/ 16 April 2014

Exile’s bullish reconnection with his ancestral land

People try to escape the heat in Daying
People try to escape the heat in Daying

Not everyone was delighted by the events of the early 1990s when a negotiated settlement was reached after Nelson Mandela's release. Some had been passionately hoping for a full-on armed engagement: they believed the country had been given away – the land had not been reclaimed.

One such person was Molefe Pheto, a former political prisoner, who found it difficult to return home after 20 years in exile in Britain.

In a series of vignettes and flashbacks he gives us an understanding of his early years as a child in Alexandra township; a clever and ­talented boy who was sent to London to study music. These days, the land affairs and agriculture secretary of the Azanian People's Organisation is settled on his 17-hectare farm near Magaliesburg.

Pheto is forthright, with a lively style that combines fluency in both English and Setswana. He has a broad understanding of politics and the world, and makes many astute and humorous observations about people. He also laughs at himself.

After several years of resisting the temptation to return to South Africa after the first democratic elections in 1994, various events helped him to change his mind. These included a chance to be included in "Baby Jake" Matlala's entourage when the boxer fought in London and a visit from no less a personage than Ngosi Nyalala, the king of the Bakgatla, who assured him: "There is a place for you in Moruleng."

After a pre-return reconnaissance visit and after consulting his four children and his wife, Pheto sent his son Pule to buy a farm. He was not pleased to have to pay for what he considered his ancestral land, but he found the perfect name for it: Ba ngadile ("They have sulked" in Setswana), something he and his nearest male ancestors seem to have done more than once and for various interesting reasons.

Why did Pheto's great-grandfather find himself in Mochudi in Botswana? Why did his father not return to Moruleng but land up in Alexandra? Why did he himself walk out of a Catholic Sunday service one day in 1957 and head up to Mochudi so that he could shed his Christian name Phineas, in favour of Molefe?

Pheto's heart was drawn to the farm when he found that the main house had a veranda with pillars. It also had an area set aside for ­conservation. But these are the consolations of farming, which in South Africa is not for the fainthearted.

Before he went to the farm, Pheto was in touch with the network of information that circulates around the district – but he may not have been prepared for the hostility and obstructive behaviour of his white neighbours.

He says near the end of the book that it was "you white South Africans who still cling to yesteryear" that caused him to write the book.

But as a reader this is not the most important part of the book: Why not record a long and interesting life, and why not also, while you are about it, set the record straight about the unfounded "spy" accusations he has weathered in the internal politics of the ongoing and, he believes, uncompleted revolutionary struggle?

His experiences with labour tenants, fences broken by the best bull in the area (which he owned), the Fire Protection Association (from which he was illegally excluded) and trespassing hunters make for interesting reading.

Pheto also has a long and substantiated list of grievances about the failures of the current government. But none of these have caused him to "ba ngale" (sulk). He has gradually reconnected with his ancestors and the vast Pheto family.

The Bull from Moruleng by Molefe Pheto is published by Ekaam Books.