Just below the foothills of the northern Drakensberg mountain range, where it forms an arc around the lowveld, lay a number of scattered settlements, including Makharingwe, Mafarana, Morogolotsi and Banana. This was the agriculturally favoured, western part of the rural Letaba district, which became drier, less hospitable and more sparsely populated further east and north. ‘Village’ is hardly the right word for these settlements as they were in the 1930s and 1940s, when the nearest neighbour could live two kilometres away and the bush encroached on the fields and gardens surrounding each homestead. There were few ‘village’ shops and many people had to walk more than a day to buy the luxuries they supplied. The route to the shops from these scattered settlements was normally a footpath through the bush, as there were very few roads. Only the wealthiest families had scotch-carts, a few more had horses and the sound of a motorbike or car had people running in terror from what could only be the ‘Boers’. Many of the roads were impassable during the rainy season. The only public transport out of the district was a hair-raising train ride, endured in grim silence until the mountain passes were safely cleared, when the mood was lightened by relieved laughter and chatting.
These ‘villages’ were home to a number of old women, born in the 1920s and 1930s, who now live in Dan Village, where they were moved during the villagisation schemes of the 1960s. Most grew up in the low-lying, but relatively fertile lands in the area governed by Muhlaba, head of the Nkuna tribal authority, but some grew up further away in the ‘Sotho’ areas, closer to the foothills of the Drakensburg. I interviewed a few of these women in 2012 and others were interviewed for me by Ripfumelo Mushwana, the granddaughter of one of the women. Their life stories, particularly their descriptions of life in the 1930s and 1940s, form the basis of this chapter, along with documentary material from the period.
Using these interviews, I look at labour migrancy from the perspective of the homesteads that lay scattered in this region. That migrants’ remittances were ‘the life-blood of the reserve economy’ is well known.