DAGGA KEEPS SA'S POOREST TOWN ALIVE
Harvest Time Provides Some Relief From Grinding Deprivation
Johannesburg - WHEN Ntabankulu Mayor Phumzile Matshoba was arrested this
week and charged with stealing R500 000 from the municipality, the people
of the poorest town in South Africa cheered with delight.
They resented him because he flaunted his wealth by wearing gold jewellery
and drove around the Eastern Cape town in flashy cars when they had so little.
This week, as Matshoba was released on R20 000 bail, the Human Sciences
Research Council pronounced Ntabankulu municipality the poorest in the country.
The HSRC found that of Ntabankulu's 136 370 people, 115 914 lived below the
poverty line - defined as when a family of four lives on less than R1 290 a
Their lifeline is the dagga plantations that they grow between their small
No one openly lays claim to the plants that are hidden away between trees
and weeds. But November, harvest time, is the town's only time of plenty.
Then the villagers build secret chambers beneath their houses and under
water storage tanks for fear that their green gold will be confiscated by
the police if they were to be reported by a jealous neighbour.
Until the harvest, the people of Ntabankulu suffer and schoolchildren faint
The HSRC research shows that:
Only 4 304 of Ntabankulu's people have jobs;
6 453 live on less than R400 a month; and
12 051 live on less than R800 a month;
17 637 have no toilets;
Only 162 households have piped water in their homes, while 1 804 rely on
communal standpipes and 13 329 rely on rivers or streams.
Craig Schwabe of the HSRC said the information was based on figures from
Census 2001 and Unisa's Bureau of Market Research.
The illegal marijuana crops often pay for sick children to be taken to the
doctor. And sometimes the R28 to R63 for school fees only gets paid when
the dagga is sold.
Many residents took to growing marijuana when they realised that maize
plants no longer survive in their drought-ridden area.
In Ntabankulu, things are dire. More men are left unemployed each time a
mine on the Wit watersrand shuts down.
The principal of Xakani Combined School, Nokuzola Tuntulwana, knows she is
living in the country's most deprived area. She stares into the face of
poverty each day as she stands before her class of 170 Grade 1s.
"We have no electricity, water or toilets," she says. "The children use the
nearby bushes and the spring for water is 2km away."
Her class sits huddled on the earth-dung floor. Some, in tattered uniforms,
perch on the four desks. There are only 25 desks for six classrooms.
Two classes share each room with their backs to each other as they face
their respective teachers, who take turns using the single blackboard.
"Many of my children have sores from malnutrition and from not washing, and
swollen glands in their necks," Tuntulwana says.
Often, she and her colleagues pay for a doctor to confirm a child's
One of the children, Nelisiwe Ngubo, comes from a family of eight. She
hardly ever does homework because there is no money to buy candles.
Tuntulwana knows that the highlight of Nelisiwe's day is lunchtime at the
school, when the 10-year-old eats her only meal of the day - a slice of
buttered brown bread and a yellow government-sponsored immune-booster drink.
The villagers of Ntlambash, who built the school, can barely do enough to
keep themselves going. "People sit with nothing to do or they grow dagga,"
Mahomed Essa, a doctor who has lived in Ntabankulu since 1979, also knows
"This town is nothing without the mines. People wait for the taxis to
arrive from Egoli once a month," he says.
His patients are mostly women and children.
"They used to tell me money will arrive at the end of the month when their
husbands return from the mines."
Now, they tell him their crop is good and that they are expecting money and
will pay later.
Essa had to reduce his prices to make it possible for people to see him.
The HSRC's figures show that about 25.6 million South Africans live in poverty.
Ntabankulu is categorised as having a Living Standards Measure of just one
point. That means that zero percent of the population have access to
electric stoves, microwaves, fridges or sewing machines, while 1% have
access to an electric hot plate, a television or a hi-fi and 7% have access
to gas or coal for energy.
Essa says: "The mayor used to drive different expensive cars quite often...
and all the time the people still suffer."