Those who know them will tell you that the Venda-speaking people are the most peaceful, polite and obedient you will ever come across.
They generally avoid conflict and are never rude. Their women are so respectful that they virtually go down in the floor when they greet their husbands and visitors.
It is therefore a serious shock when these people turn to the kind of violence that has brought their social and economic activities to a complete halt. The fact that it is the Venda people who now have a national and possibly world record of burning schools is disturbing. Twenty five schools went up in smoke in just one week over an issue that has nothing to do with education.
The people of Vuwani have rejected the decision of the Municipal Demarcation Board(MDB) to incorporate them into a new municipality with Malamulele, the Shangaan-speaking community that waged a struggle last year to have their own municipality separate from Thulamela, a municipality based in Thohoyandou in the Vhembe district.
A week ago most people in South Africa had no idea that there was a place in this world called Vuwani. Today, Vuwani is a household name and even international news networks have reported about happenings in this rural backwater. In their quest to achieve their political objectives of remaining part of Makhado municipality, the people of Vuwani are waging a struggle that has not only brought all activities to a halt in a total shutdown, they are ruining the future of their children. The sad thing about this is that Vuwani is part of Vhembe, Limpopo’s best matric results district and one of the best in the country.
Now, how did this happen?The government of South Africa has determined that there are too many municipalities, some of which are economically unviable unless they form part of a greater or more viable one. In an endeavour to gerrymander and appease the people of Malamulele, the MDB decided to create a new municipality in which Malamulele, Vuwani and other villages would form a new and more economically viable municipal entity.
However, when Malamulele rejected Thulamela, there were tribal overtones. Some Malamulele people argued that they were tired of Venda domination in which the delivery of services was largely confined to Venda speaking areas. So, when Vuwani people were to be part of a Malamulele dominated municipality, they saw red. They preferred to remain part of Makhado municipality which is located in the predominantly Venda areas.
A lot of criticism has been leveled at the Demarcation Board for its decision to try and create a new municipality that includes Malamulele and Vuwani. The problem appears to be that the MDB’s mandate is to focus on geographical proximity and economic viability and not local sentiment. It is unclear whether the MDB is compelled by law to consult affected communities to the point of consensus before it finalises its decisions.
Although the Venda and Shangaan speaking have lived together from time immemorial, the Bantustanisation of the region created occasional friction between the two communities. At the dawn of demicracy the new government attempted to reverse the designs of Bantustanisation by trying to integrated the two ethnic groups and all was well until recently when Malamulele flared up. Now the demon that is tribalism is raising its ugly head at a huge cost.
The role of traditional leaders in this episode is crucial. It was Vuwani chiefs who took the MDB decision to the high court to try and reverse its decision. On losing in the court bid, the chiefs reported back to the communities leading to the conflagration that we are witnessing today. While condemning the violence and the torching of schools in particular, Venda king Tony Ramabulana was unequivocal in his support for the rejection of the MDB decision and expressed his support for their struggle. He even promised to consult with president Jacob Zuma about this crisis.
Owing to the mandate and independence of the MDB, the government of Limpopo and national government have very little space to manouevre lest they are taken to court. In effect, government finds itself unable to do anything except appeal to the residents to stop the violence while unable to address the cause of their grievances. So, Vuwani continues to burn.