The capital that lost its country

Mary Braid visits an apartheid relic looking for a new role

In The far north-east corner of South Africa, where the Venda tribe is still feared for its powerful muti, or magic, Thohoyandou rises, as if by witchcraft, from the dense bush. It is a bizarre creation.

Twenty years ago it was just a few shacks, where Vendas were recruited to burrow out their years in the gold mines far to the south. But then Thohoyandou acquired all the trappings of a nation state. Crowding its small centre is a magnificent parliament, surrounded by state departments and civil servants' offices. Not far away stand a Supreme Court, university, radio station and lavish presidential palace. The palace lies empty, as do the parliamentary chamber and most state buildings.

Thohoyandou's metamorphosis began in 1979, when the apartheid regime's pursuit of "separate development" - the removal to "homelands" of all black South Africans - deemed the town to be capital of the tiny new Republic of Venda. The homelands policy was enforced by brutal means; "black spots" were bulldozed and their residents rounded up and dumped where they supposedly belonged, condemned not just to survive but to build a "nation" on scraps of scrub, while whites moved in to occupy their land. In Venda, a more subtle carrot-and-stick approach was used to muster local support for homelands. But it was the same cruel joke.

Two years after the ANC-led government reincorporated the homelands into South Africa, and seven million people regained citizenship, the late Patrick Mphephu, self-declared first Life President of Venda, still stands outside the parliament, immortalised in metal. The fearsome autocrat, who meted out brutal punishment to captured ANC cadres during a decade of homeland power, casts a stern eye over the deserted car park, once reserved for ministers.

The ministers are now gone. So have the Venda national flag, passport and three-elephant coat of arms. Tens of thousands of civil servants have disappeared, along with the staff from the farcical South African embassy. But Thohoyandou still teems with lowlier employees who continue to pay homage to the apparatus of the state. Like relatives who refuse to accept that someone is dying, they keep up the patient's appearance, polishing the buildings, manicuring extensive grounds.

Independence was an illusion, but attachments remain strong: recent ANC attempts to remove Mphephu's statue brought Vendas out on the streets. "The hard fact is that the area is dying," said Fiona Nicholson of the local Chamber of Industry. "Buying power has disappeared and the economic base is gone."

It is a terrifying thought for more than a million people who were lured to the capital, and a nightmare for the ANC which must reincorporate Venda and nine other homelands into South Africa. Improving the lot of rural people - the poorest of the poor - may be a constitutional and moral obligation, but it is a political time-bomb, for it means switching resources from more politically aware and organised urban blacks.

As regional government goes, the new Northern Province - encompassing Venda and the formerly quasi-autonomous home- lands of Gazankulu and the heartbreakingly poor Lebowa - faces one of the hardest tasks. Yet it is the province's removal of Venda's 20,000 civil servants to the new capital of Pietersburg that is killing Thohoyandou, for its economy was built on the civil service which mushroomed after Venda became "independent".

Jesse Muthige's restaurant, now deserted at lunchtimes, depended on the paid servants of the state. The former Venda MP now admits the economy was artificial and prosperity an illusion. "We were politically naive. We should have insisted the National Party invest in industry and businesses that would have stayed even when they were gone."

Regarded as a collaborator by ANC hardliners, he insists that as law after law squeezed blacks, independence for Venda was the only choice. "We were victims of circumstance," he says. "All black rural areas were in the same position."

His feelings about homelands remain ambiguous. "There was nothing here before. With independence, our educated people came home from the cities. We were running our affairs. To take that away is impossible."

Ms Nicholson, an ANC member, agrees. She says there is a real crisis in the concentration of power in Pietersburg: "The new provincial premier boasts about the growth there, but it is relocated, stolen growth. The rest of the province is suffering. They are going to turn Pietersburg into another Johannesburg, with people desperate for work setting up squatter camps around the city."

While rulers of most former homelands, including Venda, are being investigated on charges of lining their own pockets, the streamlining of the newly unified but still bloated civil service is one of the hardest tasks for the ANC. The national government is still paying the workers who buff and polish the face of Venda's state buildings, but here and elsewhere there are claims that tens of thousands of phantom workers are being paid salaries. Thousands more are being paid to do nothing, critics claim, because a government which promised growth and jobs cannot grasp the nettle of job cuts.

Thohoyandou's new ANC town council, elected last year, is housed in the old South African embassy. In a bare office the press spokesman, Aluwani Netsianda, 25 and fresh out of university, sits under a poster which declares "Never quit" and "Never become a product of your circumstances". He and 26 other ANC councillors must somehow devise an alternative economy for an artificially created town but he admits that the council still has no budget.

The councillors are on the phone to businessmen in Johannesburg and the US every day, selling the region, but all over the country other councillors are doing the same. It was a triumph when Thohoyandou persuaded a garage owner to set up there.

The hard fact of life for a liberation movement turned government is that those it wants to help have short memories and little patience. At the stadium, the caretaker reminisces about two great parties held there - the Independence Day celebrations in 1979, and Venda's later return to South Africa. He voted for the ANC in 1994 and in the local elections. But he and his workmates wish that the National Party would return. "There is no use going to the local council. It doesn't have any money or clout."

The new provincial government considers Pietersburg a tribally neutral capital, but the men suspect that Venda is being punished for collaborating with apartheid's grand scheme. Why else erect all those new buildings in Pietersburg, when Thohoyandou is awash with them? The over-riding fear is widely shared: that Thohoyandou, conjured by racism from the bush, may soon be reclaimed by it.

"In 1994 we voted for a better life but things have just got worse," said one of the men. "The National Party gave us independence and money and jobs." So he'd vote for a party that herded blacks around the country like cattle? He thinks for a moment. "You're right. But that was the only thing wrong with the Nats - apartheid."

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