People often ask me where the safest place in South Africa to venture to as a traveller is, and my answer is always the same: Fundudzi Cultural Camp – There, up there in northern Venda, where princesses reign and kings overlook valleys of history.
Picture this: I’m shooting in northern Venda, Zimbabwe bordering to the north, just south of the Soutpansberg in Limpopo’s Vhembe district. Evidence of a created homeland during apartheid still very evident – there literally is not a single other white person in sight.
Between washed out Black Label ads, very few cars, ample shebeens, kraal walls and a stretch of subtropical greenery, I’m ascending higher and higher, further and further away from the hope of electricity …
They say anything beautiful is inherently dangerous, and South Africa is a very, very dangerous place.
Yeah, here you can get mugged, murdered and hijacked. All in one day. (I personally don’t think you’ll struggle to experience all three here, if that’s what your’e really after.) Goodness me, here you can even loose your entire identity, all the while exploring some of the most beautiful landscapes and tourist destinations, populated by some of the the warmest, kindest of hearts in the world.
Lake Fundudzi is defended by a Venda python god who lives in the mountain on a rock. The ancestral spirits who inhabit the lake are said to be guarded by a white crocodile. The fullness of the lake and its colour indicate the mood of the ancestors, and predicts the coming rainy season. When any object is thrown into the lake, locals say the spirits will catch it and throw it back out onto the bank to be discovered the next morning. And people from the area say the lake’s water has healing properties. The People of the Pool have been part of Lake Fundudzi’s conservation since their ancestors migrated here centuries ago. For decades, Chief Ntsandeni Netshiava, his father, and grandfather before him, were the only people who could give permission to strangers to approach.
We do need to, for the sake of context, set the record straight: I am a 34 years old white Afrikaans South African woman, bought up without any real exposure to tribal African ways of life. I do not have Chief in my neighbourhood, I don’t even have a princess, western medicine has always been the only option, and my initiation ceremonies extended to being accepted into the Dutch reformed Church and having to wear funny clothes for my first week of High School.
All and all, I’m a boertjie. A very well flippen travelled boertjie, but a boertjie nonetheless.
I’m seriously digressing … so what I’m basically getting at is:
I – the average white South African, boasting with a well travelled exception or not – am scared of Deep Dark Africa. It is a place I don’t truly know, a place where I will forever be outnumbered in skin colour, and more importantly: it is a place that I have always been warned about, much like an international tourist.
As you may or may not know I’m a photographer and filmmaker by trade, which means that I inevitably (always!) need to charge batteries. Not a day goes by in the wilderness, that I am not looking for a plug, in search of some way to dump my CF cards entirely, or to put some more juice into any of my equipment …
The most memorable of occasions where I had to charge batteries – and had not a single bloody plug insight – will forever remain Venda: That beautiful place in the northern parts of South Africa, where Lake Fundudzi sleeps, believed to be sacred and safeguarded for centuries by the Vhatatsindi, the People of the Pool.
Again I arrived I arrived after a long journey to a new destination with every single last battery flat, my MacBook Pro on 6%, and with over 300 gigs of data to be dumped …
I remember, vividly, how the women gathered firewood, hustling home before darkness set in.
The chief assured us nothing would happen to the vehicle or its contents and indeed nothing did. The irony of being unsafe behind gated fences versus the extreme sense of safety I felt with nothing but a kraal wall around the compound has never escaped me.
In all honesty: the only thing I was slightly scared of was stepping on a snake when I walked to my hut at night!
I was already preparing myself as we we drove up the mountain, slowly rising above the tea plantations, the small local villages where children played as trees grew freely: I wasn’t going to find a plug. We were going to have to charge from the vehicle.
Now, in order to charge from the vehicle I needed to leave my keys in the ignition, engine running. Please, be entirely honest with me … Who on earth would leave their car ready for anyone to drive off, in the middle of nowhere?
It is possible that, if you are not from South Africa, that this might sound like a foreign concept to you, this fear of just leaving your things unattended, but here, “…if it is not locked, it is gone” a friend always says.
I’m going to bravely use the collective ‘we’: We always hear the most negative things about safety in my country … so I think this is a profound story to share:
I discovered at once the beauty of tribal lands and witnessed first hand how important tribal leadership really is.
South Africans are warmer than we think, and our capacity to enjoy and celebrate one another’s difference and sameness simply needs opportunity. We remain divided, apart, unknown to one another 20 years into our democracy.
This is partly due to huge variables in social circumstance, stigma around cultural differences and a general lack of understanding of each other. Some people live in rural communities; some live in gated communities; and the chances of a family in Dainfern sharing a meal with a family from the tribal grazing lands of Lake Fundudzi are virtually impossible.
And this improbability robs us of the opportunity to understand one another — our intimate lifescapes, our culture, family and reality. Without this how can we expect to appreciate one another’s humanity … to have empathy?
With an absence of empathy comes a lack of civic regard without which our democracy will suffer. It leads to a sociopathic society, where there is weak regard for common good and social welfare. A young democracy, especially one with a history of division and tyranny needs nation building — and not as an effort of government, but as the effort and duty of every citizen including the corporate citizen.