Stellenbosch found itself at the centre of a public art controversy lately.
A new statue of former president, Nelson Mandela, has caused ructions in the heartland of conservative Afrikanerdom, but not for the reasons you might think.
The artwork, which was created by Afrikaans landscape artist, Strijdom van der Merwe, and approved by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, was unveiled outside of the Town Hall on Plein Street last Wednesday to great fanfare.
Consisting of a concrete block clad with white marble and etched with areas of the South African map that have played a key role in Madiba’s life, a laser-cut steel silhouette of his face has been placed on either side – to great effect.
Along the ground in front of the statue, one of his most famous quotes is also displayed. It reads: “Never, never and never again will this beautiful country of ours be oppressed by one over another.”
Very apt for a town that has the dubious honour of being the birthplace of apartheid, with academics at the university here having dreamt up the philosophy in the first place.
But it isn’t the Afrikaner community that’s up in arms over the presence of the new statue. Oh no. It is instead members of the ANC Youth League who are seriously disgruntled about it.
They accuse the municipality, which is controlled by arch-rivals, the Democratic Alliance (DA), of wasting R800,000 (£72,000) on the artwork when the money could have been better spent on catering to the needs of the local population living in informal housing settlements.
For the sake of clarity, the DA is also the governing party in the Western Cape and the ANC’s official opposition at a national level. Although somewhat complicated in lineage terms, it traces its roots back to the anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s and 1980s.
Anyway, while it seems to me that the DA’s argument that it is trying to honour Mandela as an international statesman and the country’s first democratically-elected president seems reasonable, I also sympathise with the point made by the ANC, no matter how political.
A similar kind of debate took place in the North East of England, where I come from, following the erection of Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North statue on a hill near Gateshead.
While everyone outside of the region seemed to rave about it, a lot of local people were somewhat less enamoured. In a deprived post-industrial area, which in the 1990s was in desperate need of regeneration, many felt that the £1m in Lottery Funding would have been better spent on activities such as job creation.
But the living conditions in Stellenbosch’s Kayamandi township, particularly in its Enkanini informal settlement area, have nothing on Gateshead.
Kayamandi, which means “sweet home” in the Xhosa language, would seem, on the surface anyway, to be anything but.
To illustrate the point, a local charity, Prochorus, indicates that a huge 70% of the population still don’t yet live in the promised government-built Reconstruction and Development Programme houses, but instead dwell in shacks made from anything serviceable that can be found.
To make matters worse, the infrastructure, which includes sanitation and running water, is widely reported to be inadequate.
But to upgrade and extend it would cost a huge R3 billion over the next seven years, according to estimates put forward in a book called “Sustainable Stellenbosch – Opening Dialogues” by Lauren Taverner-Smith of Stellenbosch University’s School of Public Leadership.
Unfortunately however, she believes that there is currently a funding shortfall of at least R1 billion.
And this already difficult situation is not exactly being helped by the huge influx of migrant workers from the poorer, more rural Eastern Cape.
Although this migration has been going on to a greater or lesser extent for nearly 100 years mainly due to the employment opportunities offered by the local wine industry, there has nonetheless been a veritable population explosion over the last few.
In fact, the number of Kayamandi residents has now nearly tripled from 12,000 to 33,000, only adding to already high rates of unemployment (30%). Other problems include high levels of malnutrition and HIV/AIDS infection as well as low levels of literacy.
But within this challenging environment, there are beacons of hope. One of them takes the form of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Vision AfriKa [www.VisionAfriKa.com], with which I’ve been working on a voluntary basis over the last few months after a friend mentioned them to me.
The charity’s aim is to support the personal growth and development of selected 13-to-18 year olds in order to complement and enhance their standard education and help them to become the success stories of tomorrow.
A key issue for many children from deprived backgrounds is that they have deeply-ingrained negative perceptions of themselves, their communities and their ability to succeed.
So the goal is to help them reframe their views, acquire vital life and leadership skills, which include critical thinking, and encourage them to take responsibility for fulfilling their own dreams.
To its credit as only a small organisation with nine full-time staff, Vision AfriKa assists nearly 400 young people each year. While the majority are based in Kayamandi, there is also a secondary site in the nearby rural settlement of Vlottenberg about 8km away.
As for my role in all this though, I’ve developed an editorial strategy to help the NGO raise its profile, not least in a bid to try and boost its fundraising activity.
I’m also acting as content editor, which means helping a busy team of youth leaders to write informative and interesting news stories for the web site as well as internal reports and the like.
And, it must be said that they do amazingly well seeing as none of them are trained writers and nor do they have English as their first language. I’m not sure I’d fancy it.
But they really are proof of their own pudding, which is that just about anything becomes possible if you’re prepared to give it a go.