The true Rainbow Nation
Sipho Masondo goes to the villages to find a growing culture of whites who shun city life for pastoral pleasure.
You could be forgiven for thinking Kobus van Merle is a commercial farmer – after all, what else is a white South African doing deep in the heart of rural Limpopo?
But Van Merle, who describes himself as a white Venda and insists on being addressed as “Kokos”, is just an ordinary resident in Nkotswi.
Nkotswi, about 200km east of Musina, is one of the villages in what used to be Venda.
Van Merle insists he and other white residents in surrounding villages shouldn’t be mistaken for farmers – they don’t own “holiday homes, have investments, quad bikes, fancy cars, servants and large herds
He is part of a small but growing trend – white South Africans moving into areas traditionally occupied only by black people.
Poverty, says the SA Institute of Race Relations, is sometimes the driving factor – but there are several reasons for this slow shift.
Kokos’ thatched hut, perched on the banks of the Mutale River, is modest. Furnishings are sparse: two single beds, an old black leather couch, a few chairs and a table where he puts his food and books.
Like everyone else in the village, Kokos cooks his food on an outdoor fire. Although he owns a small gas stove, he says he prefers to cook over a fire in his makeshift shed.
Nkotswi and neighbouring village Bennde Mutale were electrified last year.
Kokos says he fell in love with Nkotswi many years ago as a youngster. “My father, who was a land surveyor, was friends with the local chief and, during school holidays, he would come and drop me here with a fishing rod and a pellet gun.
“I’ve been living on and off this site since 1986. In 2004, I relocated here permanently and I will die here.”
One of his closest friends is chief Thompson Hlongwane, who Kokos calls “my father”.
He, Hlongwane and another resident, Johannes Makuya, have been friends since they were children.
“Old people here will tell you that if you see Johannes, you must know Kokos and Thompson are not far off and if you see Kokos, you should know the other two are around.”
Kokos says money isn’t the reason he moved to Nkotswi.
“I have options”, he says, adding that friends and relatives have tried to lure him out of Nkotswi, promising him jobs.
“Eish, I can’t – there is something about this place. There is no crime, the people are so sweet. We are family. We are one big family.
“There is an old saying here that if you drink water from the Limpopo River, you will come back eventually. I guess that’s what happened to me. I will die here. My spirit is here.
The 57-year-old divorcee, who speaks a bit of Tshivenda and Xitsonga – the two local languages – says the only thing missing in his life is a Venda bride.
“I’m a very religious man and believe everything comes from God. If He blesses me with a Venda bride, I will gladly accept her. I’m a real Venda man. You can call me a white Venda.”
Resident Matodzi Tshengedzeni said: “I’ve known this man all my life. He is such a gentleman. We share everything. If he doesn’t have mealie meal, he asks from me and, if I don’t have sugar, I ask from him. I come and go out of his house as I please. And he does the same.”
Kokos makes a living by selling firewood in his father’s 1989 Toyota Land Cruiser and hunting game for overseas tourists.
A stone’s throw away in Bennde Mutale, Lyneve Cook and her husband Mike are thoroughly enjoying their new village lives.
“This is a special little village with good people from another world that has gone by.
“They are honest and hard-working. Everybody has respect for each other. No one is materialistic,” says Lyneve.
The Cooks own a small cottage on the banks of the Mutale River, which they have divided into a bedroom, living room and a kitchen.
Lyneve scorns suggestions the couple moved because they can’t afford city living any more.
“We came here to retire about 18 months ago. I sold my house in Randburg and came here. I didn’t want to live in Joburg any more.”
She knows three other white families who live in the area.
The Cooks haven’t mastered Tshivenda yet, but that hasn’t stopped them from being part of the community.
“In Johannesburg, blacks and whites live worlds apart, but not here. We came here recently but we already know quite a few people. Myself and my husband go and watch football when the local teams play,” Lyneve says.
Kewin Lebone, a researcher at the SA Institute of Race Relations, says anecdotal evidence suggests white people are beginning to move into traditionally black areas for different reasons, including poverty.
“It’s happening gradually, but we don’t know the scale,” Lebone says.
“There are a few white people in Soweto living with their partners. Others definitely move into black areas to benefit from RDPs like in Kagiso, in the West Rand. Others do it for other reasons but we can’t say there is a huge exodus.”
If a Rainbow Nation does exist, it can only be found in these villages, says Sarie Landman, who has been a Bennde Mutale resident for three years.
“There is no Rainbow Nation in the city – you lie to yourself. Yours is a superficial rainbow. Come and live here if you want to experience the real Rainbow Nation. There is no class or race here. We are all God’s people.”