‘Dance on the red-brown earth’ is a dramatic story about land and love
A new book tells the story of two Xhosa-speaking students and one young slave descendent as they work together on a film while at university.
Three students are given an assignment to develop a film script about land ownership. Soon, their studies are disrupted as they participate in student protests about university fees and decolonising academia.
In their further research they uncover a traumatic history of the Eastern Cape, of cattle killing and land dispossession – and that there is a white ancestor in their genealogy. The author weaves these uniquely South African themes into a dramatic story that culminate in a sensitive love triangle.
The two following extracts are set in different times. Firstly, 2015, when Vuka, Nandi and Java visit Vuka’s family near Fort Beaufort. While there, his great-uncle Babanathi takes them into the Amathole mountains to show them sites of the land wars.
The secondly extract, in 1855 and on the same farm, tells the story of Hatta, who has “returned to the farm from Fort Beaufort where she is learning English, at the instigation of Mr Merriman, the bishop from Grahamstown”.
The cobra is taken
Vuka stretches his arms up, breathes in. Something is opening up for him, in him. The narrow track to the cave runs through dense forest, lush, verdant, ominous. Brightly coloured fungi grow in the grass and on tree trunks. They walk quietly, as if in a cathedral. Java starts back, then points to a thin snake with red concentric circles all around its body, curled up in the fork of a thick branch. “An adder,” says Babanathi softly. “Looks a bit like the snake under Hatta’s tree,” says Nandi.
Nandi is almost sorry to have broken the silence. The forest has transported her to a world she has never been to, and yet it is familiar. Her grandmother told her many stories about snakes when she was small, stories that scared and excited her. The bright, quiet snake seems to be a link to the women in her family, more her grandmother than her mother. She tries to remember, but the story about the women in her clan and a particular snake is just beyond recollection, slipping out of reach. If I’d grown up here, I would have been different, she thinks. I want to enter that part of me, move in beyond the fear. I cannot imagine getting closer to a snake, but maybe that’s exactly what I need to imagine. There seems to be a dark, creative mystery just beyond what I can see. Something that starts in my body, in its own mysteries.
At the top of the hill they stop to drink water. Nandi shakes her head to bring herself back to the present. Babanathi points to a spot close to them.
“There is the cave where Mgolombane Sandile, king of the amaNgqika, hid in the last war from the English and their allies, the Boers, the Mfengo and the Mthembu. Yes, the tribe of Mandela, the Mfengo, almost always fought the amaGcaleka and the amaRharhabe. I am taking you to this cave to show you the place, because you cannot understand what happened if you do not first see the scene.
“Let me show you where we were struck on the head, a poisonous, dangerous cobra. That was how they cleared the land, made it ready for their people, who took it and sold it again and again, and became rich. But the cobra is wily. It sailed under a bush to recover, and it came back. Many times. Let me show you.” They walk to the entrance of the cave.
“See, here from this height in the Amathole Mountains, you can see to the far horizon. This last big war started again with a match thrown into dry bush. There was a fight between men of the Gcaleka and the Mfengu at a wedding, and that small fight became a big one. But the land was dry, and it needed no more than that to start the war.”
Vuka bends and walks into the cave where Sandile had hidden, the camera ready. He can only see rocky overhangs in the depths of the cave throwing deep shadows. He thinks about the adder and steps back. “But Babanathi, not all the wars happened here, surely?”
“No Vuka, no, they did not. So, I brought you here not to look at the green fields below. See rather the yellow grass at the time of Sandile, when there was drought. That is what I want to show you here. In all nine of these wars for this land, ranging over a hundred years, the land itself was the main weapon. Maqoma and Sandile took their warriors into the mountains, the Amathole and the Mthontsi, the Waterkloof, and these towering places were like military forts, which were never taken in battle. Although the amaJoni tried for long years. How were they then taken? They were taken by destroying and burning the land, the food, the huts and kraals, the cattle, so that the women and children could not eat, and the warriors could not eat. The English soldiers got most of their food from ships on the sea. You can only fight that for so long.
“The cobra had to emerge from the height to drink, to survive, and it was taken. It lost its kingdom, its freedom to sail out on a morning and raise its crowned head to the early sun.”
Nandi turns away from Babanathi, not wanting the others to see her face. Were they here too, my own people? They must have been, young men with sharpened spears, young women waiting for them. But I know nothing about that, all I know is the colour of the soil and my need to push my hands right into it. Maybe I’ll touch a bone if I do, maybe that bone will be a part of me that is hidden here, that needs to be taken along in the life I am going to live.
The start of a flood
OUPLAAS, MAY 1855
Hatta has returned to the farm for a few weeks while Mrs Bletcher visits her daughter in Port Elizabeth. She left all her new clothes at the house in Fort Beaufort, except for the yellow woollen skirt and the white cotton blouse she wore when Tom, Mrs Bletcher’s son, brought her back in the buggy. She is now wearing one of the blue shifts she and Nomsa had made, although she can feel it is tight across her chest. She refused to wear the corsets Mrs Bletcher insisted on, and it was a few weeks before she was used to wearing all the other complicated underwear and the new shoes that had been ordered from Port Elizabeth.
All three of them now sit around the kitchen table with soft blankets folded over their shoulders, as the evenings are cool. “I do not like it. Even the people who understand isiXhosa look at me strangely when I speak it. English is a difficult language, I only know a few words. I can still remember some Dutch, but Mrs Bletcher says I speak it in a funny way. I am not happy, Ma, I want to be here!”
Nomsa and Siyabonga exchange a glance. “What makes you unhappy, is it that you cannot speak English yet?” asks Siyabonga. Hatta looks up. “I don’t think it will change even if I speak English like Mrs Bletcher. People in iBhofolo think I am different. Not Tom and Mary, not Mrs Bletcher, but – but everybody else! They look at me as if they have never seen anybody like me. I am not like them, Siya! Even if I look like them I do not think like them, I do not talk like them. The other girls at church do not come near me, they are scared of how I am.”
She drops her head in her hands. Siyabonga puts an arm around her shoulders. “Come, Hatta, don’t be unhappy about that. What they have, how they live and think, is not better than how we live here. Think about it, Sisi, you will be like the Bletchers, who learnt how other people live and think, and now understand them better. You should ask yourself if you have learnt everything from them that you want to. Then when you have, you will come back.”
Hatta brushes her tears away. She looks into his face. “You are right, I can see that now. I will stay till I can read and speak English, then I’ll come back. I will learn every day and it will not be long.” She hides her face in Siyabonga’s shoulder and when she looks up, she is smiling.
When Tom returns to fetch her, he stays for the night to enable her to get ready. He has brought them mutton, as they no longer have sheep on the farm. That night around the cooking fire Tom tells them that many cattle in Fort Beaufort have caught a lung disease from the oxen traders use to bring provisions from the Colony. He pauses to make sure he is using the right isiXhosa word for lung disease – isifo semiphunga. Siyabonga nods, without interrupting. Large numbers of the herds are dying, says Tom. He knows they have their own cattle because they live where Hatta’s parents farmed, not like the people who are dependent on the chief for the use of their cattle. He asks where they keep their cattle and when Siyabonga tells him that he takes them into a deserted valley higher up near the Waterberg he nods. “That should be safe enough. Keep them there. Even the milk cows.” “But we use the milk,” Nomsa protests. “Maybe we can build a kraal for the milk cows next to the house,” muses Siyabonga. “We only have two, so we can do that, and keep two calves here.”
“There is more,” continues Tom. He looks at Siyabonga and Nomsa, two people he has grown to like immensely since Hatta moved in with his family. During his childhood on the mission he had a close friend, and Siyabonga reminds him of Mbulelo. “Things are not looking good in the settlement on the Kei. The new governor, Grey, is forcing people to learn English, to be like the English.”
Hatta pulls a face, then laughs. “So I am not alone.” Tom grins at her, then looks serious again. “No, you are not, but for the chiefs it’s different. It’s not their choice. They’ve been taken away from their lands, they are losing their power and their culture, the rains rotted the maize, they are losing their cattle. As you know, that means they are losing everything.”
Siyabonga gets up, walks away, comes back. “This is bad. I had not realised it was that bad.” Tom sighs. “Wait, my friend, that is not all. Some people are calling for the cattle of Mhala and Phato to be killed, because they are the chiefs who worked with the English in the wars. These two have now ordered their people not to plant this year, so that they will not take the chance to slaughter their cattle.”
He sighs again. “But this is just the start of a flood. There are prophets who are now calling for the killing of all cattle. As if the lung disease is not enough. Also the translator of Mister Merriman, Mhlakaza, is one of the people who is saying the cattle should be killed, all cattle. There is a possibility of a huge famine, and I want to warn you to put away as much food as you can. It might not happen here at iBhofolo, but we do not know.”
Nomsa’s eyes are big. Siyabonga reaches out a hand, touches Tom’s shoulder. “Enkosi, Tom, you are a good friend.” “But the translator of Mister Merriman?” wonders Nomsa. “He did have a translator when he was here. But he was somebody else – Goliat?” “It’s the same man,” replies Tom. “He took back his Xhosa name.” DM
Dance on the Red-Brown Earth is published by Naledi Publishers, and can be obtained from bookshops in South Africa.