EC villagers do it for themselves

Friday, September 28, 2012

Mbashe - Tucked away below the green rolling hills and rugged grasslands found in the belt of the former Transkei, a stones-throw away from the famous Mbashe River, lies a promising village with people who have stories to tell.

Mbashe royal village is probably home to one of the most inspiring communities found in the former homeland, where people are determined to do it for themselves, despite the challenges of poverty and underdevelopment.

This is an area that has given birth to Nelson Mandela, a world icon and probably the greatest South African to ever live. President Jacob Zuma recently visited Mbashe, where he officially unveiled the construction site of the Nelson Mandela legacy bridge.

The project forms part of a government wide rural development programme aimed at uplifting communities and being an effective response against poverty and food insecurity.

If you are on a whistle-stop tour of the Eastern Cape countryside, and are interested in African culture, crafts markets and traditional Xhosa dance, this is the place to visit. That is why government saw it fit to identify Mbashe as this year's host of the World Tourism Day celebration. Officials say the area's unique attractions and its location at the centre of the wild coast qualifies it as a future tourism hotspot.

SANews reporter Chris Bathembu caught up with Thembixolo Gcuwa, a man who has been at the forefront of development in the village and leads traditional clothing and craft making projects that have made all the difference for many families.

"Well we realised that despite its rich history and its positioning, this community felt that it was being neglected. We have so much to offer and we are a community that never depended on anyone but ourselves. We are grateful that the government is coming on board to assist us where it can".

"People here live simple lives, we use the natural resources at our disposal to make traditional clothing, beads and other crafts, and it's a skill that comes with learning. We started very small but the project kept on growing. We are hoping that with all the developments that are taking place in Mbashe, we will be able to attract more people who will appreciate our trade."

During his visit to the area, Tourism Minister Marthinus Van Schalkwyk said government had a plan to roll out tourism skills training to villages like Mbashe as part of ensuring sustainable growth and development.

"We have here beautiful landscapes, warm people and the rich culture is something really unique. We want people to take advantage of that and make it work for them through tourism initiatives supported by the department," says van Schalkwyk.

But Gcuwa is worried that most of their work is being sold to European tourists and he would love to see more South Africans visiting the village.

"Local people always complain that the things we sell are expensive. They forget that we are investing in the local economy and we are creating jobs in the process. It is very sad that our work is being appreciated by outsiders and our own people are overlooking us.

"We appreciate the support of the visitors but it would be lovely if South Africans could also start to appreciate our own heritage and start to buy more of South African stuff."

The group of six is currently working towards opening a store in Mthatha, with the hope of expanding to other parts of the province. With the demand growing for traditional clothing during the month of September, Gcuwa hopes to take advantage of the heritage month's euphoria to market the business.

"Together with the local traditional leaders we are working with plans to ensure that community projects like these don't die. It's never easy to sustain the income because business is not always steady, we depend on peak seasons like December so we feel that with a bit of marketing we can actually do better to help our people appreciate the stuff we do.

"We don't believe in hand outs, we would like grow our own business but we cannot say no when the government or anyone wants to assist.

"For now we are able to provide part time jobs to a very few people and we are hoping with time we would be in a position to expand as we get exposure we would like to own a sustainable business one day, one that can make all the difference in our community."

Apart from a desire to see more of their products appealing locally, Gcuwa says his group would like to grow into a business that can be able to provide sustainable jobs for locals as well as growing their market to reach other parts of the country.

"We know ours is not science or technology - it's probably nothing to be wow of (sic) but what we would like to show is that it is possible to use one's hands to make a living."

Van Schalkwyk also believes that with the correct attitude and will, tourism could be an answer to South Africa's unemployment challenge.

"The threshold to create jobs in our sector is lower compared to other sectors, it's cheaper, easier and more cost effective but this must be brought down to a level where people feel that they can do it themselves. Part of our projects working together with the private sector is to identify where we need more bed and breakfasts, where do we need to train people to be tourists guides, drivers, waiters - that's what we are doing." -