What South Africa's 'Zumaville' could learn from Zimbawe's growth points

Sep 30, 2012

There's a raging controversy in South Africa about the perceived favoritism in bringing 'development' to the president's rural home, Nkandla. Almost the entire debate is about whether or not the planned 'development' is being done there because it is the president's home. There is almost no discussion in the South African media about whether the project really is likely to meaningfully and sustainably result in an improvement in the lives of the people of the area. Zimbabwe's experience with rural 'growth points' suggests that the proposed 'Zumaville' scheme is not the way to 'develop' an area.

It is entirely expected that a political 'big man' will use his influence to benefit his home area. it is a tacit part of the whole understanding between a constituency and its representative. That expectation does not change simply because the politician has made good and become a 'national' leader, as in the case of Jacob Zuma.

If anything, the expectations of his home area go up with his influence. This is a worldwide phenomenon that sorely tests the political smarts of the politician in question. He must satisfy his local area's heightened expectations or be regarded as having forgotten them, with possible consequences at the next election. On the other hand, the rest of the nation will be watching him like a hawk to nail him for showing any hint of precisely the favoritism his local constituents expect of him. It is not an easy balancing act.

In the Zumaville case, media reports suggest that the president has not covered his tracks very well. There are reports of government departments and the private sector steering money from elsewhere to the project, raising the hackles of many.

But Zuma himself appears un-worried about the charges that the new town to rise in his home area, the first such development since majority rule in 1994, represents an abuse of power.

Quipped Zuma, "Developing that area does not trouble me, it makes me very proud. Why should people close to Zuma’s homestead starve? Should they be punished because they are neighbours to Zuma?"

So; controversial or not, the establishment of the new town is going ahead. Among the planned new infrastructure are reported to be a school, libraries, a sport centre, housing and a shopping centre. Government will provide about half the funding with the private sector somehow corralled to provide the other half. it's not easy to say 'no' to the president!

But what is going to sustain the new town? The main developments that are being planned are various services to the community, which is all well and good, but they cannot be maintained by government indefinitely, or even very long.There is some talk about helping area small scale farmers to find markets, but it is half-hearted, mentioned almost as an after-thought.

With no economy in the area to speak of, there does not appear to be a model for community cost-contribution, let alone cost-recovery, for the new infrastructure. With no jobs in the area and with none of the planned developments being intrinsically income-generating, how will 'Zumaville' be maintained?

Zimbabwe had a similar idea to bring 'development' to the rural areas by setting up 'growth points.' These were government-initiated core developments (example-clinic, school, etc) that it was hoped would attract rural business and industrial development. It didn't quite work out that way, and most have been reduced to dusty outposts with several bars and a few general stores, but with no 'development' in sight.

Well-intentioned ideas, but vastly removed from reality. It will be interesting to see if Zumaville and other settlements like it will be any more successful in bringing 'development' to rural South Africa than ZImbabwe's growth points were.

The Zimbabwe Review   



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