'Forgotten Transkei'

By Stuart Barnes.   Last Updated: 30/11/12 2:47pm

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In 1983, aged just 21 and newly capped for England, Stuart Barnes risked his future in rugby by refusing to play in apartheid South Africa. He was one of only two English players to make that courageous stand, and as a result, he became well known to South Africans. He was later introduced to the legendary campaigning journalist, Donald Woods, and this summer, Stuart travelled into the rural Eastern Cape to see the work of the charity which was set up as a living memorial to Woods who died in 2001. Here, he writes about that journey, and the film he made about the experience:

"The stories of ordinary people here are complex - shaped by historical and economic forces on a grand scale - which means they are not easy stories to tell and there are no simple answers. "
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The first animal to catch my eye in the region once called "the Transkei" is a donkey. Laid out on the side of the road. Dead. Not just dead - decapitated: one clean cut. Hit by a vehicle on a dirt road, dismantled by human (maybe hungry?) hands? I can only guess.

Twenty-four hours ago, I was a world away, broadcasting from the exquisite, brand spanking new sports stadium in Port Elizabeth, but now I'm journeying into the "deep rural" areas of South Africa's Eastern Cape in my capacity as an Ambassador for the Donald Woods Foundation. It's a charity dedicated to fighting poverty in a part of the country where the fight is uphill. Used by the apartheid regime as a "dumping ground" for those forcibly removed from their homes to create "Whites Only" areas, unemployment here is 89%, and one in five is infected with HIV. There is little piped water, electricity or sanitation, and most people survive below subsistence level.

Some people refer to the region as 'The Forgotten Transkei'. It is easy to see why. Tracks of tarmac road are a rarity. The sciatica is stirring on the dirt roads where locals bump around, fourteen to a taxi making the fare a payable (but only just) pittance. The M4 never seemed better.

After the headless donkey, we drive by the compound in which Mandela passes the twilight years of his greatness. We've taken a 20 minute detour to see the walls, the roof, and the flags which leave you tingling, aware of that something extraordinary which grew from and came home to these parts. Despite a tragic history, this area has given birth to some of the greatest leaders Africa (and the world) have ever known.

For me, it's the beginning of an emotional few days in which I'm to witness first hand the cocktail of killer problems that thwarts the aspirations of hundreds of thousands who live in this place of sad-eyed beauty.

Take the day spent with the 20-year-old schoolboy, Nkululeko. He stands out from his class-mates because he is so much older than them. He and his brother were orphaned as young teenagers, losing both parents to HIV, and have been fending for themselves ever since. They've evolved a system for getting themselves an education: while one brother works on a building site to support them both, the other swots up on his homework. At the end of the school year the brothers switch roles. They've been doing this for years. Nkululeko is "ashamed" of being so much older than his classmates, but it's the only plan they've got.

Best laid plans

I first meet Nkululeko in the pre-dawn pitch darkness of 5 am. My plan is to spend a school day with him for the film I want to make for the Donald Woods Foundation. Best laid plans go astray in the Transkei as much as anywhere else. This morning I've already ploughed comically into a tree when - in a sleepy daze and stunned by the stars - I've tried to reach the four-wheel drive sent to pick me up from my accommodation. We drive beneath the Milky Way but it's nowhere near milky enough. Minus the moon all is still black when our interpreter tentatively guides us onto a clump of grass, off road.

"He lives at the bottom of the valley," the interpreter tells me. Simon, our cameraman and creative eye, contemplates his epically expensive equipment. "How steep?" Mzu, the interpreter grins, part humour, part despair. He does not need to answer.

Nkululeko has a hut, seven cows, eleven goats, lots of chickens and not much else, but he does own a mobile phone. (Rustic scenes of rural poverty are perpetually punctured by the ubiquitous ring tones.) Mzu calls him and explains the interview will not happen at the bottom of the valley. Fortunately, Nkululeko has an aunt living half way up the hillside. The shoot's on.

Using the camera's light, we stumble down the grass and rough paths of the hillside. Inside the hut, dozes Nkululeko's aunt. The light is Dutch art. Rembrandt would have died for these shadows and the light cast by a solitary oil lamp. When our eyes adjust we see his aunt is one of three women, rolled in their blankets doing their strenuous best to avoid us. The four babies are wide awake. Not one of them can be more than two but the quartet grin with an overflow of joy at this insane visitation from the great beyond. We cannot help but answer with laughter.

The stories of ordinary people here are complex - shaped by historical and economic forces on a grand scale - which means they are not easy stories to tell and there are no simple answers. In the face of the killer cocktail of challenges, it can sometimes seem like there's nothing that can be done.

But, as I hope you'll see from the film we've made, the situation is far from hopeless. Thanks to the efforts of the Donald Woods Foundation, together with the determination of local people to improve their situation, the endings of some of those stories have already been changed.

To find out more about the Donald Woods Foundation, or to support its work, visit www.donaldwoodsfoundation.org

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