Sons and daughters of the soil seek to claim the land that shaped them

Cathrine Molope yearns to return and to once again have the peace and serenity of feeling ‘at home’. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Cathrine Molope yearns to return and to once again have the peace and serenity of feeling ‘at home’. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

There are plans to build a memorial to honour the 44 men who died during the unprotected strike that culminated in the Marikana massacre. But long before miners were sent deep, deep into the ground or police arrived to kill and maim workers, families shed tears as they became foreigners in their own land. Today, barely 100m from Lonmin’s platinum mine in the North West, there are bones interred and the ruins of homes that hark back to simpler lives that shaped the people they’ve become.
This is their monument, to say a community was born here. And they want to come home.

Lucky Morolong was walking barefoot across open, dusty veld in the North West village of Middelkraal on his way to school when he spotted a small aircraft that had crash-landed.

The pilot was long gone but the wreckage remained. It was the late 1960s and, for weeks, Morolong spent a few minutes at the crash site every day, before and after class, marvelling at the machine. At nine years old, it was the first time he had seen an aircraft up close.

“It crashed on what used to be our ploughing fields … It was amazing because we used to see it up in the sky, being so far away. Now I’m seeing it here; and wow, it’s actually much bigger than I thought. I would look at it and just marvel … and in my heart I said: ‘One day, I must fly this thing,’” he said this week. Morolong later took his stepfather’s surname, Ngema.

Those few minutes at the beginning and end of each day would inspire him to pursue a career in aviation while in exile from apartheid. He would eventually become a general of the South African Air Force and the country’s first black pilot

The village Ngema comes from — Middelkraal — and the land his family used to farm stretches across Lonmin’s infamous platinum mine in Marikana.

Batswana and coloured people lived together in the village and farmed until they were forced into employment by settlers. They were then later forcibly removed under the apartheid government’s Group Areas Act. Lonmin arrived in the area in 1969.

Now, the land is the subject of a restitution claim made by the Lottering, Morolong (Maledu, Ngema), Matabane, Matshe and Mpedi families.

The claim encompasses most of Lonmin’s western platinum operations and includes the Rowland shaft, base metal smelter, electricity pylons, the Wonderkop informal settlement, open veld, which was where the Middelkraal village was once located, and the two koppies where 34 striking mine workers were gunned down by the police during the unprotected strike in August 2012.

Officials of the rural development and land reform department visited Middelkraal at the end of 2015 and confirmed that the graves and ruins of the village belonged to the families now claiming them.

In April last year, the families were joined by Lonmin and government representatives for a cleansing ceremony at the site where their ancestors are buried. A tombstone was unveiled with the names of the families, and the graves have since been fenced off by the mine.

But the field that ignited Ngema’s passion for aviation is now covered in electricity pylons that supply power to Lonmin Platinum. Jerome Lottering’s family graves are just 100m away from Lonmin’s smelter.

Lottering says his great-grandfather ploughed the land where the mineworkers were massacred. But it is “painful” to hear the cries for justice for the mineworkers while the people who were driven off the land are forgotten, he said.

“Everybody in South Africa is screaming justice for the Marikana miners — wanting houses to be built for people coming from other provinces and from north of our borders. But the reality is that our people are from this piece of land. It is disheartening because there is no justice for us,” he said.

A plan for a memorial to commemorate the Marikana massacre is under threat. The plan to honour the 44 Lonmin Platinum mineworkers, police and security officers who died during the 2012 wage strike was announced by Lonmin in August but the land’s earlier inhabitants are not happy with it.

“We’re alarmed that there’s talk of Lonmin erecting a memorial on this land for the slain miners. We understand the reasons why they would want to do that but we have a problem with the fact that we are not being consulted,” Lottering said.

“If this memorial goes ahead, obviously there’s going to be elements within our community who are going to object. And anything can happen … even the destruction of that memorial can happen if it is erected on this piece of land,” he added.

Lonmin spokesperson Wendy Tlou said the Marikana memorial is “still at design stage” and that the engagement of all stakeholders, including with the claimants, has only just started. “We are aiming to have the stakeholder engagement process finished by March 2018. A report will then be drawn up,” she said.

“We as Lonmin do not intend making any decisions regarding the memorial site. We want all relevant stakeholders to be involved in the making of such a decision and will simply play a facilitatory role. As regards the land claim, we are neutral as to the final outcome of the process which will determine who the historical landowners are. The land claims process must follow its course,” she said.

Tsietsi Maledu is a descendant of the Middelkraal residents and also an assistant surveyor at Lonmin. He started working at the Rowland shaft in 2011 and participated in the unprotected 2012 strike.

On the day of the massacre, he came back to the koppie to find himself on the other side of the barbed wire that the police used as a barricade — separated from the other miners and therefore protected from the bullets.

“It’s not easy because my family must be recognised and respected but I also want to remember my comrades who were killed. We worked together,” he said.

In the middle of the 1960s, Ngema said, Afrikaner settlers arrived and divided up the area among themselves.

“They would come and say: ‘Your father now works for this farmer and that one works for that farmer, and we are staying on their land.’ The village was divided because of their new borders.”

By the end of the decade, the state had ordered the community’s eviction to make way for mining.

“By the time I was [in Johannesburg], I was in standard four. I then started selling peanuts and ice cream over weekends to raise some funds. I would take a double-decker bus, go to Jan Smuts Airport at the time, and stand there and watch aeroplanes,” Ngema said.

The ruins of the stone and brick huts where Ngema and Lottering were born and raised are still partially intact. The lekgotla tree where their ancestors once met frequently to discuss important matters and take decisions still stands.

He said the Middelkraal village was made up a number of small homesteads scattered across land next to what is now Lonmin’s base metal smelter. The homes had thatched roofs and the floors were smeared with cow dung.

With frequent interruptions of laughter and nods of agreement from Lottering’s father, Peter, Ngema describes how they used to follow the village girls to the river and break off honeycombs from hives without being stung, and how he froze when he was confronted by a snake — and there were many in the area.

Peter Lottering’s grandfather was the headman of the village. Their homestead was more modern, made of bricks and clay, and situated next to a waterhole, where the 15 cattle and nearly 30 goats would drink.

[Peter Lottering’s grandfather was headman of the Middelkop village, but their homestead was reduced to ruins after the family was forced to move away in the winter of 1971. He and other displaced families are now laying claim to the land that Lonmin is mining, as well as an open piece of veld where their forebears’ graves lie. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)]

Standing in the ruins of the homestead where he was born, he points to a rock. “We would put coarse salt here on the rock, and the cows would drink the water, then lick this rock for the salt.”

The 65-year-old reaches down and scoops a handful of the now dried-out soil of the watering hole. “This is the soil that made me. You can even see the colour of my arm and this soil, it’s the same,” Lottering said.

In 1971, when he was 16, his family were uprooted from Middelkraal in the middle of winter. His extended family moved on foot to Boshoek, nearly 60km away.

“It was terrible; we were crying. But our parents didn’t have any choice. It was so sad; it was like a funeral or something,” he said.

The Lotterings didn’t have an ox wagon and asked the new owners if they could wait until summer before leaving, but they refused.

“We would walk until sunset, then gather our stuff in a circle and sleep. And it was bleddie cold — it was winter, minus zero degrees,” Lottering said.

“In fact, my grandfather thought that me and my brother were going to die, because we were shivering so much during the day,” he added.

Cathrine Molope (70) was also forced off the land in 1970 with her family, the Matabanes. But unlike the Lotterings, they didn’t know where they would go. “When we were ordered to move, it wasn’t nice. We walked like the people of Israel when they were coming from Egypt, but the only difference was that the people of Israel knew where they were going.”

[Cathrine Molope and her family were shunted off the land in 1970 — land that now has a Lonmin barbed-wire fence running through it. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)]

Some Matabane also ended up near Boshoek, and other members of the family dispersed and went to different provinces. Ngema’s family ended up in Mpumalanga.

He said he joined the land claim to fight for the acknowledgement of his ancestors. Molope, on the other hand, said she still yearns to return to the place where she was born.

“As I’m sitting here now, I wish I was still living here because this is our ancestors’ place. If they were to tell us to come back here, I’m sure I would be the first one to move back here,” she said, sitting on a rock not far from the tree where the village elders used to meet.

Lottering agreed. “I feel different emotions as I’m standing here now. If there was an opportunity for me to come back here again, I would take it at any given time. Because I was young when I moved here, but my best moments were here. Not where I am [in Gauteng]. This is my identity; I feel free here. I still cannot get used to the place where I am.”

As the festive season approaches, Molope asked where she was supposed to take her children and grandchildren.

“Now towards Christmas, firms close, people go to their homes. But where are we supposed to go? We don’t have homes and we miss our birthplaces. We were supposed to be coming here, knowing that we are going to have a nice time with our families in our parents’ houses.”

Lottering said: “I feel sad. Where we are in Jo’burg, there’s people who, at the end of the year, say they are going home. I can’t do that.”

Ngema said: “Amazingly, by the time I became general, you had the privilege to sometimes request an aircraft when you have things to do. Like in Mahikeng, the route goes right over here. And I would never miss a moment to look down at this field and say this field is the origin of what I have become: a pilot.”

[The retired Major General Lucky Ngema discovered a crashed aeroplane on the land as a boy, which inspired him to become a pilot who would rise to the upper echelons of the air force. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)]

The families this week claimed that Lonmin is frustrating their attempts to get compensation and restitution. They submitted their claim in May 2015 but it has been placed on hold since the Legal Resources Centre successfully applied to the Constitutional Court for the processing of new claims to be halted, because the state had not followed the guidelines.

President Jacob Zuma instructed the Land Reform Commission to reopen the land restitution process in 2014 for additional claims, even though those submitted before the 1998 deadline had not been finalised.

The area covered by their claim does not form part of a similar claim by the Bapo Ba Mogale royal family, who inhabited most of the surrounding area, with the exception of the Wonderkop settlement.

There’s no clarity on when the Middelkraal land claim will be decided, because the commission has yet to complete the guidelines that will set out how the process will unfold.

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