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The Freedom Day of Nontsizi Mgqwetho — still landless after all these years

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Vusumzi Vusie Mba is a researcher for the Eastern Cape Department of Sports, Recreation, Arts and Culture. He writes in his personal capacity.

The land issue is a ticking time bomb that threatens national cohesion and democracy. Voting and political rights are appreciated, but the hungry indigenous people cannot be expected to live by them while they continue to be victims of poverty due to land hunger.

One of the 1920s political commentators, activists and poets, Nontsizi Mgqwetho, a regular contributor to one of Johannesburg’s leading newspapers, Umthetheleli wa Bantu, once published a poem titled “Ingwe idla ngamabala” (a person makes a living off his or her talents, or, literally, a leopard eats by means of its spots).

In it, Nontsizi warned the black people of South Africa that “satshabalala thina ngokuswela ukwazi” — our ignorance will destroy us.

The poem was written a few years after the promulgation of the 1913 Land Act which systematically pushed the indigenous people of South Africa into reserves. The promulgation of the 1913 Land Act laid the foundation for poverty, unemployment, inequality, and landlessness. The act forced the indigenous people to migrate to urban areas where the core of capitalist development was taking place and where they were at the mercy of the urban economy which was in the hands of white settler colonialists.

The indigenous people were exploited and marginalised from the mainstream economy. This is exactly what led to Nontsizi Mgqwetho posing her fundamental question, “Ziphi na izityebi zelixesha lethu?” (Where are the rich people of our time?).

To me this was a race and class question, enquiring about the colour of ownership of the means of production beneath and above the soil. She also questioned the wealth of our nation — who owns what, how and where?

As we celebrate the 29th Anniversary of our South African democracy, 150 years since the death of Nkosi Jongumsobomvu Maqoma, the 30th Anniversary of the death of Thembisile Chris Hani and the 110 years since the promulgation of the Land Act of 1913, let me revisit one of the 97 poems of Nontsizi Mgqwetho, “Ingwe idla ngamabala”, where she argued that black people are not benefitting from their land, instead they are selling their maize only to buy it back at a higher price.

This is similar to what is happening today — we export the minerals from the womb of the earth and the agricultural produce from the land to the outside world only to get crumbs from the white and foreign-controlled value chains. Those who work the land are not benefitting from it as the Freedom Charter proclaims.

If this is freedom, then the fight was not worth it for the black people. The blood of Kalushi Solomon Mahlangu did not nourish the tree that bore the fruits of freedom, as he famously said facing the persecution of the racist regime. The blood that spilled and the sacrifices made by the generations of Nkosi Jongumsobomvu Maqoma, Rholihlahla Nelson Mandela, Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe, Bantu Biko, and the assassination of Tembisile Chris Hani was in vain.

Freedom and land ownership for the indigenous people are a necessary combination. One without the other is nothing in the context of South Africa. Is it true that we are free without land ownership? Nontsizi Mgqwetho asked, where are the rich people of our time? The answer is they are in the high towers and lighter skins (mixed with some captured black elites), emphasising human rights over land justice.

Hence Jonas Ntsiko (uHadi waseluhlangeni) warned about ingcuka emhlophe (white hyenas) that are pacifying the landless black African: “Vukani bantwana Bentab’ eBosiko, Seyikhal’ ingcuka Ingcuk’ emhlophe, Ibawel’ amathambo Mathambo kaMshweshwe Mshweshwe onobuthongo Phezul’ entabeni. Siyarhol’ isisu Ngamathamb’ enkosi, Ubomv’ umlomo Kuxhaph’ uSandile… Yaginy’ okaMpande Ozitho zigoso; Yamkhuph’ esahleli:… Vukani Zimbila Zentab’ eBosiko”. (Arise offspring Of Thaba Bosiu, The wolf is on the prowl, the white wolf hungry for the bones, the bones of Moshoeshoe, Moshoeshoe who sleeps on the mountain. The stomach is excited by the bones of the king, The mouth drips red blood from devouring Sandile… It swallowed Mpande with his bowed legs; and removed him from his throne.. Stand up you dassies Of Thaba Bosiu.)

Similar to former president Thabo Mbeki, Nontsizi Mgqwetho adopted the ideas and aspirations of the ANC but continued to be critical of it, particularly on unifying the oppressed against the oppressor. Just like Jonas Ntsiko, she realised the importance of land ownership in liberating the black people that are today called to celebrate freedom without land on 27 April.

Land is still not fairly distributed, instead of distribution, people have been subjected to talk shows that are not yielding any tangible results — like the 2004 Land Summit; the 2013 Land Act of 1913 centenary events; land expropriation without compensation was defeated through Parliament and consultations; the 2022 National Land Summit on land tenure.

Land is heritage and a source of livelihoods and pride which Freedom Day celebrations cannot replace. Voting and political rights are appreciated, but the hungry indigenous people cannot be expected to live by them while they continue to be victims of poverty due to land hunger.

If people are not allowed to make noise about this major injustice, then the bones of our fearless, outspoken, eloquent spirits of the likes of Nontsizi Mgqwetho will be a fuel to the wrath of the people. This is a ticking time bomb that many political commentators talk of which threatens national cohesion and democracy.

The Constitution, which puts the right to life on top (life that comes from the land) must not be misused to shut down criticism of the slow pace of land reform and other injustices. People must use the platforms of democracy effectively and pose the question: who is benefitting from the land and a system of governance opted for in 1994?

People must be free to ask questions that are not comfortable such as why political elites are rich, and white people continue to enjoy land ownership while the black majority still lives in squalor.

Perhaps we must repeat the fundamental question that Nontsizi Mgqwetho asked: “Ziphi na izityebi zelixesha lethu?” — where are the rich people of our time?

Maybe we need the guidance of the spirits and thoughts of yesteryears’ heroes and activists. We need people of Nontsizi’s calibre to challenge the land injustices that are promoted and perpetrated by the current political leadership.

Brave men and women are needed to remind the ANC-led government about its historical mission that is linked to land for the total liberation of black Africans. DM

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  • Daniel Cohen says:

    The magic wand that will solve all our problems, after which we will all live happily ever after.
    (I am not referring to the struggle of all those legitimate dispossessed land / property claimants who have been let down and frustrated by decades of administrative incompetence and skullduggery of one kind or another

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