Struggle and success

2011-06-15 00:00

WELL-KNOWN Muden social activist, land-reform expert and lay preacher Jotham Myaka died last Thursday at the age of 54.

Myaka’s name was synonymous with land reform in the Muden area where he was also an independent councillor from 1996 to 2000. He was probably best known as the co-ordinator of Zibambeleni, a community-development organisation with an enviable track record in negotiating land transfers from white to black hands.

“I see land reform as a way of reconciliation,” he told The Witness in an interview in 2006. “When Mandela came out of prison he said we should build our nation on reconciliation. I’m one of those people who took him literally.”

Myaka was born on a farm in the Muden area in 1957 where his parents worked as labourers on land their family once owned. The farmer expected all to work, including children, but Myaka’s parents decided at least one of their children should have an education and, at the age of nine, Myaka was sent to the Muden Bantu Farm School. “It was 12 kilometres away,” he recalled. “My father carried me on a bicycle and he took me very early so the farmer wouldn’t see us on the road to the school. He dropped me a kilometre from the school and said, ‘There is the school’. I had to walk the rest.”

Thereafter Myaka would walk the 12 kilometres there and back each day. Myaka did well academically and his education proved a boon to his community. “‘Now you can write letters to Jo’burg,’ my mother said. Most people on the farms couldn’t read and write. People came to me to get letters written to their migrant husbands and sons.”

In 1971, the farmer discovered that Myaka was attending school and insisted he work on the farm instead. “My father pleaded with him. He said he would send one of his other sons, that at least one son must be educated. But the farmer refused. My father promised to send a brother’s son. Again the farmer refused. So I had to go to work on the farm. I was crying. The school was on the other side of the river from where I had to work in the fields. I could hear the children singing.”

Myaka was forced to work long hours, from four in the morning until eight at night. “I asked why? ‘Because you thought you were clever,’ I was told, ‘this is punishment because you wanted to go to school’.

“I worked long hours but there was no food. Sometimes mielie meal ground on the farm. Not good stuff — full of cobs and nunus. As I result I would steal milk.” When he was caught he was taken to the police to be sjambokked.

After six months of work, a labourer could be replaced by another family member, but the farmer refused to let Myaka leave. “I thought I’ll never get to school. By the eighth month I had had enough and I ran away. They chased me up to the river with dogs and guns. They were shooting into the bushes. They didn’t realise I had crossed the river.”

The next day Myaka’s mother spotted the farmer creeping up to the homestead with a firearm. “I left and ran as far as I could. My mother told the farmer she had not seen me. Next day I came back and took my clothes.”

When Myaka turned up at school it was already getting close to the end of the year. “They said I should come back in the new year. I cried and told them I must come back. I wanted to finish.”

His appearance didn’t help matters either. “I was dirty, there were flies on me and my hair needed cutting. Mrs Sithole said, ‘Go home, cut your hair, wash, and I’ll help you to catch up’. So I went back home and tidied up, then started going to school. She encouraged me, she hugged me. She brought books. And in three months I caught up.”

The farmer continued looking for Myaka­. “He would come with police at night and wake everyone up and count them. Most nights I would hide in the bushes. I was living that life until the end of Standard 6.”

Temporary jobs on farms helped to finance­ his school fees. After passing Standard 6, Myaka went to secondary school in Greytown where he stayed at the home of an Anglican priest. “His wife made me sandwiches. It was the first time in my life I had taken sandwiches to school.”

During the holidays, Myaka went to Johannesburg to join his brothers and find temporary work to pay his school fees. There he met the Taylor family in Linden who pointed Myaka in the direction of the Institute of Race Relations from where he received a bursary to complete his secondary education. This enabled him to attend Georgetown High School in 1977 as a boarder.

Following the 1976 Soweto uprising and the death of Steve Biko in 1977, Myaka became involved in politics. “But I always believed you should study and work hard, not just shout ‘power, power’ without doing something constructive.”

The doing included starting community gardens to sell vegetables. The profits were used to pay the school fees of those pupils who couldn’t afford them.

After protesting the unfair expulsion of a fellow pupil (who subsequently became a lawyer), Myaka was expelled from Georgetown and registered as a part-time student at varsity to finish his matric. He was later interrogated by the police when copies of his poems (which had appeared in Ilanga, as well as an anthology compiled by Professor Sibusiso Nyembezi) were found in his backpack when he was searched while attending a high-profile political trial. “ ‘I’ve found another communist,’ the policeman said, and I was taken to Loop Street and interrogated. The security police followed me until 1990 — then they came and apologised.”

Meanwhile, Myaka had met the pioneering organic gardener Robert “Tree Man” Mazibuko, who pointed him in the direction of Neil Alcock, the farmer and political activist, then living near Weenen. There Myaka met Cheryl Walker, future KwaZulu-Natal land claims commissioner, then working on her Masters­ degree in the area, and acted as her translator.

Myaka subsequently studied at the University of Zululand (Unizul) taking his final degree in 1985.

After a year teaching in Muden he returned to varsity as a researcher for Unizul’s Centre for Research and Documentation. In 1988, a British Council scholarship took him to Reading University in Britian where he studied rural and social development.

Myaka returned to Unizul but, despite good career prospects, resigned in 1991, a time of farm evictions and unrest in Muden­. “I thought I will never have peace until something is done for the poor in Muden­.”

Zibambeleni (“we do it ourselves”) was launched in 1993. Muden was designated a land-reform pilot project and over 20 farms were acquired by the black community. Until recently Myaka was busy acting as a consultant on land issues.

Myaka was never bitter about his treatment as a child. “In order to exist I’ve got to accept my neighbour. We need each other. When we meet, show them a smile. Mandela was in prison for 27 years and he never said a hateful word — when he came out he had tea with Verwoerd’s wife!

“We must reconcile if we are going to build South Africa. What we do here in Muden is in a small area, but we do it in larger consideration of the whole country.”

Myaka leaves a wife, Fundi, and three daughters, Thando, Sinethemba and Zethembiso.

A memorial service will be held at 10 am tomorrow at the Muden Hall. The funeral will be held at Mount Ernestina School near Muden at 9 am on Saturday.

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