The place of sadness

2017-05-14 09:30
The Coligny Magistrate's Court (Felix Dlangamandla/Netwerk24)

The Coligny Magistrate's Court (Felix Dlangamandla/Netwerk24)

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The road to Coligny from Lichtenburg offered two turns that Tuesday afternoon.

Left, a service ­station; right, the carcass of a burnt-out car with a police van stationed nearby. A few officers stood by, seemingly unsure what to do.

The tarred road with patches of black soot bore evidence of the ­recent burning.

That was two weeks ago when Coligny, a small North West town with a rich Boer history, became the subject of national scrutiny.

A 16-year-old teenager, Matlhlamola Jonas Mosweu, had been found dead, allegedly the victim of an attack by Pieter Doorewaard and Phillip Schutte, who had caught him stealing sunflowers from their boss’ field.

On that day, Coligny was burning. Three spirals of black smoke drifted into the autumn afternoon.

Entrance roads were blocked off by white men dressed in the ubiquitous khaki farmer ­uniforms, rifles cradled across their chests.

Again, black police ­officers appeared to prefer to watch from a cautious distance.

The smoke had been the result of black anger when residents had marched on white-owned businesses, demanding the arrest of the men who had allegedly caused Mosweu’s death.

Then, ­conservative poster boy Dan Roodt tweeted: “Both in the US and South Africa, I suppose looting a liquor store has always [been] the supreme act of ‘liberation’.#Coligny.”

When urbanites took to Twitter to voice their outrage about the black lives that still do not matter, a part of white South Africa responded by asking why no one cared about white farmers being murdered.

Coligny, overshadowed by neighbouring Ventersdorp, where right wing leader Eugene Terre’Blanche was born and founded the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, remained on the national agenda for the next few weeks, compelling acclaimed author Rian Malan to ask: “Ah, this country. Where did our glory go?”

Cynical as it might seem, it is a near-certainty that Coligny and Mosweu will become mere footmarks to our tempestuous, violent post-apartheid country – as have John Mosoko Rampuru and ­Victor Mlotshwa.

They, too, were briefly famous as martyrs to ­racism.

Rampuru’s almost skinless body was discovered in 2000 after he had been dragged behind a bakkie while Mlotshwa was beaten, placed in a coffin and terrorised last year.

Life moves on.

To urban creatures, towns such as Coligny on the N14 offer little else than a petrol stop on a road trip and signposts to places like Aggeneys will be a forgotten moment of curiosity.

Unlike the frenetic pace of South Africa’s urban centres and the fleetingness of our outrage, change in small, rural towns such as Coligny is akin to a life lived in slow motion.

Here, white men have no qualms about instilling discipline among their workers or those they deem below them in stature, rank and humanity.

A child’s life will end with absurd ease; an adult man will be ­tormented because perverted power relationships have stubbornly resisted democracy.

Much of this is the result of the ANC government’s profound failure to establish a solution to centuries of land dispossession and unchallenged white power.

Successive post-1994 governments have dabbled in land restitution formulas resulting in ceremonial handovers, court actions and progressive legislation for those who find themselves at the mercy of a baas.

President Jacob Zuma – in his state of the nation address earlier this year – touched on two of the most critical issues that afflict contemporary South Africa.

The lack of land ownership and economic agency remain the true impediments to the fundamental transformation and empowerment of black South Africans’ lives.

The ANC, in the first years of democracy, offered a willing ­buyer, willing seller option with government buying farms for black South Africans.

As transactions were effected, many white South Africans watched with malicious satisfaction as once fertile lands regressed into barren wastelands because no one taught new black farmers how to progress from disempowered workers and dispossessed victims to successful managers.

And while restitution claims have been ongoing since 1998, it is yet to yield significant transformation of land ownership.

The Commission for Land Restitution, in a 2016 review, acknowledged that it was challenged to fulfil its mandate – not only were they hampered by weak internal systems, but they were expected to provide post-settlement support and resolve political and ­community arguments.

In 2000, Coligny was the site of a high-profile handover when former land minister Thoko Didiza gave back Putfontein farm to the Batloung community.

They had been removed in the 1970s from the land given to them by Boer president Paul Kruger for their help in his fight against the British.

Handing over the land, Didiza said: “It is important that this land be put to production instead of turned into a squatter camp. You should not fail us.

"After a year I will visit this place and I want to find it in its current state or better.”

There is no record that Didiza ever returned. The scant reportage after the handover suggests that while no squatter camp emerged, much of the land fell into disrepair.

Many towns have been mired in twisted power relations. They might have elected black mayors, but the towns’ economic power rests with white inhabitants.

Several years ago, in a small Eastern Cape town, white residents laughed at the government’s land ­restitution programmes. It was all for nought.

It would end badly.

The black mayor of Molteno lived in the location, one farmer said, with a casual gesture of contempt towards the RDP houses some metres from the main town.

Another had rented land from the black community for whom government had bought a farm and which had been initially turned into a guest house.

No one came to stay and, when the local church held a weekend-long ­get-together, visitors preferred the white accommodation in a nearby town rather than the black-owned house.

The amiable white fellows in the bar shrugged their shoulders as they told their story – as if to say that the treatment dished out to the black townfolk was the result of stepping above their rank.

Coligny, Molteno, Lichtenburg and many other rural towns continue to crawl into an uncertain future with high unemployment and an overreliance on an agrarian economy.

Government grants and hope for change enslave black inhabitants to the ANC while their white counterparts fear Zimbabwean-style land programmes and ­being attacked in their homes.

It makes for an uneasy way of living.

For black South Africans, rural dispossession is limitless in some ways – forever eroding culture, autonomy, language, freedom and security of employment.

It represents the starkest and most ­stubborn examples of servitude.

Here, farmers wilfully exercise power that had been vested in their families for centuries, magistrates seemingly forget to take into account post-apartheid laws such as the Extension of Security of Tenure Act and hapless and uneducated farm workers are evicted on a whim.

Court records offer evidence of discord, ­patriarchy and a fragile dependency.

The Economic Freedom Fighters’ Advocate Dali Mpofu, for ­instance, represented a Coligny family in 1999 that fought for the right to bury a relative on the farm where they had lived for years.

Mpofu lost because the Land Claims Court found that the family had started relocating elsewhere.

In April 2014, the Wits Law Clinic took on the case of Elias Selomo, whose daughter Caroline Celia had died on February 23 2013.

According to Bapedi tradition, she ought to have been buried by March 2, but Desmond Doman, owner of Pennsylvania farm in Limpopo had refused permission for her to be put to rest at the Selomo ancestral graveyard on his property.

He did this despite her father having been born on the farm in 1948, having buried his parents and three children there – all with the permission of the previous owners.

In the end, the court ruled that Selomo had the “protective right to bury his daughter on the ancestral gravesite”.

In 2009, Rekie Ndala and her nephew Andreas Mahlangu sought the Land Claims Court’s intervention when farmer J. Visagie refused permission for them to have an Ndebele initiation school on his farm in Bapsfontein, Gauteng.

Previous owners had granted their consent.

Visagie, however, objected on religious grounds.

Acting Judge Shanaaz Mia, ruling in Ndala’s favour, said:

“Our courts have recognised that the diversity of religious and cultural groups require protection, not only those who happen to speak with the most powerful voice in the present cultural conversation.”

In this toxic, forever fomenting rural environment, patterns of servitude and exclusion remain largely unchanged.

In this parallel South Africa, clever blacks are victimised and social media is a drink of forgetting at the local shebeen.

In the meantime, Coligny lives up to its original name of ­Treurfontein, place of sadness.

. Oppelt is a former editor

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