AFRA News, Labour tenants


Mshengu 3_HDR

Zabalaza Mshengu, 103-year-old labour tenant

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.

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The collapsed hut

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.

Mshengu Radio

Baba Mshengu with his hockey stick (left), as Siyabong Sithole from AFRA (centre) unwraps the radio that Zabalaza has been dreaming of for many months, and a family friend (right) provides support

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 / 033 345 7607

Name of Account: Association for Rural Advancement
Reference: Mshengu
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.”


Labour tenants, Land News, Restitution

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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Land News, Restitution

Land Reform: The windy road to land ownership for the people of Ncunjane ends in joy

The tide of history flowed on a farm in Msinga on the Monday before Human Rights Day, lifting the spirits of the people of Ncunjane as they took possession of a title deed that stated incontrovertibly that the future was now theirs. By YVES VANDERHAEGHEN, as published in the Daily Maverick.


Above: Inkosi Sphamandla Mvelase of the abaThembu throws a stone on to an isivivane at the title handover of a land reform farm to the Ncunjane community in Msinga. At extreme right is Inkosi Ngangangandlovu Mchunu, of the amaChunu, under whose authority the farm falls. (Photo: Rauri Alcock)

“Broken-hearted people,” said one speaker at the ceremony, “have reason to rejoice”. Or was it that the colonial tide had ebbed, leaving behind a way of life imagined, where the relations between the land, the people, the river down below and the blue skies above were coherent, sensible, settled?

Amid the ebb and flow there have been few constants. Of one there is certainty. In 1864, long after the Bushmen had been driven from the area, when the king-to-be Cetshwayo ruled the Zulus in lieu of his corpulent father Mpande, when Victoria had mostly leached the globe to an imperial pink, not too long after Nongqawuse bled the cows of the Xhosa to purge the land of colonisers, and not too long before the victory rolls of Isandlwana waned into the death rattle of a nation, in that year a surveyor staked the ground that would be called Koornspruit farm on the map. It still bears that name, forming part of the Ncunjane isigodi. It is this farm and its neighbour, Spring farm, whose names appear on the title deeds presented to Inkosi Ngangangandlovu Mchunu, under whose authority the land falls, witnessed by Inkosi Sphamandla Mvelase of the neighbouring abaThembu, indunas, and the men, women and children who have settled here.

For this is settler country. But with a twist. The settlers have been, among others, the fugitive tribes of the amaChunu and the abaThembu, who sought refuge here from Shaka. And while the map shows that farmers by the name of Buys, Boshoff, Acutt, and Meyer settled here, they had never lived on these farms. It is only now, 143 years after Koornspruit was first surveyed, that the owners are the people who live on it.

The passage to ownership via what was a successful land restitution claim has not been straightforward. These dry thornscrub farms, overlooking the mighty Tugela River in the distance, form part of what Secretary for Native Affairs Theophilus Shepstone considered at first wasteland, then labour reserves and winter grazing parcelled out to farmers as a buffer zone between Native Trust lands and the commercial farms of English and Boers. It was a fluid zone that Shepstone used as a barrier to prevent the white settlers from making further land grabs in the African areas, while at the same time manoeuvring to extend the crowded areas of tribal authority against strong resistance.

Pity the cartographer tasked with flattening a quantum universe of flux, nation, pride, identity and survival into a few lines on paper that lock all human ambition behind a pencil boundary that says “you belong here, and you belong there”.


Photo above: Dancers at the Ncunjane title handover. (Photo Rauri Alcock)

Venality and quarrelsomeness aside, boundaries – visible and invisible, whether drawn up by the colonial administration or through tribal understanding – which cut people off from fertile lands, forced an impossible choice between starvation and combat. Continue reading

Labour tenants, Land News

Under fire Minister Gugile Nkwinti continues to waste money in court instead of settling claims

Minister Gugile Nkwinti of the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform continues to drag his heels following the Mwelase (labour tenants class action) judgement by launching an appeal.

The 8th December 2016 saw a massive victory for labour tenants, particularly those that lodged land acquisition claims under the Land Reform (Labour Tenants) Act. This date marks the Land Claims Court landmark ruling that a Special Master must be appointed to assist the Department to process the longstanding claims of labour tenants who lodged their claims by 31 March 2001.


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AFRA News, Labour tenants, Land News

Hillerman Labour Tenants celebrate VICTORY!

After 20 years of struggle, including the landowner denying that the majority of the occupants in Hillerman farm qualify as labour tenants, the community being faced with eviction, and being denied service delivery, the Hillerman case was resolved in November at the Land Claims Court. The judgment favoured the 361 labour tenants and the State will acquire the land under claim.


Presentation of gifts to Inkosi Mchunu (Traditional Leader) and Labour Tenant leaders

“The judgement means secured tenure for the Hillerman Community, it means we can finally have basic service delivery that we were denied for many years.” These are the words that were echoed throughout the Hillerman community celebration on Sunday, 12 February 2017.


Donna Hornby (Lead Researcher at AFRA) being interviewed by the SABC

The celebration was attended by various government and civil society groups including the AmaChunu Chief. The Chief applauded the community for leading their own struggle, he advised them to continue to use the land productively for the benefit of the community and not individuals.


Various Labour Tenants were interviewed by the SABC

AFRA is very proud to have been part of the Hillerman farm victory. We wish them all the best in their future endeavors. Continue reading

Labour tenants

‘Stay on the land,’ says Zuma. It hasn’t been for lack of trying.

By Laurel Oettle, published 9th February 2017.

South Africa’s fortunes rest on land, which has become a rallying cry for #FeesMustFall, the EFF and various other organisations across the country. It took President Jacob Zuma an hour to get to the issue in his “radical socio-economic transformation” SONA address last night. The troop mobilisation, punch-ups, teargas, stun grenades, swearing and walkouts suggest that the disintegration of consensus will make it difficult for government to enlist broad co-operation in any of its objectives, including land reform, and will continue to drive change in a way that has been marked by 23 years of failure.

President Zuma’s pronouncement that it will be “difficult if not impossible to achieve true reconciliation until the land question is resolved,” was an acknowledgment of the seriousness of the issue, simultaneously pointing to the failure of land reform (quoting only 9,8% of arable land having been transferred to black people) and government’s contortions to appease the electorate and take the sting out of political competition that has taken over the initiative.

The renewed and ever more vigorous focus on land is welcome because land is the basis on which all South Africans are able to assume full citizenship. It grants them access, in a multitude of ways, to livelihoods, dignity and equality. The land question therefore remains a critical feature of the country’s politics, marked by volatility, insecurity and confusion. To break the logjams in land reform is necessary, and long overdue. But the question has to be asked: to what end? What will be solved or destroyed along the way? Will those who reap the reward be those in the queue of history, patiently waiting for justice to get around to them, or will it be those who already have the money and the connections and are poised to add a farm here or there to their property portfolios?

It is hard to ignore the staggering amount of money – R631 million, according to Zuma’s SONA pronouncements – that is going into a policy that as of yet remains highly criticised, unpublished and entirely opaque. Known as the “50/50 policy”, or “Strengthening the relative rights of people working the land,” this brainchild of Minister Nkwinti does not, in fact, transfer land to black farm workers. Instead, it is pumping millions of rands into failing farms for the transfer of business shares to a relatively small number of farm workers and farm dwellers, with the biggest benefit seeming to remain with the white land owners. This seems little more than a horribly twisted and empty embodiment of the ANC policy under OR Tambo of “land to the tiller.”

Everyone is watching the land space. It embodies transformation, and understanding this allows for a comprehensive and critical analysis of the successes and failures of transformation in South Africa. So what has gone wrong? We have policy and legislation, but poor governance and administration systems. The push and pull around land has not been grounded in the systems and resources that would be needed. Land claimants have been paid out in quickly-spent cash rather than having their land restored, without a full understanding of what options should be available to them. It is laudable that Zuma’s speech included an appeal to land claimants to accept land instead of financial compensation, stating that over 90% of claims are currently settled through financial compensation and acknowledging, moreover, that government from the outset has poorly handled this issue.

“Land remains,” he said. “It is important that you remain with the land.” It hasn’t been for lack of trying, if you are an evicted farm dweller or neglected labour tenant.

Government has tended to speak to people through announcement, through press statements, especially with regard to land. Dialogue needs to be moved from the central, urban, metropolitan processes and spaces, and must instead be grounded in variegated realities of rural life. Continue reading


Responsible Governance of Land in South Africa: Turning Talk into Action

by Laurel Oettle, published 2nd February 2017.

The third National Workshop to improve the governance of tenure in South Africa with the “Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security” (the VGGTs or Voluntary Guidelines) got underway yesterday in Durban, and will run for a further two days. I was fortunate enough to be asked to present on the status of the VGGT implementation in South African by civil society organisations, which gave me a chance to reflect and share my a few of my thoughts.

My first direct engagement with the VGGTs was in September 2015, when I joined the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) learning programme on gender and land. My interest piqued by my desire to learn more tools to address gender inequality, particularly in my current context of grappling with the complexities of land tenure, I jumped at the opportunity. I made many new friends across civil society, government, academic institution, social movements and organised agriculture, and we engaged actively with understanding the VGGTs, identifying tools to increase women’s equitable access to land, and seeing how we could use this knowledge in our work. This was followed in May 2016 by the second National VGGT workshop, which focused on capacity assessment. Dr Ruth Hall from the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) wrote an excellent summary of the some of the key outcomes of the workshop whilst sharing her own perspectives on land governance in South Africa, which can be read here.

I have thoroughly enjoyed engaging in multiple civil society spaces since I joined the Association For Rural Advancement (AFRA) in 2015, from local right through to National and International partnerships. These range from the Tshintsha Amakhaya civil society alliance for land and food justice in South Africa, to the newly established Land Governance Transformation Network, and the International Land Coalition. Within all these spaces, I have heard increasing awareness of and knowledge about the VGGTs, but not yet a high degree of resonance with existing work and practical application. So, within an action-oriented sector ultimately concerned with the lived daily reality of the most marginalised and vulnerable in our country, the burning question seems to be:

How do we use this theoretical framework in action-oriented ways to see real change?

In order to begin answering this question, I would like to share one way in which, within AFRA, we have begun to try and do this: our Pathways ProjectContinue reading