Vryheid. Yeah, right
The fact that it is nearly 11am has had no effect on conditions in Vryheid, the former capital of the Boer Republic and these days the seat of the Abaqulusi local municipality.
The weather is freezing, despite the piercingly blue sky, but there are hundreds of locals outside the Cecil Emmett sports centre, not so patiently waiting to get inside the main gate.
We’re in Vryheid for hearings by parliament’s joint committee on constitutional review to get public opinion on the plans to go ahead with expropriation of land without compensation. It’s an appropriate venue.
Vryheid is very much a farming town, a centre for marketing the crops and livestock raised on the thousands of hectares of prime land that surrounds it. The bulk of the land is owned by white people, nearly 25 years after liberation, with most of the rest falling under the control of King Goodwill Zwelithini through the Ingonyama Trust.
Most black people live in Bhekuzulu or Mondlo, Vryheid’s two main townships. Many ended up there after their family land was expropriated to accommodate white farmers from 1913 onwards.
I’m all overcoat, beanie and gloves and I’m still shaking from the cold. Most of the locals have dressed for the weather but there’s a crew of wit ous in beards wearing shorts and those Great White Hunter shirts and hats as if it were the height of summer and not the middle of winter.
Vryheid. Freedom, if you translate it from the Afrikaans.
Freedom for whom, I wonder, as I try to skirt the crowd and get past them. Certainly not for the ancestors of the hundreds of black people trying to get through the gate.
If the vryheid in question had been theirs, there would be no need for these folks to be queuing up to voice their opinion about the plan to amend section 25 of the Constitution so they can get back the land taken from their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.
My bra Joel Duze came from Vryheid. Joel’s dead now. He was active in the civic structures that were set up in the small towns in KwaZulu-Natal’s coal mining belt under the United Democratic Front (UDF) in the 1980s. When the State of Emergency was declared by PW Botha in 1985, Joel avoided the first wave of raids by the Security Branch in which most of his comrades in the area were rounded up. Joel walked through the bush, all the way to Pietermaritzburg, to get to a “safe” house where he was arrested.
My other bra Teargas comes from Vryheid. His dad fought against the Nazis in World War II. Came home to settle down. Got forcibly removed from the land where generations of his family had lived and dumped in Mondlo.
I wriggle through the crowd and get to the gate. The cops on duty aren’t budging. They have already let in the full quota of people for the day, so nobody’s getting inside. I show them my rather faded press card. It’s four years out of date, thumbed by so many cops that my picture is hardly visible. It could be me, or Rob Davies, or Vladimir Lenin in the picture.
The cop scrutinises it, makes sure it’s me in the picture and gives me the nod. The crowd surges forward, seeing a chance to force their way in, but the cops have the gate closed on my heels before anybody can squeeze through.
Inside the gate, there’s a long line of human beings snaking its way around the grounds. It’s predominantly black, with groups of white faces clustered together here and there. It could be voting day, the way people are standing, more patiently than those outside, waiting to get into the hall.
I cut the queue, flash my card and get inside. The hearings are starting. It’s a simple format. Three minutes a speaker on whether or not they support changing the Constitution.
People start telling their stories. They’re harrowing, a gut-wrenching reminder of where we’re coming from, of our twisted history. Forced removals; children being kept out of school and used as cheap labour; livestock stolen; homes bulldozed, graves desecrated. Speaker after speaker re-opens history’s wounds as the group of MPs seated on the stage in the front of the hall listens intently.
A cat from AfriForum takes the microphone. Gets all Wikipedia in defence of his ancestors dispossessing the ancestors of everybody else in the hall. Starts spouting about blood and heritage and ancestry.
The dude is all statistics and clipped English as he justifies continued white control of South Africa’s productive land, as if there was never anybody living there before his ancestors landed, or as if they brought the land with them in 1652.
The rest of the hall’s getting angry. I can’t say I blame them.