Mlangeni unearths the land of his father

The Mlangeni family was about to give up on their mission to find their grandfather’s grave on the Free State farm when someone tripped over a gravestone concealed in the tall grass.

On closer scrutiny, they sighed with relief — this was the grave the family had travelled all the way from Johannesburg to find.

The face of freedom fighter Andrew Mlangeni, who last Friday was conferred with an honorary doctorate in law by Rhodes University, lights up when he recalls the story, which took place in June last year.

A founding member of the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto weSizwe, he was convicted of high treason in the Rivonia Trial and spent 26 years, from 1963 to 1989, in prison.

Ever since he returned home from prison, his children and grandchildren have been eager to see his father’s final resting place.


The family hired a minibus and about 15 of them drove to the former QwaQwa Bantustan. He had last been there in 1953, when one of his older brothers had taken the family there to conduct ancestral rites.

His father, Aaron Matiya Mlangeni, died in 1932 and was buried on the farm, which was owned by the Naudes. His parents had been labour tenants. They were descendants of generations of black Africans who had been deprived of the right to own land, dispossessed by statutes introduced by colonial governments from the 1700s.

By the time Andrew Mlangeni was born in 1926, his parents were among the millions of Africans who had become landless in the land of their birth; they secured their tenure by providing labour to white farmers. When Mlangeni’s father died, the family lost its right to reside on the land and had to move to Johannesburg. He was six years old.

“The moment I was conceived, I was destined to be a farm worker under the farm labour tenant system. Many people still suffer as a result of this brutal system,” Mlangeni said.

At 92, he is an active member of the ANC. He is chairperson of the ANC’s integrity committee, whose task is to rein in errant members. It is a task he approaches with the passion of a lion that jealously guards its pride.

Mlangeni’s family did not lay a claim to the farm, although he and his nine siblings were born there, because his parents had been labour tenants. His is the lot of many families who found themselves, as a result of laws of dispossession such as the Native Land Act of 1913, moving from one white-owned farm to the next in search of a place to live.

Mlangeni concedes that, in the past 24 years of democratic rule, the government has failed to address land restitution properly. Perhaps this has been because of the slow resolution of the thousands of land claims, including those of labour tenants, made between 1996 and 1998.

In December 2016, the Land Claims Court granted an order appointing a special master of labour tenants, whose task will be to produce a plan to implement labour tenant claims to facilitate ownership of farm land in terms of the Land Reform (Labour Tenants) Act of 1996.

The court ordered that the plan be developed in collaboration with the department of rural development and land reform. The Association for Rural Advancement, an advocacy group, and four labour tenants had approached the court in a bid to force the department to settle more than 10 900 claims brought by land tenants.

Mlangeni does not place the blame for this failure solely on the ANC. “The government’s land distribution has actually failed in the last 23 years because the ‘owners’ of that land, the white people, when the government wants to buy property or farms from them, they increase the prices when they themselves got it for nothing.”

He says the resolution taken by the ANC’s national conference in December last year to expropriate land without compensation is necessary. But the man who was among the first to undergo military training in China in preparation for the launch of MK in 1960, warns that any expropriation of land should be done in an orderly manner.

“[What] the EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters] is doing inciting people to occupy the land, we … as ANC do not agree with that,” he says.

He does not agree that the ANC has been too soft in dealing with restitution. “We prefer discussing the issue of land. We don’t want a revolution. These other parties don’t know what it is to be engaged in a revolution.

“Our discussion to resolve the issue of land peacefully has failed. That is why we want to change the Constitution to allow the government to confiscate land without compensation.”

Mlangeni is one of the last men of his generation standing. He and Denis Goldberg are the only Rivonia triallists still living. But he does not fear death. “I’m 92 going on to 93 and, when I reach 95, I am prepared.”

Hopefully, before then, his beloved ANC will have found a solution to land restitution, redistribution and tenure reform. — Mukurukuru Media

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Lucas Ledwaba
Lucas Ledwaba
Journalist and author of Broke & Broken - The Shameful Legacy of Gold Mining in South Africa.

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