While much has been written about popular resistance of the marginalised people of South Africa, as well as its violent repression by the state in urban areas, very little attention has been paid to resistance by the rural poor. This is according to Professor Thembela Kepe of the Department of Geography, University of Toronto and visiting professor in the Department of Geography at Rhodes University. He said, current political discourses about the poor are selective in acknowledging rural areas in general.
Prof Kepe was present a lecture entitled: The relevance of past rural resistance in contemporary South Africa: The Case of the Mpondo Revolts. The Mpondo Revolts, which began in the 1950s and reached a climax in 1960, rank among the most significant rural resistances in South Africa during which Mpondo villagers emphatically rejected the introduction of Bantu Authorities and unpopular rural land use planning that meant loss of land. Using the Mpondo Revolts to highlight the relevance of past rural resistance in understanding the continuing marginalisation of, and responses by, rural people, Prof Kepe suggested that much more needs to be done to highlight the plight of the rural poor who have contributed to South African history. “Our focus should not only be on the past and our history but on documenting what is happening right now in rural areas. This is critically important for our history as a nation,” he said, adding that he is concerned by the lack of literature on the issues surrounding the resistance and struggles of the rural poor. “We do not debate the history of these people or take it seriously. When rural people get angry they are seen as being irresponsible and are often accused of being assisted by academics or NGOs. A lot is going on in rural areas and we are not documenting it sufficiently to help deepen our understanding of the people in these areas,” he said.
He mentioned the example of a violent protest by rural people in a village surrounding Silaka Nature Reserve that was recently reported in the local media. Almost five years since the land claim for Silaka was settled by the state, villagers remained discontent. Prof Kepe believes that protests such as these point to many unresolved underlying issues in rural areas, which continue to be ignored by those in power. Originally from Grahamstown, Prof Kepe said he was struck by the disparities of national media coverage of rural resistance and struggles of the marginalised in South Africa, as suggested by the lack of attention given to such issues in influential writings, such as Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom – among the 70 pages dedicated to content related to rural areas, there is no trace of rural resistance. “How can we explain the marginalisation of rural areas in South Africa? Will it ever stop?” asked Prof Kepe.
The majority of Prof Kepe's work focuses on land rights, small-holder agriculture, the politics of development and rural resistance and he has over 20 years’ experience of research in the rural Eastern Cape and Mpondoland. He has published widely in the areas of land rights, rural resistance, politics of land use planning, and people-environment interactions among others and co-edited two books on land claims and rural resistance in South Africa, Land, Memory, Reconstruction and Justice: Perspectives on Land Claims in South Africa (Ohio University Press and UKZN Press, 2010) and Rural resistance in South Africa: The Mpondo Revolts after Fifty Years (Brill and UCT Press, 2012), respectively. Widely accepted to be the most comprehensive account of the revolts, and includes contributions by Professor Fred Hendricks, Dean of Humanities at Rhodes University, and Prof Jeff Pieres of Rhodes University, the volume presents a fresh understanding of the uprising as well as its meaning and significance then and now, particularly relating to land, rural governance, party politics and the agency of the marginalised.
Photo and story by Sarah-Jane Bradfield