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'Freedom fighter' has a question for Koornhof

Ben Maclennan

Ben Mafani never met Piet Koornhof, who died this week at the age of 82. But he hopes to come face to face with Koornhof in the life hereafter, because he has a question for the apartheid-era Cabinet minister. Mafani wants to know why he, his family, and thousands of other people were forcibly removed from "white" South Africa three decades ago.

Ben Mafani never met Piet Koornhof, who died this week at the age of 82.

But he hopes to come face to face with Koornhof in the life hereafter, because he has a question for the apartheid-era Cabinet minister.

Mafani wants to know why he, his family, and thousands of other people were forcibly removed from “white” South Africa three decades ago and dumped in plank houses at Glenmore on the edge of the Ciskei.

It is a question that has been gnawing at Mafani since the day in April 1979 that police arrested him at his home in Coega, near Port Elizabeth, and officials destroyed his dwelling and trucked him and his belongings to the resettlement camp.

At the time, Koornhof was minister of what was euphemistically called the Department of Cooperation and Development, and as such, bore political responsibility for its forced removal programme.

Koornhof was no stranger to the hardships of forced removals. In 1971, after a visit to one of the most notorious dumping ground in the Eastern Cape, he had declared there would be “no more Dimbazas”.

“I am not prepared to have inhumane treatment on my conscience,” he said.

But he was also on record as saying that South Africa was a white man’s land, and that instilling in the Bantu a longing to join his own people in the “homelands” was a white man’s patriotic duty.

Mafani once wrote a letter to Koornhof, in 1978, to protest against the pending Coega removal.

He never got to send it, because police arrested him as a troublemaker and confiscated the letter.

Since the advent of democracy in South Africa, Mafani has been firing off letters to the new institutions of government in a dogged campaign to secure some sort of redress for the community.

The letters have gone to politicians, ranging from provincial legislators to President Thabo Mbeki, to the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, and to the Public Protector.

The replies have always been vague: in his words, “playing hide and seek ... nobody took this thing seriously”.

In 2004, he decided on a more direct way of drawing attention to his cause.

He took a taxi ride 50 dusty kilometres to Grahamstown, stood in the High Street, and threw a rock through a window of the High Court.

He was arrested, but after he had spent several months in jail awaiting trial, the case was dropped, and he was set free.

Denied his day in court, Mafani mulled over the matter for several years.

On September 7 this year, he put on a jacket and tie and went back to the High Street, with another rock.

This one was carefully painted in three colours—black, to show that the people of Glenmore were “sitting in a black place”, red “meaning that our people are crying blood”, and white, “saying I need freedom in Glenmore”.

He threw the rock through a window of the High Court. 

Predictably, he was arrested again, and charged with malicious damage to property.

And this time he is going to get his day in court, represented by a senior counsel from the Grahamstown bar, who is instructed by the Rhodes University Law Clinic.

His next appearance is on December 6.

Mafani, freed on R300 bail paid by a wellwisher, told the South African Press Association this week that conditions were tough at Glenmore.

People survived on pensions, and there were no jobs for school leavers.

Those who had managed to evade the forced removal and stay on at Coega now had jobs on the nearby Ncura port project.

But for those at Glenmore, there was nothing.

“This place is a prison,” he said. “The people suffer, suffer too much here.”

His three main grievances are simple: he wants to know what legal authority was used to move the families from Coega, from nearby Colchester and from Klipfontein farm, in 1979.

He wants to know what happened to millions of rands promised for the development of Glenmore when it was formally incorporated into the newly “independent” Ciskei in 1981.

And he wants the people who died in the harsh first years after the move, many of them children, to be reburied with dignity.

He describes himself as a “freedom fighter”, and at least part of his anger is still with Koornhof.

“I am angry because he said it was not my land, it was white land. [But] I grew up on my land, I was born there. Now I suffer. Now my people suffer.

“He said I must move to this place, it would be developed. But nothing happened,” Mafani said.

“I need to ask Mr Koornhof: Mr Koornhof, you know I’m here in heaven, you are in heaven. What about the situation that was done that time I was on the ground?” - Sapa

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