Dutch scholars have defined rural as cleared forests, fields ploughed or lying fallow, planted crops, grazing lands, watercourses altered in their route, human dwellings and communal settlements. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)
For thousands of years the rural has been pejoratively described as home to that which is uncivilised 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% of the planet’s surface is urban.

Given that just under half of South Africans live in areas our mental picture tells us are 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, which is 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: unspoilt 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.

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.

* Stewart is a professor of sociology at the University of Zululand.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.