Restitution: A waiting game

You may not have heard of Mr Bhekindlela Mwelase, Mr Xhengwana Mwelase, Mr Mndeni Sikhakhane and Mr Ndoda Mngoma. I, too, did not know a thing about them, until I unexpectedly came across Khaya S Sithole’s inspired writing about them and their demise. In his account Sithole, an academic at the University of the Witwatersrand, combines academic research with the imaginative sensibility of literary art.

Sithole’s approach enables him to tell a story of our times. In that story we can discern, on the large canvas of history, sweeping events that have affected millions of people in their various national contexts, such as in South Africa – and from time to time, even got swept into conflicts with global dimensions far beyond their imaginations.

Such were the first and second world wars of the 20th century, and before them precolonial large canvas dramas of various kinds.

Events of this nature capture our attention almost totally because of their telescopic dimensions.

At the same time as he draws our attention to a wide canvas, Sithole is also able to narrow the canvas, zeroing in on the detail of experience to let us have a look, with something close to graphic insight, into the intimate, microscopic personal dilemmas of individuals within their families, their interactions with neighbours, the natural world and institutions around them, such as schools, churches, clinics and stores.

I contemplate today a story that is a minute detail, against the scale of its replicability across the vast South African landscape, affecting millions of people over time.

It is a story in which social intimacies between people sharing a local, close geographic space are simultaneously shattered by habitual actions deployed to keep one another at bay, despite the necessity for close interaction.

Such distancing behaviour has long become the social logic that drives how power and powerlessness among them interact continuously, to the benefit of one over the detriment of the other.

Over time, mistrust and mutual suspicions define their interactions, prescribing what is possible or not possible.

I contemplate a relationship between a world-renowned school in the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal, on the one hand; and on the other, unknown citizens, denizens of a certain kind who have subsisted in the shadows of the “greatness” in their vicinity.

A secret life

This story came into my life one day through the internet. One moment there was no story to speak of; the next, there was. I sensed a profound kind of democracy in this unexpected encounter. It sets aside any suspicions of wilful intent, laden with suspicious motives. It enabled me to contemplate the story with curiosity and the urge to go on a journey, wherever it would take me.

To enter the website of Hilton College, a private school for boys in the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal, is to experience something close to an epiphany. You encounter the very sense and essence of education embodied in institution. Three website screens let you into what this school is all about.

This school, you read, is “deeply traditional, refreshingly contemporary”; this school has a “a plan for each Hilton boy”; and this school is “a world-class campus”. The pristine whiteness of its buildings across the estate is accentuated by the lush surroundings of green manicured lawns, fields and heavily leaved trees. It is beautiful.

But Hilton College has a secret life. That life, never heralded as part of greatness, has subsisted in the shadows in which the four men we have already met, and their invisible families, have lived for eight decades of their lives. On January 24, Mndeni Sikhakhane turned 87 years old. On March 21, Human Rights Day, Bhekindlela Mwelase turned 86 years old. Of the four men, these two are still alive. But catastrophe looms before them as the countdown to their lives ticks by, and the horizon gets closer and closer. Their deaths, it seems, according to Sithole’s account, may just solve a niggling land issue for Hilton College; while their staying alive may prolong the burden of its complications.

Here is a summary of events relevant to this reflection. As a consequence of the British conquest of KwaZulu-Natal, and the forcible dispossession of conquered peoples, the descendants of our four men and their families, and many other families in their communal locality, lost to Hilton Farm – and, ultimately, to Hilton College – the land on which they had lived. That was early in the 1800s.

In the series of military and political developments, and in the unfolding administration of conquest since the beginning of the 19th century, we have learnt from such scholars as Colin Bundy, among others, about the dispossession, displacement, dislocation and dispersal of people forced by the British conqueror to become wage labourers in towns and cities, sharecroppers, or labour tenants on white farms, often on the very land that was taken away from them.

It was against the legacy of such historical context that the relationship between Hilton College and those who were to live in its shadows was established and has evolved.

Sithole writes: “When Hilton College was established within the Hilton Farm in 1872, Mwelase’s parents and grandparents formed part of the greater workforce within the farm, some of whom were absorbed into the workforce of the college.

“What was particularly unique about this arrangement is that the black workers who had lived on the farm before it was acquired by the individuals who eventually turned it into Hilton College, had an arrangement whereby they had to work for free in exchange for living space, the right to graze and the right to have cattle. In this arrangement, the farm or the college could simply issue an instruction to an individual for them to come to work at any point in time for no compensation. And for the longest time, both the college and the families operated under this arrangement.”

Even the declarations of former president Nelson Mandela, in a speech he delivered at Hilton in 1996, that his government “would ensure that the rights of labour tenants would be recognised and they would be given ownership of the land they had occupied for generations” did not prevent what eventually happened. In the face of Mandela’s assurances, elsewhere in South Africa many farmers evicted, from their farms, labourers who had lived there long enough to be at home. But Hilton did not do anything as crass.

The nature of agreements and incentives between Hilton College and families which “encouraged” many families around the college to relocate to Howick, a nearby town, is a story still to be told. But the closure of Hilton Intermediate School, whose purpose had been “to educate the children of the workers based on the estate”, will not have made things easy for the four families who decided to remain on the estate.

To secure their rights, they were later to submit their land claims in terms of the Labour Tenants Act of 1996, the year of the adoption of the new Constitution. This was 83 years after the Natives Land Act of June 19 1913, by which hundreds of thousands of Africans were dispossessed of their land by the Union government, and became, as Sol Plaatje was to write, “pariahs in the land of their birth”.

Lost claims

But the travails of our men and their families were not about to end. Their land claim applications were among 19 000 claims submitted in 2001. As of now, 16 years later, the Land Claims Court has not only not deliberated on the claims, but the relevant department of rural development and land reform, according to Sithole, “has actually lost or misplaced most of the 19 000 claims that were submitted on time. They quite simply do not know what happened to the documents. And for those documents which are still around, they seem to be unable to remember what the documents are all about.

“The big issue is not that the department has lost the Hilton case, but rather the reality that the department does not intend on processing the claim. From 2001 to 2013, the Hilton families wrote repeatedly to the department to ask it to send its claim to the Land Claims Court.”

What a morbid delay it could turn out to be, to settle a legal issue by default through the death of claimants!

But let us have hope. On Friday, following an instruction from the Land Claims Court, the minister of rural development and land reform had to appoint a Special Master to facilitate the labour tenants’ claims process. We wait to see what the ANC government will do. Will it come to the aid of the dispossessed, or will it allow the logic of colonial dispossession to continue to run its course 23 years into a new constitutional democracy?

We wait to see how 217 years of history in the locality of an estate in the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal will play out. For now, find a spot in your mind to park this story for a while, and consider the moment when South Africans, all of them equally enfranchised, adopted the Constitution in 1996.

This is part one of a speech Professor Ndebele delivered at the inaugural Jabavu Lecture earlier this week at the University of Fort Hare, as part of its centenary celebrations held jointly with the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. 

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