What might the medium-term future of rural South Africa hold? Forty South Africans gathered in the Magaliesburg Mountains in early November for a scenarios exercise convened by an international philanthropic organisation and facilitated by Reos Partners. Among them were seasoned activists, lawyers, paralegals, researchers, the young secretary general of the rapidly growing social movement Abahlali BaseMjondolo, and a handful of observers—all concerned about the human rights of rural South Africans. Top of mind for many participants was the question of how to strengthen rural voices that are not just quiet, but often—and as some contended, increasingly—actively silenced.
Despite great strides by government agencies and civil society since 1994, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. The racial undertone to this inequality is inescapable. More than 17 million people live in South Africa’s rural areas. Poor, and mostly African and “Coloured” rural dwellers include those living in apartheid-style Bantustans (or Homelands), farm laborers living on farmers’ lands and those who have been displaced from those farms, and people living in small rural and peri-urban towns and townships. The word “periphery” aptly captures the geographic, economic, and social reality for all of these people. Although only 35 percent of South Africa households are rural, 57 percent of all poor households reside in rural areas.
South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC)-led government has recently demonstrated a renewed interest in rural development, creating a new department and proclaiming rural development as one of five key priority areas. A white paper positions integrated rural development as a mainstay of economic planning. Meanwhile, rural areas continue to grapple with issues common to rural areas everywhere: drought, health, farming, land distribution, jobs, education, food security, and environmental conservation.
The group moved into three scenario teams of their choice, each developing a story about what might happen in rural South Africa over the next six years. This is a critical timeframe. As one participant reminded the others, Zimbabwe’s land crisis broke 20 years after independence. South Africa is four years shy of its own 20-year milestone of the birth of democracy, and several people see worrying signals of a similar trajectory in South Africa as happened in Zimbabwe when President Mugabe, in an effort to appease war veterans disgruntled by the slow pace of socio-economic change, sanctioned the redistribution of white-owned farms and, in the process, deepened that country’s social and economic turmoil.
The three scenarios follow a similar topography of (mostly) downs and ups, but from three distinct vantage points: the economic perspective (“exclusive growth path”), the NGO experience (“roller-coaster civil society”), and the role of the state (“government keeps the rural vote while passing the buck”). These three perspectives create a fascinating web of possibilities. One evening, as people sat in a circle, a civil society activist stood up and narrated, in the first person, her group’s story of the government’s unfolding dilemmas, strategies, and actions in response to growing dissatisfaction and upheaval among its rural constituency. The delegates were spellbound.
As the following quotes from participants indicate, all three scenarios proved both illuminating and unsettling:
“I was quite skeptical, but I was surprised by how each of the scenarios captured some key thing that we would not have considered otherwise. Some strategic thinking emerged from each of them for me.”
“I decided to join a scenario that would stretch me, in an area that I’m not familiar with. I noticed that I am listening more deeply, and this makes me question the relevance of my organisation and the work we do.”
On the strength of these three scenarios, participants entered into strategic conversations. First, they considered what they would need to anticipate and adapt to should any of these storylines materialize. Then, participants were finally let loose to address aspects that people wanted—and had leverage—to influence. Groups rapidly formed around questions of how to create sustainable rural social organisations, how to use new media and technologies, how campus-based law clinics could be better partners to rural advice offices, and how to survive the planned withdrawal by their shared philanthropic donor in the coming years. Finally, interested parties formed a network to enable innovation for economic and legal empowerment of rural constituencies.
Energy was high as people prepared to leave the venue. One participant reflected, “I realise that I am not making use of the resources available in this room; a resolution I make is to interact more with the people here.”
The last word went to a seasoned rural paralegal worker, who spoke slowly and clearly, bringing the conversation about the absence of a “rural voice” to full circle: “The rural voice is here; it is being represented. I now have hope that this cluster will take the rural voice forward.”
 Armstrong, and Burger, C (2009). Poverty, inequality and the role of social grants: An analysis using decomposition techniques; Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers No 15/09. University of Stellenbosch (Department of Economics and Bureau for Economic Research), Stellenbosch.
 Ibid. (Armstrong)