Rethinking the rural

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For thousands of years the rural has been pejoratively described as home to that which is uncivilized and uncultured. The rural, it was thought, lacked everything the urban possessed – sophistication, art, culture and all things fine.  The rural was consequently defined as non-urban. Such thinking about the rural must be thrown into the dustbin of history. 

Thinking of the rural, positively, has eluded the best of minds. We all have some mental picture of the rural, but as soon as we try to define what makes it rural, it tends to fade. The rural is hard to define. There is no definition of the rural in our official government legislation, but then neither is there in any other. 

Governments have, instead, defined the rural in terms of population density, as does ours. This avoids the difficult work of conceptually capturing the occluded wealth, the unique diversity and the fabulous potential of the immensely vast natural expanses of the rural and beyond. For only between 1 and 3 percent of the planet’s surface is urban. 

Given that just under half of South Africans live in areas our mental picture tells us is rural, rethinking the rural might just be important.

Thanks to Dutch scholars from Wageningen University a positive definition of the rural exists. Their account might be useful for thinking about our own society. They defined the rural as where the co-production between human activity and nature takes place. Rurality is both the result and expression of this co-production, argued Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, one of the scholars.

The natural processes of life itself are produced and reproduced in the rural. The rural is hence defined in relation to the interaction between human beings and the physical, natural world.

To make this abstract idea real, the Wageningen scholars identified three spatial geographies. The first geography is represented by non-civilised areas: unspoiled wilderness areas unaffected by ‘man, history or society’. 

Then there are rural areas, comprising land transformed or being transformed by human activity. Such areas are cleared forests, fields ploughed or lying fallow, planted crops, grazing lands, water courses altered in their route, human dwellings and communal settlements. 

What the rural is would have been quite clear in decades gone by. To be clear, the Kruger National Park is also rural, as it is actively managed. Conserving the land and nature is quintessentially rural.

The urban, thirdly, signals the absence of any co-production between human beings and the living, natural environment. There is no direct co-production between humans and nature, nor the reproduction of the natural environment in the town and the city. The urban is where the natural processes of life are not produced and reproduced. The urban receives, or more often, appropriates the results of the co-production of human activity with nature. 

The urban does not produce, let alone co-produce or reproduce the rhythm, shape and forms of life of the natural environment. For the city only uses ‘dead’ materials which have been harvested or extracted from the processes of co-production between humans and nature in the rural: gold, iron, coal, wood, maize, wool, fruit and vegetables and the like. 

These ‘dead’ materials have been mined from the earth, are the produce of animal husbandry or harvested from arable soils. Neo-classical economists refer to the areas which produce these materials – i.e the rural – as the primary sector of the economy, namely mining, agriculture and forestry in particular. The city consumes these raw materials for the secondary sector of the economy, manufacturing and industry.

The rural is further geographically defined by two boundaries. The first boundary marks off the non-civilised wilderness, untouched by human activity, from the rural. The second marks off the urban from the rural. This thinking can be applied to any and all geographical topographies. 

Any agriculturalist will recognise them immediately. For they know what ground they have worked and civilised and what ground will remain uncivilised and what ground is threatened by the encroaching towns. This tells us where rural development must take place.

The point is this. Now the urban is defined in terms of the rural. The urban is non-rural. The urban, objectively speaking, depends on the rural. The urban exploits the rural. It has always done so to maintain its artificial, non-natural, built environment.

This is not new. It was prefigured by the father of Sociology, Ibn Khaldun, writing from the North African desert 600 years ago. The urban arises out of the rural and to which the urban and ‘civilisation’ are indebted. The rural survives on the bare necessities of life and manifests strong bonds of solidarity. Rural people are ‘brave’ – not like people who live comfortable, ‘soft’ lives behind the walls of the towns. In the non-rural, people may be educated and clever, but their dynasties come and go in cycles, he argued, while those who live in the rural, remain.

Today, the rural remains a source of wealth. Can we continue to ignore those who live beyond the city walls? Did Africa not teach us, ever since Ghana in 1957, that there is no national reconstruction without a dedicated focus on the rural? For, at the very least, the rural is to where many South Africans regularly return as this remains their real home.


Professor Paul Stewart is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Zululand.