Judas Seimela was a young man when the apartheid government forcibly removed his community from vast tracts of land in the scenic George’s Valley Gorge in Limpopo.
The frail 88-year-old pensioner has been living in the impoverished village of Nywaneng, between Polokwane and Moria, since the forced removal.
There are many like him in the village – former inhabitants of George’s Valley who had hoped to return to the land in their lifetimes, but whose hopes have been dashed for a second time.
The picturesque George’s Valley Gorge is a tourist attraction and a prime farming area nestled between the small town of Haenertsburg and Tzaneen.
Its attractions include deep valleys, waterfalls and endangered plant species, which make it one of the most breathtaking sights in the country. It also has a busy truck route and a stopover to the Kruger National Park.
In 2004, the Land Claims Commission handed over a prime piece of land with pine forests and avocado orchards, valued at R13 million, to the Serala Communal Property Association – about 400 families that had been displaced from the land.
But Seimela and other rightful beneficiaries were mysteriously excluded from the land restitution process. They are now aggrieved to see a few members of the Communal Property Association (CPA) making money by cutting and selling timber grown on their ancestral land.
“A few individuals are blocking our access to the land,” said Seimela from outside his modest home in the village.
“But I don’t know why they have shut us out and robbed us of the land. We were chased away by whites and now it is our people doing the same thing. We want our land back and I want to have cattle and goats on that farm,” he added.
Seimela has nothing but good memories of life on the farm. His parents were born there and died there. When he was young, Seimela worked on sorghum plantations in the George’s Valley area before the owners converted them into a business that traded in avocados and pine trees.
“Life was good back then. There was plenty of firewood and water. I can go back there anytime if given a chance to do so,” he said.
Seimela’s younger sister, Lenah Letsoalo, who has no idea how old she is, was a domestic worker for white landowners before the forced removal from George’s Valley.
But unlike her brother, Letsoalo is not nostalgic about George’s Valley. She would rather be paid out for the land instead of returning to it.
“That place is far … I would be happy with financial compensation,” she said.
The siblings, both illiterate, remember being called to meetings where they were informed about the claim that had been lodged on their ancestral land.
Government later bought the farm back and handed it over to claimants. Seimela was kept in the dark and had no idea that the land claim had been successful. The two now want what is rightfully theirs.
Paledi Ramogale, a schoolteacher who is also a claimant by virtue of his parents and grandparents having lived on the farm, has also been fighting against this “second dispossession”.
“The CPA members are looting the wealth of the community. Since this land was transferred in 2004, there has never been a single claimant meeting and all the claimants have been excluded from the business,” said Ramogale.
“I have been complaining to the Land Claims Commission to consider ways of ensuring that the claimants benefit, but they have not done anything,” he added.
Ramogale accused CPA members Edward Ramala and Phokela Maponya of hijacking the land claims process and squandering money and other resources.
“They are cutting trees and selling timber and avocados, but the money goes into their pockets. They’re also negligent because some of the trees were burnt by a veld fire last year,” said Ramogale.
Responding to the allegations, Ramala dismissed claims that he and others had hijacked the farm and excluded other rightful beneficiaries.
“We didn’t hijack anything, but I’m not surprised by Ramogale’s allegations because he’s a dreamer.
“He pulled out of the project himself. The other beneficiaries are aware of what is going on at the farm,” said Ramala.
“The farm is not making any money because of the fire last year. Ramogale should be saying that we should find a way to work together instead of levelling allegations,” he added.
But Ramala could not produce any evidence proving that all the beneficiaries were still involved in the project.
Limpopo Land Claims Commission spokesperson Nicholas Magada said the commission was aware of the squabble among the claimants.
“The department has lodged a court application with a view to place the Serala CPA under judicial administration. [We] are currently considering the CPA’s request to refer the matter for mediation,” said Magada