Tired of Waiting

by Rebekka Stredwick

“The people are tired, so tired of waiting….”

David Mncwabe and Sthembiso Mahlaba wait anxiously for news from the Land Claims Court in Randburg, South Africa. They are waiting to hear whether Judge Mokotedi Mpshe will today appoint a Special Master to oversee the processing of 19,000 outstanding land claims, representing approximately 100 000 South African farm dwellers.

David and Sthembiso are community representatives for some of the labour tenants involved in the Class Action case being brought by the Association for Rural Advancement (AFRA), and supported by the Legal Resource Centre. The two representatives carry a significant burden on their shoulders – the responsibility of communicating the outcome to the people they represent.

David Mncwabe, community representative at Hilton College Farm, KZN
David Mncwabe, community representative at Hilton College Farm. Photograph: Rebekka Stredwick

Both have invested much of their time and emotional energy supporting the labour tenants, listening to their hardships and concerns, negotiating with landowners, and liaising with community leaders and government officials. As they prepare to relay the news back to the communities, will they hear frustration in the voices of their people once again and see disappointment in their eyes? Or will they be able to give a message of hope to the men, women and children who so desperately want to get on with their lives, free from the oppression of waiting?

“We all want to hear whether a Special Master will be appointed to ensure the claims are at last processed,” said David Mncwabe, representative for the four labour tenants who are part of the ‘Hilton College case’. The four claimants live on a farm owned by the Hiltonion Society which belongs to Hilton College private school in the KZN Midlands. It is the farm on which the claimants and their families have lived for generations.

“We have been waiting for years for the claims to be processed – since 1998. I have been speaking to the people – they are desperate to know the outcome so I am keeping them updated”.

David Mncwabe – who was himself born on the farm – breathes a long sigh as he tells of the anguish of his community of 35 families from which four claims were made after the Land Reform (Labour Tenants) Act was signed in to law by President Nelson Mandela in 1996.

“They are so tired; tired of waiting. This is especially hard for the elderly who waited for so long for freedom from Apartheid. Now they have to face more suffering and continued inequality; and they do so under the constant fear of being evicted from the homes and land they have lived on all their lives, and which they inherited from their grandparents.”

David turned down an offer of employment far outside the community so that he could continue the role of representing his community of approximately 150 people – “What else could I do – they depend on me”, he says. Yet he describes how emotionally difficult it is each day to see his people’s livelihoods being squeezed as restriction after restriction is imposed by the land owners. It is also hard to keep reassuring them that the Class Action will one day be successful and the claims sorted out.

“I see people frustrated, depressed and losing trust. They lose trust in me, in the Government and in people – white and black. They are losing hope in the future of this country. They can’t get work here on the farm and some are going hungry. They are not allowed to plant the crops they used to; or to have more than a set number of goats and cattle. I see them mentally exhausted and broken from the indignity of having to ask for permission for every little thing – whether it’s a new goat or a crop they want to plant.”

Amon Mthethwa and residents of Hilton College farm sit waiting without work
Amon Mthethwa and residents of Hilton College farm sit waiting without work. Photograph: Rebekka Stredwick

As David speaks, it is easy to feel that little has changed for these people since the days of the Pass Laws and the Dompass. He speaks too of the children in the community whose school on the farm was closed down a while ago.

“I have tried to investigate why the closing of the school took place,” says David. “The Government official said I should ask Hilton College; the College says I should ask the Government. In the meantime, Hilton College students have access to the very best education and facilities the country can offer; yet we have to send our kids far outside or keep them at home because they cannot afford the transport. I ask the Government, how long can we go on living like this?”

Meanwhile, Sthembiso Mahlaba is at the Land Claims Court this morning ready to hear the judgement. Sthembiso represents labour tenants on four farms in KZN, including seven families at Riversbend Farm, near Estcourt.

Sthembiso Mahlaba, community represenative for labour tenants at Riversbend Farm, KZN (1)
Sthembiso Mahlaba, community representative for Riversbend Farm. Photograph: Tom Draper

The claim at Riversbend was made in 1998, and in 2013 the Government purchased much of the farm with the promise of giving title to the labour tenants. Now the Government is in the process of purchasing the dairy but the labour tenants – who have formed a Co-operative to enable them to run the business – are still waiting for the transfer of the title. There is also the added difficulty that communities and some traditional leaders who live outside the farm say they are entitled to the land under the Restitution Act. Sthembiso describes how the families are coping with the uncertainty,

“The tenants are happy that things have moved on and the Government is purchasing the dairy. But the question about title ownership is a challenge and is causing conflict between communities. The Government needs to clarify the situation as a matter of urgency.

There is also the question of living conditions. The homes of the families are in poor condition, with no running water or electricity and the nearest school is 15km away. This is hitting the women and children very hard as they have to fetch their water from the river and wash their clothes in it; without the transfer of title, little can be done about the services or about building a school on the farm.”

Riversbend Farm_Max Bastard
Residents at Riversbend Farm. Photograph: Max Bastard

“We all await the outcome today with bated breath”, said Laurel Oettle, Director of AFRA. “But rest assuredwe will not stop fighting until these claims are processed and justice has prevailed for those who have waited for so long.”

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