The village that didn’t know who to vote for

There is very little trace of political campaigning in Wupperthal, a village in the region where the wild rooibos grows and where descendants of the Khoi people who first inhabited this land live.

In the towering Cederberg mountains in the Western Cape, white houses are nestled at the bottom of the rocky landscape. To see them, you’d have to travel 30kms down a bumpy dirt road. The charred remains of half the village are hard to see higher up in the mountains. But the descent into the valley lays everything bare in this small town of Wupperthal. The land here is privately owned, but through their vote, people hope to govern. As the province is set to once again be led by the Democratic Alliance (DA), Wupperthallers have yet to find where they fit in the province’s political landscape.

In Wupperthal, a historic town with generations of Khoi heritage and memory, people have similar reasons for wanting to vote: “I want to have my say,” the mostly older community will declare. Residents often feel they have no sway in this small village, which comprises just 108 houses. The 35 hectares of sandy land on which Wupperthal is built is in the custodianship of the Moravian Church. The land, therefore, is owned by the church and government cannot intervene unless it has the church’s permission. The entire town finds itself in the unusual position of being on privately owned land.

But residents here, and in the 15 smaller villages around the town, believe in voting. They cannot always feel the direct impact of government on the private land where they live, but they know that voting is their right. Their confusion, however, is who to vote for.

The Cederberg region is under the leadership of the DA, and according to Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) results on Friday morning, the party retained most of its support including in Wupperthal. But Wupperthallers have lost some faith in the party. Residents say that the gravel road which leads to the community from the N7 highway was meant to be paved long ago after the DA made promises. To date, the road has only grown worse. Without a good road, the village is difficult to access. There are not enough jobs to sustain the town, so youngsters have made the four-hour journey by car to Cape Town.

The election results posted by the IEC for the province show that the DA is in a comfortable lead. At 9:07 on Friday morning, 95.88% of the provincial vote had been counted. The party led with 54.98%, while the African National Congress (ANC) trailed with 29.02%. Already, by Thursday night, the ANC has conceded defeat in the province.

For Wupperthallers, the election data has little meaning. There is only one WiFi port in the town, and most of the community can’t access it from their houses. What they hope for, however, is that provincial and national government will finally help them out of the situation they find themselves in.

7 May 2019: Children walking to school past the empty shells of houses destroyed by the fire that swept through the town late last year, destroying 53 structures.

Private governance

When the Rhenish Missionary Society arrived in 1830, the German Christians encountered seven Khoi families. The Khoi and the church lived together in the area. The community even educated the church about a plant, rooibos, which grows wild around the mountains and can be cultivated to make the famous tea that would become one of the hallmarks of South Africa around the world. In 1965, the Rhenish Missionary Society transferred the land into the custody of the Moravian Church, which then took over the mission station as their predecessors began to withdraw from the area.

Small-scale farmers still grow rooibos using the same process as their forefathers. The process of harvesting the plant, cutting it, fermenting its leaves and leaving them to dry is carried on by the 100 farmers who are divided into four co-ops in the town.

But, despite the booming success of the rooibos industry and the origins of the tea in the Cederberg region, there are very few traces of parties ‍campaigning in Wupperthal. The Cederberg is where wild rooibos grows. It is exported across the world, including to the European Union and Japan, and is recognisable as a uniquely South African product. It is in this region where descendants of the Khoi people who first inhabited this land still live. Yet despite the significance of the area in producing a proudly South African product, there are no political campaign posters plastered to the few light poles or many trees around the village. In 2016, University of Cape Town associate professor Rachel Wynberg described small scale coloured rooibos farmers as being “economically, politically and geographically marginalised”.

Edgar Valentyn is a farmer and activist in Wupperthal. He is one of the loudest critics of the church in the community, accusing the Moravian institution of unfairly holding on to the land and preventing government intervention in the area where many people live from subsistence farming or the income earned from rooibos farming.

“You see in Wupperthal, if I vote for Freedom Plus or COPE, it will stay the same. It can’t change because this is church ground and the parties can’t do anything on other people’s property,” says Valentyn.

Jasmine Radcliffe, a longtime minister at the church, says they would happily release the land to the community. But Radcliffe says that there is no money available to fund the unique land reform process. The South African Local Government Association has been guiding the process with the church, but after decades of waiting, tension in the village has become thick. A recent widespread fire that devastated the town has worsened the divisions.

7 May 2019: This was the second time Enid Brown’s house, in which generations of her family have lived, had caught alight.

The burning

It was late afternoon in the summer holidays. The festive spirit was in the air, as Wupperthallers enjoyed the last lingering day in 2018 before the new year arrived. Two young men made their way into a field in the village. They saw what they were looking for, and lit a small fire to chase away the bees. If they could get just a little bit of honey, maybe they could sell it for some extra cash. That’s how residents believed it started.

Before the young men knew it, a tree caught alight. The wind picked up, and the flames licked at the thatched roof of a nearby building. Suddenly, it was roaring, the open mouth of the flames closing down on every house where the wind took it. The church bells tolled with urgency, and residents watched helplessly as the town was engulfed in fire.

Enid Brown couldn’t save her house. It was the second time that the house had caught alight, and the 67-year-old was distraught. Generations of her family had lived there. Now, all Brown wants is for her house to be rebuilt along with the other 53 structures that were lost in the flames.

“Nobody knew it was going to be like this. It’s a nightmare for us. The older people went to go live with their children in Cape Town. They don’t want to see that the houses they lived in for years is gone. It’s just black walls left,” Brown says.

She is living with her son Ricardo in an old office that was used to manage a chicken farm. Initially, she had stayed with a friend, but when the house became too cramped with fire victims, Brown left. She won’t leave Wupperthal to live in Cape Town, because she likes the quiet of the village.

It’s now five months later, and no emergency accommodation has been built for the 200 fire victims. The Western Cape human settlements department says that it had been agreed with the community on 15 January that no temporary emergency housing would be built.

However, in winter the Cederberg town is icy. In the heavy 45 degrees heat of summer, Wupperthallers sleep on their stoeps to escape the warm air inside their old homes. But in winter, the temperature drops, making it impossible to sleep outside. Fire victims were forced to find shelter in Cape Town or camped with neighbours after the summer months ended.

The provincial human settlements department said in March that prefabricated temporary accommodation would be completed at the end of May. But the department this week told New Frame it would be ready only at the end of July.

7 May 2019: Rochelle Ockhuis is living with a neighbour while she waits for temporary housing to be constructed in the town.

The church

In order to build temporary houses on the land — a vacant field — the department needed the permission of the Moravian Church. It is also the church’s responsibility to rebuild the 53 structures that suffered damages. Minister Jasmine Radcliffe said that while tensions exist between the church and the community, the church has gone to great lengths to keep Wupperthal running.

“There’s always people that want to criticise but these people that are criticising are having the privilege to make a living out of rooibos tea and these people are causing the tension because they do not pay one cent,” Radcliffe said.

The church is stretched. It pays R3 million a year in rates and tariffs for the town, and Radcliffe says that no one pays rent for the land on which they farm, live or have small businesses. At most, residents may pay R60 per month. Radcliffe insists that the land is “church owned” and the Wupperthallers should pay the church, but the community believes that the land has always been historically theirs and they owe no one any money.

It’s accepted in Wupperthal that the church is the authoritative power. It is the government that the town relies on — and distrusts  — to provide services. Radcliff says, however, that church does not want to be in the position it finds itself and blames the government for the lack of land reform. In 1996 a document was signed to release all the land under the custody of the Moravian Church back to local communities. But Radcliffe says that funding is needed to complete the process. He also believes that the community is scared of some of the responsibility that will come with land reform, because they will have to pay rates and levies.

7 May 2019: Christoline Swartz, who runs Red Cedar Cosmetics, surveys what is left of the company that she grew from nothing into a household brand over the past 15 years.

Time for land reclamation

Lesle Jansen is a lawyer at environmental and community law clinic Natural Justice. She has closely followed the Wupperthal saga, and believes that it is time for the community — which has nurtured and kept rooibos resources and traditions alive — to reclaim their land. Jansen describes the work the community does to care for rooibos as a “service to our country”.

“I can’t see any respectful reason why the Wupperthal land has not been given back to them,” she said.

Despite the lack of visible public government in the town, Wupperthallers still think about who they will vote for. Valentyn wants his land back and more jobs in his community, but he doesn’t know which party he wants to support. He’s not alone. No one can say for sure which party will get their mark.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons voter turnout was low on Wednesday. Salome Valentyn, a community representative, was a volunteer at the IEC voting station. At 5:30pm, Valentyn estimated that just over 200 people, in an area of at least 3 000 people, had come to vote. The majority, she said, were from the 15 smaller villages that surround Wupperthal and their were “little” voters from Wupperthal itself.

When asked about the low turnout, she replied: “A lot of people that came said they don’t know who to vote for.”

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