Rural South Africa hopes culture will lure tourists


Sitting on tree stumps in a semi-circle, men wait patiently for a woman in a brightly coloured Venda dress to dish out her marula fruit beer from two big clay pots on a straw mat.

As they quench their thirsts, they also dream of toasting the windfall that the approaching World Cup might bring to their isolated community.

“Women prepare the brew while the men do the tasting,” said Mthavini Manganyi, who says she’s brewed the beer since she was a girl, surrounded by women singing, clapping and dancing as they peel and stir the yellow marula fruit.

The first three months of the year are beer season across South Africa’s northern Limpopo province – a time of festivity and centuries-old traditions of thanksgiving.

With the World Cup fast approaching, provincial tourism authorities hope to lure foreign visitors by showcasing the culture of rural South Africa.

“If you really want a cultural experience, come to here,” said Mike Tauatsoala, spokesman for Limpopo tourism and parks.

But wooing tourists to villages like Phalaborwa is difficult. It’s a three-hour drive from the nearest World Cup stadium, and there’s not much else to visit: The road simply ends here.

While Phalaborwa lies on the edge of Kruger National Park, with its world-famous wildlife, local culture is the only draw to bring tourists to the sleepy town.

That’s why government decided three years ago to create a Marula Festival that runs in late February, pulling in thousands of guests with concerts and, of course, fresh beer.

Most of the foreign visitors come from neighbouring countries, but the event last year brought in 1.4 million rands (190,000 US dollars) in revenue, said Joshua Kwapa, another spokesman for Limpopo tourism.

For World Cup visitors, Kwapa says the region offers a glimpse into South Africa’s past, where people still walk the streets in traditional tribal dress, far from homogenising urban life.

– ‘It makes grown men weep’ –

In these harvest months, women like Manganyi prepare beer in the shade of marula trees, which grow up to 18 metres (60 feet) and are regarded as gifts from God.

Once the plum-size fruits release their sweet and sour juices into the pot, the women stir until it’s smooth, add water, and then let the liquid ferment overnight.

“The longer you leave it to brew, the more potent it becomes… It makes grown men weep,” Manganyi said with a laugh.

It’s not for the faint-hearted, but can also be used as a fertility drug, a medicine, or to ward off bad spirits.

“This beer is different, it also cleanses your whole system. It has many health benefits and that is why you will not get hangover the next day – it is natural,” said Manyike Dumisa who had just tasted a beer at the festival.

Festivities begin in January, often with a ritual slaughter of a goat or black bull, as traditional healers bless the harvest and the local chief pours offerings of fresh marula juice over the tombs of dead chiefs and relatives.

“The ritual performed at the beginning of the festival goes back centuries and is done to also start the drinking of the marula beer,” said Kwapa.

Unfortunately the beer doesn’t keep, so World Cup visitors won’t be able to sample it. Big distillers have had success by using the fruit to make a cream liqueur called Amarula, which is marketed globally.

Locals have also been experimenting with other uses for the fruit, which has a nut that can be ground for cooking and making other products.

Gaobaelelwe Seroke came to Phalaborwa’s festival from Botswana to display her products, made from a community-based company in her village.

“We make jam, soap and body lotion from the marula,” she said. “It is a very diverse fruit.”

Kwapa said increased tourism would also help support small businesses like Seroke’s.

“We want to create a platform where people who make marula products have international links,” he said.