By Galit Cohen
The landscape of the Eastern Cape is dotted with colourful huts and rondavels that every now and then cluster into small villages or homesteads. Lush, green, soft hills are interspersed with dramatic valleys. The scenery of the Eastern Cape is breath-taking.
But who are the people living in those huts? Who chooses to live in such isolation, in harsh conditions and why?
My name is Galit Cohen, I was born and bred in Haifa, Israel. As a professional working in the international development and humanitarian aid arena, I’ve been part of emergency missions to Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010; the Philippines after Typhoon Hayan in 2014; Oklahoma City after a Tornado in 2014; and in South Sudan for eight months in 2014-15.
For the last 10 years, I’ve been working in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape. It’s a long way from home, but I call it home. I’ve spent eight of these years as director of a non-profit company Ripples for Change.
Not many know the realities of rural areas… and, if I may, I’d like to take you on a journey to show you what I see every time I travel to a rural community.
I see a mother who must stretch the R460 monthly Child Support Grant to the maximum — with this she buys food, school uniforms, communication, and transport. I see people who can manage their budget better than many finance experts. I see miracle workers. I see South Africa’s globally recognised social grant system which effectively helps to alleviate poverty for millions every month.
I see active, progressive traditional leadership willing to work hard for their people, advocating on their behalf and coordinating big projects that will benefit their communities. I see Imbizos, a type of a local court where people resolve their issues in a respectful manner. For eight years I’ve been working with CONTRALESA (the Congress of Traditional Leaders) where all the chiefs, headmen and local royal families come together.
As director of Ripples for Change, I’ve experienced great partnerships with traditional leaders with whom we’ve developed many exciting joint projects. We have incredible working relationships of mutual respect and understanding — and occasionally I’m even asked to start a meeting with a prayer in Hebrew, which I proudly do!
I see entrepreneurs with a dream to open a small bakery, a laundry, a catering business, a tent-hiring company, a spaza or a saloon business. I see people who know their community. They know their clients’ needs, and they have the right local networks. All they need is someone to believe in them — a bit of seed money — and mentorship.
I hear from early childhood development practitioners who hope to strengthen their monthly income stream with a small business — aiming to relieve their dependency on the Department of Social Development and be able to more sustainably self-develop.
I see people who prefer to live on their ancestors’ land, to raise their kids where they grew up. I see people who appreciate their tradition, something I believe that as Jews we can relate to.
I see teachers and principals who will stay at work until 5pm to keep the youth busy and ‘out of trouble’. I see early childhood development practitioners who hold their smartphone still for an hour to catch the one spot of internet reception available — so they can join a training session on Zoom.
I see the smiles, the warmth and kindness. I also see the difficulties. I see the social illnesses and weak education system. I see unmotivated yet frustrated youth — millennials with a need for immediate results, tech-savvy, craving attention, with often little outlet in the slow pace of rural life. I see money going into nearby cities or towns, with little contributions to the circular economies of local communities.
I believe in the need to strengthen rural communities, to build local economies and social resilience. I hope for more small retail businesses, that can build local economies to directly benefit local people.
When I worked in the townships around Johannesburg and Cape Town and saw the numbers of migrants flocking from rural areas to these deprived areas in search of employment, I realised how difficult it is for any municipality to properly plan service provision for areas with unknown population growth.
I met many economic migrants from rural areas, who had little choice but to move to a congested, urban life in search of income — but then to not even have continuous employment. It took me years to realise that life in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape offers so much more, that people would rather stay in their rural communities, put up with limited services — no running water, no electricity — if only there was economic opportunity for them.
And so Ripples for Change became my mission. We support early childhood development centres, emerging farmers, entrepreneurs and schools.
I believe that by reinforcing rural communities, we can slow down the migration to the townships and build a socially strong and more just society.
I guess it is the pioneer in me, the Israeli girl, a mix of innovation, entrepreneurship and that toiling of the soil mentality that drives me in this work, reinforced by the spirit of those I work with that too want to make their communities prosper.
When you are next in the Eastern Cape, contact me, and I can show you, and share with you all the potential that is there.
Galit Cohen is a member of the Mensch Network, a Jewish social change organisation committed to a socially just South Africa. www.mensch.org.za
• Published in the print edition of the May 2021 issue. Download the May 2021 issue PDF here.
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