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FREE ARTICLES

The Natal Witness, Thursday, January 19, 1995
Crossing turbulent waters
Better relations improve the race

The three-day Dusi Marathon is renowned internationally for its physical challenges and locally for bad relationships with the villagers. This is not surprising given the scale of political violence in the region and the stark contrast of the canoeists’ economy with that of the underdeveloped villages.

In 1990, the race was monitored by police in Casspirs; by 1994 this had been down-scaled to a 17- strong police motorbike unit armed with semi-automatic weapons. Incidents of stonings and muggings made headlines; rescue operations launched by villagers to save canoeists trapped in rapids, didn’t. But in recent years, a process has quietly got underway- building relationship between canoeists and villagers. And this year’s Dusi bears the fruit of it: were it not for the valley villagers, the race probably would not have happened.

The story begins 13 years ago: in 1982, two Dusi regulars decided to teach a few villagers to canoe.” A few near-drownings later, “ says John Oliver of the Natal Canoe Club, they realised that it wasn’t making much sense to spend money and effort teaching canoeing to villagers when their most basic needs - for things like schools and clinics- were not being met.” That year, the Valley Assistance Fund was formed by the Natal Canoe Union.

Funded by Natal canoeists, it aimed to build classroom and assist communities in the valley.

But in 1990, relationships between canoeists and valley locals reached an all time low. It was clear that residents resented the huge display of leisure money- 4x4s, boats, portable generators , hi-tech camping equipment, excess food and if anything, the heavy police presence suggested an all -out war between residents and canoeists.

The tensions provoked a turning point and the fund, with Brian Moore in the chair, decided to put more into the valley , more visibly. But the 1993 was still marred by tensions.  Recognising that improved relationships could be the only way forward, Moore spent the year travelling through the Valley and building friendships with people involved in development projects. Along the way , he was made a favoured member of the Ngcolosi tribe.

By the end of 1994, the fund had contributed towards 40 classrooms along the Dusi route and assisted with a number of other development projects, including the building of a R1,5 million clinic.

But with this year’s Dusi Marathon, the story comes full circle. Dusi organisers struggled to obtain sponsorship, only drawing in a major sponsor at a very late stage. Nigel Tatham, chairman of the Natal Canoe Club, put it in nutshell. “But for this race, “he said, the fund wouldn’t exist. Now all our sponsors want to be associated with it.”

The KwaNgcolosi clinic, near Inanda dam. The Valley Assistance Fund helped to develop the clinic, which cost R1,5 million and also contributed towards 40 classrooms.

CHIEF FB Bhengu is seated behind his desk, wearing a Nike T-shirt. “It’s from the opening of the Willie Mtolo Athletic Club “he explains. Mtolo started it and it’s part of a major sports development programme being initiated by canoeists.

His offices are not far from the steadily rising R1,5 million KwaNgcolosi Clinic near Inanda Dam. We had problems building this clinic, “ he says, “ the government had no money for it, they couldn’t assist us. But through friendship and brotherhood with canoeists in the VAF we were able to get in touch with a sponsor.

The friend he refers to is Brian Moore, honorary Ngcolosi member, and chairman of the Valley Assistant Fund that was founded by Dusi Canoe Marathon organisers in 1992.

Curious about rumours of dramatically improved relationships between canoeists and valley locals, I had approached Moore, who offered to introduce me to people connected with Umsunduzi Valley development projects sponsored by the fund.

The guided tour started near Hillcrest, wandering along a network of riverside roads as far as Ximba in the Table Mountain district -giving us loads of time to talk.

You know, “he says , when I went and asked valley people what they wanted from us; what should we be doing, people didn’t say, give us money’- there was the odd chancer, you get that anywhere - but they said things ‘like, you should be working through amakhosi’ - they wanted more awareness, more communication.

‘ I travelled 10 000 km up and down the valley that year. It was pretty lonely at first- I used to drive into the valley nervous and afraid looking for stone throwers - which I never saw. That’s how distorted my perceptions were. Even though I’m a Zulu speaker, I was very nervous. It was hard to establish contacts- people didn’t trust you.

What made the difference ?

“It took time, and continually being there. You’ll see now, he says, as we pass the sugar fields of Shongweni. “ Here all around you is commercial agriculture. Just now we’ll fall of the edge of the earth into Africa, and I love it.”

The Valley Assistance Fund was founded by Dusi Canoe Marathon organisers in 1982 and has played an uplifting role in the community. LESLEY FORDED found out about the strengthening ties between canoeists and people who live in the Valley.

Asking the amakhosi is a simple matter of politeness. If you had a thousand people tramping through your backyard, you’d be pretty upset. 

And we had to get past the ‘them and us idea. We’ve become part of the family- I got to tribal do’s in my bheshu- we’re not just this mad bunch flying through the valley”

How did he get involved?

Moore chortles. “ I opened my mouth and moaned!”

“In 1990- at the annual Natal Canoe Union meeting - I said to them: You’ve been putting money into the Valley since 1982 and nobody knows about it.’ Even in the Valley, only a few people were aware that it was canoeists who were contributing to classrooms.”

Down the road we stop at Umgababa village in the Molweni ward of KwaNgcolosi, where there’s a small junior primary school called Lamula (Peace). The fund paid for 50% of its building costs and persuaded a local sand company to sponsor the balance. “ The school itself was built by villagers, “says Moore. And local people supplied building materials to local contractors. So there’s a double benefit: the money ploughed into the project actually goes straight into the community itself.”

That principle making a little go a long way - is at the heart of the fund. In every race on a KwaZulu Natal river every canoeists contributes a rand to the fund.  That produces R14 000  a year - not a lot, but the fund has negotiated a few rand for rand sponsorship from the corporate sector. “If we could get another 10 companies to do the same , imagine what a contribution that would make, “says Moore.

At Jabulani Coke Depot near Top’s Needle, store-owner Matawula Maphanga gestures into the far distance as he says”Bhungane (Brian) and the canoeists have built some schools right up there for us - not just here in the Valley. Bhungane is even teaching the little kids to paddle. “ Does he paddle? “No, I’m too scared ... but I will when I have the opportunity.

Now that the that the RDP is gearing up development of the sport of canoeing can become the focus of the fund again, says Moore. At Inanda Dam, plans are underway for a comprehensive sports development gramme that will include Willie Mtolo’s athletics work, as well host of other sports, including soccer, rugby, canoeing, canoe polo, and  even waterskiing.

Chief Bhengu stresses the importance of organised sports in the region. “After the violence , “he says, “ the youth are now trying to organise themselves and you can really see that sport is helping to develop people. The guys who’ve joined the Athletics Club - you see the working out togther, building a team.

We have had a lot of assistance from the canoeists on the Dusi these white guys, these South Africans. What has been important is that they don’t just come and use our river, our place , but that they come and enjoy our friendship. They don’t have a lot of money themselves, but when we sit together as friends and talk about our plans one or two of them will say - why don’t you contact so and so that company, or I heard that foundation gives assistance, why don’t you contact them? When we need a lawyer, we need a teacher, we phone a canoeists.

Before, they never used to talk to us, now we are friends; we are socialising together: we drink together, braai together. The relationships that have been forged can never be broken down. He (gesturing at Moore) is like my twin.”

Before we leave, he opens a drawer and pulls out two beadwork ties in the design of the South African flag. One is a present for Moore, the other, for himself . Marvelling at it, Moore goes to work straight away.

“Hey, this is amazing, man. You know, if you sold these at the cricket grounds, you could sell hundreds: everybody there wears South Africa flags... in fact, I have a contact for you, there a woman I know who runs a stall there...”

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