The stolen graves of Langebaan
When the Group Areas Act was enforced in the West Coast village of Langebaan, the coloured and black townspeople lost not only their land and their graveyard, they also lost their main source of income since the rights to the properties included fishing rights. The fisherfolk were left destitute.
Less than 2km from Die Watergat, the Langebaan pub where Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth is alleged to have been involved in a racial incident, lies Marra Street, named after a pioneer in the establishment of the town.
A descendant of the original Marra, Santeo Marra has been involved in a struggle for the past 24 years to reclaim property which belonged to his family in Langebaan. In the 1960s, at the age of six, Santeo’s family left Langebaan to settle in Cape Town. They built a home in Athlone but the family returned regularly to the properties in Langebaan. They returned to the main house for holidays and rented out the cottages to the local people, who continued fishing and other work.
In 1966, the area demarcated as Langebaan A was proclaimed an area for occupation and ownership by members of the white group. This area included the property owned by Santeo’s family.
The Group Areas Act notoriously targeted communities and individuals who had documented proof – title deeds, lease agreements, etc – to the property of which they were being dispossessed. Through this process, huge tracts of land in areas which are now out of the reach of ordinary South Africans were taken from black people and handed to white people. In the Western Cape alone, prime property, which now falls in exclusive residential areas such as Constantia, Kirstenbosch, Claremont, and Zonnebloem (District Six), were declared white group areas and black people were forced to move.
Some of the first targets of the Group Areas Act in Langebaan were the dead. Faye Smith, 87, recalls a meeting that was called in the local church hall to announce that the buried remains of coloured people in the local cemetery would have to be exhumed to make way for a new road.
“I pray that the ghosts of everyone who is dug up come to haunt you and your families,” shouted one old woman at the white officials who came to make the announcement. The remains of everyone who was buried in the cemetery next to St James’s Church were reburied in a mass grave in the black section of Langebaan cemetery.
Father James van Staden, who was the Anglican priest in Langebaan, points out that the destruction of the cemetery was preceded by the demolition of St James Church school and the church building.
Those black people who owned property in the newly declared white area of Langebaan were caught between a rock and a hard place. They could either sell their properties at greatly reduced prices to white people or they would have their properties expropriated by the state. Some considered deals whereby they would transfer ownership to a friendly white person in the hope of retaining some privileges. But such deals were fraught with risks. Tenants lost all rights and were summarily evicted.
In 1967, Santeo’s father, John Michael Marra, was forced to sell his property for R3,200. The same property was resold for R20,000 in 1973 and again for R67,500 in 1982. John Michael Marra died in 1987. By 2002, the asking price for the property was R1.25-million.
In addition to losing their property, the townspeople lost their sources of income since the rights to the properties included fishing rights. The fisherfolk were left destitute. Quality of life deteriorated and among the incalculable costs of the dispossession of land was the emotional trauma suffered by many of the older people.
Santeo’s great aunt, Gertrude Smith, grew blind and bitter in her old age in Athlone – more than 120km from Langebaan. When she died in 1970, the beach on which she played as a child was reserved for white people and she could not even set her feet on it again one last time.
The Commission of the Restitution of Land Rights was established in 1994 to deal with cases such as those of the Marra family. As early as 1995, they submitted their claim. They are still waiting for finalisation. In that period, two of Santeo’s siblings have died.
The options available to the remaining two are to accept a cash offer far below the current market price of the property, engage in negotiations with the current owners on the “willing buyer, willing seller” principle, which is generally accepted to have failed elsewhere, or accept alternative land of the same value in the area. They have opted for the third alternative. The Commission on Restitution of Land Rights acknowledges the legitimacy of the claim. As late as 2005, it claimed that they had asked the Saldanha Bay Municipality for a land audit report in order to proceed with settling the claim.
Descendants of Marra have been engaged in a long struggle to claim what is rightfully theirs. It’s another South African reality: people dispossessed of their properties who are yet to see justice done. Meanwhile, other claimants are growing older and dying without any restitution in sight.
Langebaan is still largely divided along racial lines and any effort to return black people to the areas from which they were forcibly removed just over 40 years ago is met with resistance. The Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture says, “On the confiscation of African land, the Europeans erased most evidence which Africans seek to use to prove lawful customary ownership of their ancestral lands. Graves and residential sites of Africans on some European farms were deliberately destroyed to wipe out evidence in many cases. The ancestors of Africans who were evicted from their lands could neither read nor write. Therefore, it is very difficult for their descendants to prove that they ever lived on the so-called ‘European farms’.”
But if a case as clear and simple as that of the Marra family has dragged on more than 25 years after the end of apartheid, how will the ones with no evident paper trail ever see conclusion? DM
Stephen Langtry is a faculty manager at Cornerstone Institute, a private not-for-profit higher education institution in Cape Town. He has a history of working in the public service, education and not-for-profit sectors.