‘Loss of joy’: my journey back to the land of my ancestors
In this edited extract from her new book, 'Land of my Ancestors', Botlhale Tema gives a voice to the painful memories of every dispossessed South African, along with their hopes for restitution
Mine was one of the most nomadic black families in SA. When asked, “where do you come from originally?” I say that I come from all the small towns of the western Transvaal, but all my school holidays were spent in one place, Welgeval, the farm where my father was born.
This was the only place that could claim my allegiance as my home. If places give people their identity, I got mine from Welgeval, an unusual place inhabited by a community in which nine out of 10 people were my relatives.
The Friday-afternoon journeys from Phokeng to Welgeval are among my earliest memories. My father would undergo a transformation when he came home from work, took off his tie and prepared for his weekend farming duties: cattle dipping or calf branding, ploughing and planting during the rainy season. With a resolute step he would pack the van with groceries that my mother collected during the week, leaving space for the bags of cattle feed, salt, mielie meal and mielie seed – and his three children. I remember his concentration and focus when he got onto the main road from Phokeng, alert to the traffic police, who would dash onto the road as soon as they saw the rickety van coming along. A safe trip meant that Father didn’t have to pull over and lay out a blanket to tinker under the vehicle, and that we weren’t stopped by traffic cops who would strut around the van and ask the menacing question, “waarheen gaan dié hoenderhok?” (Where is this fowl-run going?)
We usually arrived at Welgeval by sunset, happy with anticipation of seeing my grandparents, my cousins and all the other people we knew. Welgeval was a place of security and safety, because my people owned it and they set the rules, even though they also paid allegiance to the Bakgatla tribe.
Growing up on Welgeval, we all knew we were different. Firstly, there was no chief living in our community. Secondly, Welgeval men were dedicated and fierce cattle farmers who called each other “neef” (cousin) and the older people spoke a lot of Afrikaans. They grew crops such as sweet potatoes and mielies that were different from those grown in neighbouring villages. These crops, together with their cattle, were the means of barter trade with the neighbouring communities. The women looked after children, prepared food, kept homes clean – typical “women’s work” – but they also kept pigs, which were slaughtered mainly in winter, and from the fat they collected they produced “boereseep” to wash their clothing. These were uncommon activities among black communities in the area.
Welgeval was our home, with a support system for all circumstances and a regular life rhythm in all seasons. This regularity defined people’s roles and lent a sense of belonging. Men ploughed and planted crops in spring; women weeded the fields in summer and did pottery when it was too hot to work in the fields; everybody harvested in winter and prepared produce to barter in neighbouring villages for crops we didn’t produce ourselves. Education was of central importance: all children went to the local primary school before joining their parents in farming or going on to secondary school elsewhere. As farming on Welgeval grew more stable and successful, ambitious families encouraged their children to enter professions. My father set a non-negotiable rule that we should get a profession before we got married. Parents sometimes sold cattle to pay for their children’s education.
But our habitation of Welgeval came to an end at the height of apartheid. In 1980 it was incorporated into the Pilanesberg National Park, and our people were moved away and resettled elsewhere. We lost a place that had nurtured our family for generations.
Many years later, I stumbled across intriguing information about Welgeval in Slavery in South Africa, edited by Elizabeth A Eldredge and Fred Morton: “When missionary Henry Gonin arrived in Rustenburg in 1862 ... he encountered ex-slaves in Rustenburg town and on the surrounding farms. At Welgeval, where Gonin opened his first station, his first enquirers were Dutch-speaking Africans who had grown up in Boer farms and homes.”
The book outlines the history of slavery throughout SA. It explains how the Boers used to raid villages in the northern Transvaal and bring back “black ivory” in the form of children and women to work on their farms.
Morton says that the history of slavery in the Transvaal was never openly acknowledged, even by most historians, partly because legal slavery was abolished in 1834 by the British who governed the Cape then, and because the Boer leaders in the Transvaal signed the Sand River Convention of 1852, which agreed to prohibit slavery. This meant that officially no slavery was permitted in the Cape after 1834 or in the Transvaal after 1852.
However, Morton says that the reality was quite different: “Young captive labourers, often bound to Boer households and raised to adulthood without parents or kin, helped to sustain and consolidate the advancing Dutch frontier.”
Another contributor to the book, Jan CA Boeyens, writes that this “new” form of slavery was euphemistically called “apprenticeship” or “inboekstelsel”. The captured children were referred to as “inboekelinge”, because their presence in the Transvaal had to be recorded, or as “weeskinders” (orphans), a false explanation of why they were separated from their parents.
Morton writes that the inboekelinge spoke mainly Dutch or Afrikaans, and they were adept at most Dutch household chores (cooking, butter- and soap-making) and economic activities (tannery, carpentry, gun and wagon repair). These were some of the activities practised by my people at Welgeval.
As I read Eldredge and Morton’s book, I could see how the people of Welgeval fitted the description of inboekelinge. I could appreciate the history of cruelty in South Africa be-cause we experienced it in different forms under apartheid. What I could not wrap my head around was how I had grown up happy: how did my people transform that amount of pain and trauma from their past to produce me, who felt privileged by my upbringing? My assumptions of who I was lay shattered. There was no privilege, but an immense debt to those who really suffered. The true meaning of Welgeval to my people began to emerge – it must have been a place of refuge for people who had escaped slavery and oppression.
From then on, I became obsessed with the need to document our story for generations to come because Welgeval is no longer there for them to experience it. I interviewed the older relatives and pieced together the fragments of information we could gather and produced a narrative of the people of Welgeval.
As I scoured the archives and libraries to establish the ownership of Welgeval, I came across issues relating to land ownership for black people following the 1913 Land Act. The story of Welgeval is thus also a story of land ownership – how the people of Welgeval bought the farm and how they finally lost it. Thankfully, the story does not end with a complete loss.
Shrunk to dreariness
After being removed from their homes in the 1980s, the exiles from Welgeval had plots of land allotted to them in Sandfontein and a few months later they had built brick houses – low-cost, flat-tin-roofed makeshifts to call home. They even dared to name the new place Welgeval, but it bore no resemblance. The older settlers could not adjust to the wrench from their land and their old lifestyle. Many of them soon died – one after another.
In the new Welgeval, life had shrunk to a dreariness whose main occupation was waiting for government grants, pensions and remittances from those working in the cities. The few goats and pigs that survived the trek wandered around all day, picking up bits of grass and plastic here and there – disorientated from all the strangeness.
The year 1994 brought in a new government to South Africa and a new dispensation in which all are equal before the law. Redress of past injustices became an important policy of the ANC government. The Land Commission and the Land Claims Court were established to provide victims of forced removals an opportunity to apply for restitution of the land they had lost.
The Department of Agriculture and Land Affairs led the land restitution process. They made a call for claims and assisted communities in filling the claim forms. My cousins, led by John Moloto, formed a claims committee with representatives of the nine families that had bought Welgeval and filed a claim.
This proved to be the easiest part of the land restitution process, however. The claimants had to provide evidence of ownership of the land they were claiming. They were stuck, not knowing where to find such evidence, because they did not have the title deed. Looking for evidence was especially difficult for a community that had lost so much in the process of resettlement. Many communities that submitted claims gave up at this point because they could not produce evidence for their claim. By a fortunate coincidence, I had just finished my research for this book when I learnt about my cousins’ predicament. I had found papers documenting the history of ownership of Welgeval, from Gonin to the later inhabitants. My cousin Moloko and I then joined the claims committee to lend a hand. I quickly put together the required evidence and we submitted.
Our claims were gazetted on 19 November 2004 and we were immediately asked to form a Communal Property Association (CPA), which would be a decision-making body on matters related to the claim and, in future, on all matters relating to the Pilanesberg National Park, in which the original Welgeval was situated.
We called all the remaining relatives of the original nine buyers to form a CPA. To ensure equal representation of all families, we structured the executive committee so that it included one representative from each of the nine families. This structure proved to be successful, because we have not had any fights between families to date.
Registration of the settlement was lodged with the state attorney on 23 November 2007. All successful CPAs then started a process of developing Settlement Agreements with the national and provincial Departments of Agriculture and Land Affairs and the North West Parks and Tourism Board. The agreement emphasised the fact that the Welgeval community cannot be resettled in their original land or use it as before, because it now lies inside a conservation area which is a national asset.
It identified the privileges and rights that the community could enjoy inside the park, such as site visits with proper arrangements with the park officials and the right to participate in approved viable economic development projects based on the park’s strategic plans. The details of these privileges and rights were to be further outlined in a second agreement called the Co-Management Agreement, which would be signed with the Parks Board.
On 23 February 2008 the Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs called a big meeting to hand over title deeds to all CPAs whose claims of land in the Pilanesberg National Park were successful. The minister announced a few financial packages for compensation and development, and the first we got was R25,000 per family as compensation for what was called “loss of joy”.
While we appreciated the gesture, the amount was so small that it caused more “loss of joy” in families where the beneficiaries comprised the fourth or fifth generation from the original buyers. “It is better than nothing,” our people consoled themselves, as the money trickled down the generations.
We maintain that benefits from our land claim will only make sense when the Parks Board sincerely facilitates the implementation of the Co-Management Agreement we have now signed, and we develop projects that consider our present needs.
Although the slow bureaucratic processes in implementing our agreements with the provincial Parks and Tourism Board are often frustrating, we are grateful for the confident swagger we acquired, ever since our land claim was approved. We may not have physically resettled on Welgeval, but we are now officially recognised as co-owners of the Pilanesberg National Park. Our Settlement Agreement states that this ownership can never be sold, and this ensures that future generations of the people of Welgeval will benefit from this land restitution.
We hope that all these developments will compensate, even in a tiny measure, for the hardships our ancestors suffered. May this story forever be a source of strength for us and our children in times of life’s challenges.
• Land of my Ancestors by Botlhale Tema is published by Penguin Random House South Africa (R220).