tendency toward “easy figures”–as Richard Wilbur said–like my well-wishing above. The thought comes to mind because one evening on the farm in South Africa we witnessed–well-nigh reenacted–the poem which that phrase comes from, “The Writer.” In the poem (which I suggest you read–or better, listen to the recording of Wilbur reading it) the author hears his daughter writing and story, and feeling the same surge of sentimentality I feel when leaving a place I’ve grown affection for, he thinks, “young as she is, the stuff of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy. I wish her a safe passage.” Well enough, but then, :”she pauses, as if to reject my thought and its easy figure.” And his thoughts turn to a more dire image, of a time when in that room a starling found its way in the window and they watched it “batter against the brilliance,” attempting to escape.

The same thing happened when my friend Brandon came in the house with a dazed bird, thinking it was too wounded to fly. Inexplicably, as soon as he brought it in the house it proved him wrong by swooping up to the rafters, then desperately circling the house trying to get out. For some time we tried to scare it toward an exit, until we finally turned the lights out. Less confused, it settled into a corner and Brandon recaptured it to set it loose outside.

In “The Writer,” Wilbur’s daughter, and Wilbur himself, are in the same predicament as the starling, “waiting, humped and bloody/for the wits to try it again.” And so, at the end he comes to a more full empathy with his daughter and the raid on the inarticulate she is staging in that upper room. “It is always a matter, my darling, of life or death, as I had forgotten,” he says. “I wish what I wished you before, but harder.”

The struggle to build equality and justice into a society, is, in even the most wealthy and homogeneous of nations, always a matter of life or death. South Africa, I wish what I wished you before, but harder.


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