According to the census, the Lowveld had a population of 1186 people in 1919. Forty years later, when I was at the White River Primary School, the area around White River was described as the most densely populated rural area in South Africa.

411 lowveld mapBy the turn of the century the population had expanded to 2.6 million of whom most (2.32 million) are black Africans. This additional growth amounts to a more than two-thousand-fold increase in a mere eighty years, outstripping even Malthusian expectations.

The history of the arrival of the British farmers is well, if somewhat romantically documented, as a set of tales around certain individuals. How large numbers of Afrikaners came to the area is less clear, although presumably their movement was in some measure sponsored by Afrikaner Nationalism. What is more of a mystery to me is the arrival of the black people. What brought them? Were they moved there by apartheid, by dispossession elsewhere, or by the prospect of getting jobs and money and thus entering the world of modernity, albeit from the very bottom? Had they always been there, and somehow dodged the census? This story is obscure because it is the history of the invisible.

In general, the people of Mpumalanga, once the Eastern Transvaal, are very poor, have a high incidence of non-literacy, a steep population growth rate and massive unemployment. Clinics find a higher HIV-infection rate than the national average. Since liberation, they have gained freedom, common dignities and a right to vote, but there has been a net loss of jobs and an influx of migrants and refugees from Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Their provincial administration has been beset by corruption, and the local ecology seriously damaged by the intensive farming and grazing necessitated by high population densities. As the climate warms up, malaria is returning. The rate of infection by schistosomiasis or bilharzia is in many areas close to one hundred per cent.


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