It was on a chilly Saturday morning when I arrived for my regular month-end visit to find my grandmother’s house burning. It was in 1983.
This hardworking old lady worked the land for decades to build a decent rural homestead.
She had used proceeds from the surplus of the farm produce to send her children and grandchildren to school while also taking care of countless relatives.
Her husband had passed on in 1951, leaving her with a small piece of relatively productive land. It was a couple of sloppy hectares but the performance of the soil was reasonable; so were the rains – at least until 1986 when drought struck, subjecting us to much-despised bhokide (yellow maize) and mealie rice.
To this day, I don’t eat either. They remind me of the worst days of my childhood, symbols of extreme deprivation – much to the disappointment of my Sowetan fellows who regard mealie rice as a delicacy.
My grandmother’s cousin brothers never really liked her resilience. She had decades earlier politely objected to their suggestion that she should remarry because her husband had died while she was in her early 30s.
Instead, she chose to work the land and look after her family herself instead of remarrying, with some faint hope of having a second husband who’ll help her raise her four children plus three others from my grandfather’s senior wife, whose whereabouts has never been explained to us.
So one day my grandmother’s cousins plotted to burn her house, for the second time in a decade. They burned the house themselves, not via proxies. They wanted her out of the land so they could grab it and extend their mealie fields and grazing land.
My tiny self joined others to extinguish the fire. In the end, we succeeded to salvage odd furniture items, the kitchen scheme, studio couch, some clothing and china.
It would become a weekend of hard labour, clearing things and bundling everyone into the surviving rondavel. Not a single mention was made of abandoning the house and the land – under the Shangase Tribal Authority administered by the puppet KwaZulu pseudo-independent government.
I was saved by the Sunday sunset. It was time to trek back to my parents’ abode. The smell of the burning thatch roof lingered for many days. This old lady’s house was burnt down by her people.
In 2018 the homestead still stands. The majority of neighbours remain her relatives who torched her house twice.
Relationships have normalised and they even recently tried some forgiveness cum-cleansing ceremony, which was no less than inconsequential.
In retrospect, there has never been a major factional fight between the families.
Grandfathers were the only ones fighting because they understood the value of an extra hectare to their subsistence farming. Had it not been for land scarcity, I doubt they would have committed such terrible crimes of woman abuse, arson and attempted land grab.
OBhengu, Dlaba, Jali, Ngcolosi; the people who torched my grandmother’s house in 1983 and prior.
She lived until 94 years in the same but rebuilt homestead and underused land.
MaJali had nearly stopped her small-scale farming before she passed on. Age was a factor. Local labour had become expensive. Many people of productive age had migrated to growing informal settlements of Durban in search of better opportunities promised by democracy. As fewer people kept cows and donkeys, it became impossible to plough because the terrain is difficult to work manually.
Remittances and social grants sustain most of the households in that poverty-stricken valley of KwaShangase, across the drying uMdloti River. Similarly, most of the neighbours stopped subsistence farming, save a few who could afford to pay cattle herders from Pondoland or Lesotho. A small wetland from whence we sourced incema to make eye-catching grassmats has long dried up.
There were once promises and attempts at mechanization when the late Mtholephi Mthimkhulu was still MEC for Agriculture in the province. His efforts didn’t last long beyond his tenure.
I recall my grandmother complaining during the transition from apartheid that Lindelani (a waiting place for township/government houses) was draining all productive capacity in her village as younger people were migrating there in numbers.
She was concerned about cattle and goats roaming the hills unattended. She herself had less than three cows remaining when Mandela became President. Maliyami (name of her cow) was now too old and no longer productive. She was slaughtered as she had neither plough nor lobolo value. A handful of goats and a decent chicken run remained.
Importantly, all the family members are buried there, making the property more sacred.
The area is now being electrified and there is a noticeable rural housing scheme on the go.
These developments have produced a pitiful unintended consequence for my grandmother’s house; neighbours now have electricity so they are no longer coming there to refrigerate their food or charge their mobile phones. That has reduced traffic to the house. For years it helped many neighbours with chilled water and frozen chicken. Few times, as visiting fellows, we ate ice cream only to discover later that it actually belonged to the neighbours.
There is still no piped water in the village and drought continues to devastate the whole region, undermining all efforts to revitalise subsistence farming.
I take long to talk about my grandmother’s struggles for sustenance to illustrate a point that black people have always fought land tenure struggles.
My grandmother lived for over 90 years under a homeland tribal authority system that did not protect her from patriarchy and chauvinism.
She enjoyed relative security of tenure while her husband was still alive. Having surviving boy children did somehow protect her from chauvinists who wanted to smash and grab her only source of sustenance.
At face value, cultivating her piece of Bantustan land to earn a living was threatened by greedy relatives.
Yet a conscientious reading of history reminds that she was caught in a smaller battle of the broader national struggle for national liberation. I make so bold an assertion now that there is national recognition that land dispossession is the ‘original sin’, as the President of South Africa has asserted.
So, in a word, here we have a mother caught in a battle for ploughing and grazing land because her entire people had been disadvantaged centuries before her existence and completely dispossessed a year before she was born in 1914. So, she was born into poverty.
The events of 1913 had precipitated her fate in 1983 and earlier when the first, but smaller, arson took place.
Many people had and continue to die in provinces like KwaZulu-Natal, where families and clans massacre each other over grazing land.
Farmers torture and evict black people/labour tenants for grazing cattle in their (farmers’) property.
So my grandmother’s issues were not just a low-intensity family feud. They were a manifestation and a direct consequence of dispossession which continues to turn families and citizens against each other. She was not threatened by the Chief but her brothers who wanted to maximise the land they could use for farming – although the Chief never really protected her and other female-headed households in the area.
One admits that the long history of land dispossession alienated black people from the land, robbing them of their attachment and skill to work the land productively. Yet they never gave up.
Like my grandmother, they fought for their heritage with a clear understanding that land represents hope against poverty and hunger. They knew that through the land, children could go to school even up to tertiary level, as was the case in my family.
Amadumbe and bhatata paid my aunt and my mother’s college fees. They also bought them wedding dresses, bell-bottoms and wigs for their reception parties.
The first and most liberating act of humility is acknowledging the truth. This leads to the second act – forgiveness. But these must always be preceded by a revolution that produces cultural, spatial, political and economic justice.
White South Africans (at least those violently opposed to land reform) need to recognise that the centuries-old struggle for the return of the land will liberate them too. It will set this country on a path of unprecedented healing and forgiveness.
Land, like language, shapes identity. It is a major part of our spirituality and a source of hope about the future free of inequality.
To be honest, it is the nationalisation of land that should be threatening farmers, not a targeted expropriation that will affect very few landowners.
Ideologically, there is nothing revolutionary about the expropriation of land without compensation. It is a reformist intervention that should be accepted to enable us to move on with the important task of redressing the historical injustice.
And so, as we mark another Heritage Day in democratic South Africa, we should recognise that we inherited racialised poverty, manufactured by colonialism and apartheid, whose mainstay programme was land dispossession of the African majority. King Shaka, to whom we owe this Heritage Day to, fought for unity and nationhood. The return of the land will be a fitting tribute to him and countless others whose land struggles kept the liberation struggle alive.
My children know we will lose everything fighting to preserve our grandmother’s property. No relative or Chief will ever take it away from us. It is our heritage, our identity, a shrine.
Their wish is for every black family in South Africa to have same. Like the family fridge, they are prepared to share the land with their neighbours as they appreciate the concept of sharing resources to achieve economies of scale. DM