Mlamuli Vundla on Cape Town

Q&A | Mlamuli Vundla: South Africa needs to address poverty at its root

Mlamuli Vundla is a tour guide based in Cape Town, South Africa. Originally from a village in the northern part of KwaZulu Natal province, he moved to Cape Town in 2006 after visiting his brother there and falling in love with the place. 10 years on, Mlamuli is well-settled and runs his own company, Mzikie Tours, offering guided tours of the city and surrounding area. Sarah met Mlamuli while in Cape Town in early-2015, and they recently reconnected to continue a conversation started then about the nature of poverty in South Africa. Mlamuli was also able to offer comment on the current political unrest in Zimbabwe, which borders the country to the northeast. Here’s the chat.

When we were driving into Cape Town, you pointed out some of the slum areas, or makeshift townships. Is there an acknowledgement by the city and the government of the poverty, and are there attempts to address it?
There is, but the pace that they are using to address the problem, it’s very, very slow. The problem is that they’re not tackling the issues that are contributing to the problem, they’re only attacking the problems. If you are not tackling the issues that are causing the problem, the problem will always be there. The majority of black people, or African people in South Africa, we come in from the villages outside cities. We are forced to flock into the cities to look for jobs, and better living. Because there’s nothing happening in the villages. When we get to the cities we get no proper housing, or no proper shelters to live in. We ended up making those slums, or those makeshifts, to survive.

“If you are not tackling the issues that are causing the problem, the problem will always be there.”

Then it results in overpopulation, that will lead to crime and other illegal stuff. The government of course is trying to do it, but in my understanding, they are doing it but the pace is very slow. They need to redevelop their rural areas, so that people can stop flocking to urban areas. But that’s not happening. People are still flocking to the cities, and the cities are now overpopulated. There’s no space, you see. That leads to crime, and to illegally occupying private lands and all those things.

One of your brothers was shot and killed at your home in Eshowe. Is there quite a lot of that sort of crime in Cape Town itself, or does it depend on what area you’re in?
Cape Town is divided into two. The reason I am saying Cape Town is divided into two is because we have got the rich and the poor. In the poor areas, crime is more rife than in the richest areas. In poor areas, I’m talking about townships where the majority of black people live, then in rich areas I’m talking about where the majority of white people live. The level of crime always differs. The resources that are put towards fighting crime in the poorer townships are not comparable to the ones that are put into the affluent areas to fight crime. There are always those imbalances. As a result, the level of crime in townships is too rife. It’s very high, it’s very, very high.

What are some of the main issues people face in the urban makeshifts?
The first huge problem is water and sanitation; we have got the electricity problem. We have got the crime problem. Basic service delivery in those areas, those are the major issues that we have. Most of these makeshift townships are not planned townships where services are being mapped down on how they are going to be rolled out. It’s just people who don’t have spaces or shelter, they go and make their own makeshift, then the other one follows, then it becomes a big township comprised of those makeshifts. For the government to be able to roll out the basic services to them is difficult, because, one, access to those areas is difficult. Secondly, if you want to map down how you are going to provide, maybe water and sanitation, it’s also going to be difficult – and electricity-wise it’s also going to be difficult.

Just to trace it back a little bit, at what point did it become so important for people to leave villages, and go to cities? Was there a turning point, or did it just start to happen because work seemed to be available in the cities?
To be quite honest with you, soon after we gained our democracy, the issue of developing rural areas wasn’t prioritised by the government. The urban areas were developed, the investors were brought into the country, their focus was more on urban areas than in rural areas. As a result, I think around the late-90s, people realised that they can make a better living in urban areas than in rural areas. Then they started to flock into the urban areas. Because we always had brothers and sisters that, they finished school and went to big cities like Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town. When they came back, during holidays, you can tell the standard of life that they’re living is quite good. You can tell by the material stuff that they had. I think that influenced the majority of people to say, If so-and-so can go to a big city like Johannesburg and be able to adapt and live there, and make a better living, I can also go there and make a better living. As a result people started to flock to the cities. We also have a lot of immigrants that are flocking to these cities. Our neighbouring countries like Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe – they’re also flocking to these big cities in South Africa. That leads to locals trying to get into these urban areas, to secure their resources, and try to protect their resources that they have.

When you go back home, what do you see there?
I was born in Eshowe, and our town is a neighbouring town with the current president of the country. So we are very fortunate enough to now have roads be redone, or being tarred, and electricity being rolled out in the surrounding area. But that is done because the President’s village is close to us. If not, we wouldn’t be privileged enough to get that. Other than that, there’s nothing really happening. Youth are unemployed, and you hardly see the youth in the area. You only see school children, who attend school because they have to, and then if they attend school in rural areas there is no way they can go, up until they finish metric level. To study beyond that they will have to go to the cities, where you will probably find the best education.

Right. So to make a living in rural areas – how do you do that? You don’t. 
Yeah, it’s quite difficult to make a living in the rural areas, because – one, you will get no support. Two, you will need a lot of capital if you want to run a business. But it is difficult to get these funds from government institutions, or whoever can help you to find them. People – like our parents, they will try maybe to sell some fresh products, like tomatoes, vegetables, but it’s not something that you can say you can rely on. It’s not something that you can say you can uplift yourself. It’s something that you do just to survive just for that particular day. It’s very, very hard to make a living in the villages.

Do you and your brothers send money back to your parents? Is that a big thing that happens?
Yeah. Like now, when I came back home – at the end of the month I need to send money for my mum and my father. Because they are now pensioners, they are no longer working. My mum never worked, but my father is a pensioner. But with the money that he’s earning, he cannot do everything at home. So you need to send money for them, so they can buy basic things at home. When I left home, there was no mealie meal. We Africans, we eat a lot of mealie meal. Do you know mealie meal?

No, is it a grain?
The one that you use to cook pap. You know?

I don’t know what that is!
Our staple food! Let me put it that way, our staple food. It’s maize, but ground maize. You grind it to a powder level, then you use it to cook a sort of a porridge. When I left home there was no mealie meal. So now, at the end of the month, I need to send money back to my mum so that they can buy that. And they need to buy 50kg of it. So that it can last them long. The issue is the money, where do they get the money if they’re not working? As their children we need to send them money now and again, to buy basic needs at home.

What are some of the things you would like to see happen, to address these sorts of issues in South Africa?
The problem is that the vital systems of the country are collapsing. Our education institutions, and systems are collapsing. Our health systems are collapsing. That leads to a lot of complexities, a lot of things that are not going right. As a result, when the education system collapses, you will have a huge number of youth who are uneducated and that becomes a burden in the country. At the same time, the government is not doing enough to address the youth unemployment, and uplifting the youth. They are more focussed on fighting than anything else. They’re more focussed on feeding up their families, and feeding up their pockets, and making themselves rich than anything else. We have got more youth who are unemployed than any other age-group of people.

“Our education institutions, and systems are collapsing. Our health systems are collapsing.”

What do the youth do if they’re unemployed? I guess that leads to other problems.
In most cases, the females resort to alcohol abuse, and another day they will get pregnant. Then that becomes another problem to the society, or to the family or to the country. The government needs to now look after the child who was born, by maybe a 19 year-old youth that doesn’t work. That didn’t even go to school. To us, boys, most of the time we resort to crime and drugs. For instance, in Cape Town there is a township where, when the sun goes down you cannot drive in that township, because of the drugs. The youth have formed drug gangs. They’re fighting each other, they’re shooting at each other, they’re killing people, they’re killing themselves – all those things. It’s because the government failed to assist us in educating us, to assist us in uplifting ourselves. They should at least have these institutions where you will go and maybe do some training, where you can use your hands to do woodwork, or any other trade.

Is that something that you believe should have been done when democracy was instituted, but it didn’t happen at that time – or were there attempts to set up those institutions and it hasn’t continued?
Actually, those were the things that were prioritised by the government who took over from 1993.

Mandela’s government.
Yes. Mandela’s government had a very good education system, very good health system. Very good agricultural systems. But soon after he left power, we had a number of political individuals who just lost the focus. They started to enrich themselves. As a result, you will find that a budget has been given for a certain department, to meet certain needs, but at the end of the year, that money will come back. They will say to the treasurer, We didn’t spend the money because we didn’t see where to spend the money. But we still have got the problem on the ground.

So they aren’t actually doing the work that they’re supposed to be doing, basically.
Yes, and also hiring incompetent people, hiring unskilled people. Most of these government institutions have incompetent people. You go to a certain department and you need help – that person will tell you, I’m clueless about what you’re asking me.

Is that because people hire their friends, who might not have the skills?
Yes. We call it nepotism. Too much nepotism in the country, people will hire their friends or family to higher positions, without qualifications, then that leads to disaster. Recently, I think two or three years back, we had a number of highly respected people that were claiming that they’ve got PhDs, and they’ve got this and that. Only to find out when they scrutinise them, they don’t have those degrees.

“People will hire their friends or family to higher positions, without qualifications, then that leads to disaster.”

They’ve got no degrees, they’ve got no diplomas, they’ve got no PhDs. It was quite funny, and it was quite shocking at the same time. Because people were employed into higher positions, thinking that they’ve got those PhDs. But when they go to these specific institutions where they claim that they got their PhDs, it was found that they’ve got no PhDs.

If only it was that easy! I wish I could do that.
No, no, no it’s not good. Because you’re fooling yourself, and you’re fooling the people. You’re misleading people.

People who need you to do a good job.

You’ve been able to study. How did you come to study environmental issues?
I’ve always been very passionate about the environment. I was very good at school in the environmental studies side. After finishing my metric I decided, Ok, I think the field that I can do best in is environment. Let me just take that route. Then I enrolled with – because of the money issue, these higher learning institutions, they’re very, very expensive. I couldn’t afford U-city, I couldn’t afford Stellenbosch, so the only option that I was left with is the long distance learning institutions, where I will work, get the money from work, fund my studies, and study. Then I went to enrol with Unisa – that’s the University of South Africa. They accepted me, then I began my degree, then here I am. I’m done with it, but I was financing myself. Now I’m thinking again to do an Honours degree with Stellenbosch. But the issue again comes back to the money. When am I going to have that money to fund myself? I’m still looking at the angles on how am I going to do it.

Were you looking at environmental issues within South Africa, or generally?
It’s a very broad degree. During my studies, there’s a lot of things that we covered. South Africa, Africa, the world. For instance the issue of global warming. There’s a lot of topics that we covered on that. We covered South Africa, we covered Africa, we covered the entire world. In South Africa, there are so many documents on how the country is going to tackle the issue of climate change. Reducing the carbon dioxide levels, and promoting sustainable development in the country, and sustainable economy. There are so many guidelines, or deadlines that the country needs to meet to achieve that. At the same time, when you look at Africa, the continent itself, there are so many issues that the continent has. Poverty, unemployment, and other stuff that needs to be met. But they said we cannot meet those deadlines if we still have a high number of people who live below the poverty line, and we still have issues of disease. HIV and AIDS, all those things. The continent has still got wars, that are happening in another part of the continent. Those are the things that we need to address, so that we can achieve what the United Nations environmental programmes need from the country, for global warming.

It’s all interlinked.
It’s all interlinked. You cannot say you will deal with one problem. If you deal only with one it means you are ignoring the other. So you need to deal with all the problems simultaneously. It’s very complex.

Do you know much about the situation in Zimbabwe at the moment?
I will be quite frank with regards to Zimbabwe. Politically, South Africa is piece and part of what is happening. Because our government is failing to address their counterpart in that country. Instead, they allow the Zimbabwean government to come to the country and borrow money. When they take the money over they use it for their personal purposes. A journalist went there to document what was happening, because we had a group in South Africa that call themselves #ThisFlag. It’s a group of Zimbabweans – we have over one million Zimbabweans living in South Africa. They formed a sort of a group, they say they are sick and tired of Mugabe’s policies, and Mugabe’s way of doing things, of running the country. This pastor, who went to Zimbabwe after they formed the group, when he got to Zimbabwe they arrested him, because they said he is inciting violence in the country. After he was arrested they sent him to court. The court found that he didn’t incite any violence, they found that he didn’t commit any crime. After they released him, he ran away immediately. On the very same night he flew back to South Africa. Because they said in Zimbabwe, when you speak against Mugabe, the next day you will be abducted and killed. Your family will never see you again.

There are so many activists that have been arrested, there are so many people that have spoken against Mugabe that have disappeared. Recently we had a Minister of Trade and Industry in Zimbabwe who said they will ban all the products that are coming from South Africa to Zimbabwe, just to promote the local industry in Zimbabwe. But people were asking, which industry are you talking about? Because there are no industries in Zimbabwe! They complain that South African products are dominating the market in Zimbabwe – as a result, the local products are not being bought, and they are losing out, so they will need to restrict the inflow of products from South Africa into Zimbabwe. So that the local product can be sold. But the problem is, the majority of people in Zimbabwe relied on South African products. And some of these people, they have got children who are here and are supporting them there. And who are buying them groceries every month. Now, they are not able to feed themselves just because of the stupid policy that you cannot take five litres of cooking oil into Zimbabwe, it’s not allowed. You need to buy cooking oil in Zimbabwe, and the cost is very high.

For information about Mlamli’s touring company, Mzikie Tours, visit

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.