In January 1914 a strong, healthy baby boy was born to Bhekisisa Mshengu and his wife on a farm in Ashburton, not far from the Provincial Capital City of Pietermaritzburg. The region fell within what was then the Natal Province, which on the 31 May four year earlier had been combined with three other colonies to form part of the Union of South Africa. The area already had a violent history of colonisation and conflict, from being claimed as the short-lived Boer Republic of Natalia in 1839 to being annexed by the British government as the Colony of Natal in May 1843.
Bhekisisa and his wife, who were from the Shabalala clan, made their way as best they could under colonial rule, and provided labour to the white farm owner in return for rights to live on the farm, as well as grow some of their own crops and graze their livestock there, and they named their son Zabalaza – “Struggle” or “Resist”. Bhekisisa continued to live on the farm with his family until his death, and his grave remains there, a mound of earth marked only by the stones placed carefully around its perimeter. His son, Zabalaza, received no formal education and began working as a labourer and tractor driver on the farm at a very young age, and by the time South Africa’s first democratic elections took place in 1994, when he was 80, had retired. He had access to a piece of land approximately the size of two soccer fields on which to grow his mielies, and the vegetables to which he attributes his long life and good health, and had three small living structures built of mud, thatch and corrugated iron that he shared with his few remaining family members – one of his sons, and two grandchildren.
Zabalaza turned 103 at this beginning of this year, and is preparing himself for his own death, hoping to be buried on this same farm, where many of his own children – Bhekisisa’s grandchildren – now lie buried in neat mounds of earth, surrounded by carefully-laid stones and overlooked by evergreen cactus shrubs. His long life is nearing its end, and his health is finally failing him, and yet Zabalaza’s long struggle for the rights to the land on which he and his forbearers lived and worked is not yet done.
Along with 19,000 other labour tenants, Zabalaza submitted a claim in June 2000 to the then Department of Land Affairs under the Land Reform (Labour Tenants) Act 3 of 1996, and in 2007 he was declared in a Judgement by the Land Claims Court to be a labour tenant in terms of the Act. The case returned to Court in 2011 with the support of the Association for Rural Advancement (AFRA’s) Land Rights Legal Unit after no progress was made towards settling his rights to the land on which he lived, and the Judge made in order on the 13th October 2011 that should agreement not be reached and the land transferred to Zabalaza by the 31st December 2011, the matter should be immediately referred back to Court. A settlement agreement was reached with the land owner a few months later, but to date the land has not been transferred, as no agreement has been reached over a fair price for the purchase of the land. The slow cogs of legal processes have ground into motion again, with the matter finally being referred back to Court this month for a third time for settlement of the purchase price.
In the meantime, while legal processes move slowly into their tenth year, Zabalaza grows older and frailer, and his hope grows more and more thin, although his wry humour and unfailing memory hold strong. Last Mandela Day the AFRA team, along with many of our friends and supporters, dedicated our time to making a difference in Zabalaza’s everyday life, and donated our energy and funds to purchase a Jojo tank, so he longer has to walk many kilometres in each direction to fetch water, and the Municipality has been filling the tank regularly since then. We also purchased blankets, food and storage containers, and started a building fund. The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform staff also made donations, and purchased a second Jojo tank as well as a bed for Zabalaza’s small hut.
This year, we could no longer wait for Mandela Day to come around again to dedicate our energy to Zabalaza. As the first cold front of Autumn brought freezing rain to the province, leaking through his rusted roof to soak his bed, he suffered from a minor stroke, and the hut he used as his kitchen and eating area collapsed.
We visited last week to assist with food supplies, warm slippers and a small radio, and to find out more information to be able to arrange access to a Clinic for his health. We are determined to build him a small, but warm and dry, 4m x 4m room in the next few weeks. A registered builder, who will be donating his time and leading the building process, has estimated that the required materials will cost around R8,000.00. We currently have R4,100 in the Mshengu Building Fund, and are short of a further R4,000. We would also value donations of a chest of drawers, a warm winter dressing gown, warm socks, a sturdy walking stick (as Zabalaza relies on a old, worn hockey stick to get around) – anything that will bring comfort and dignity to a remarkable old man.
Providing care and comfort to just one person give us a sense that there is hope; hope that we all desperately need. It reminds us that positive change is possible, and that in our brief lifetimes we can strive to make a meaningful difference in at least a few lives long the way.
Donations can be made to the account below or cash given to our Recepionist, Faith Redman. For more information or to get involved, please contact Nokuthula on Nokuthula@afra.co.za / 033 345 7607
Name of Account: Association for Rural Advancement
Bank: First National Bank
Acc no: 50950020963
Branch Code: 221325
“We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”