‘What about 1908, 1872?’ Land committee asked to recognise colonial dispossession

At the constitutional amendment hearings in Queenstown on Wednesday, a visibly emotional Chief Wesfikile Mehlomakhulu of Sterkspruit pleaded with MPs to acknowledge the dispossession of tribal land prior to 1913.

Mehlomakhulu — a deputy speaker of the local council — relayed the history of the Chris Hani district, detailing the Eastern Cape’s eight frontier wars during where land was seized by colonial forces from Britain, Germany and the Netherlands.

The constitutional review committee however, is focusing solely on the dispossession of land since the adoption of the Native Land Act in 1913.

Mehlomakhulu said this dispossession was the original injustice perpetrated against the Xhosa people. He then asked the committee that if the Constitution should be amended to allow expropriation of land without compensation, why they had forgotten this.

“Why have you forgotten about 1910 when the union of South Africa was declared and we were stripped of land?” Mehlomakhulu began.

“What about 1908, have you forgotten there was a demarcation of the Eastern Cape among the colonial forces? What about 1872, when tribal leaders were forced to give away their land or face another war?” he added.

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By this point, those gathered in the packed hall had fallen silent, hanging onto the chief’s every word. Among them were community members, chiefs from surrounding villages and towns, political party representatives and a large contingent of white farmers.

When the hall had reached capacity, police officials had prevented more people from entering which led to the formation of a long queue, snaking around the corner.

Dozens of Eastern Cape residents supported Chief Mehlomakhulu and called on MPs enact legislation that would transfer the land back to tribal authorities.

“We don’t want land that is under tribal control, we want the land that was taken by white people before 1913. When we were subjects of Britain our traditional leaders were fined 10 000 goats and sheep at times, and their land was taken,” said Phutiso Zamekile, a former operative of the ANC’s armed wing, uMkhonto weSizwe.

Political parties such as Black First Land First (BLF) soon joined in on the call for the return of land lost during these wars. 

READ MORE: How land expropriation would work

“Our Kings were slaughtered on this land. King Sabatha, King Hintsa, they were executed on this land. So no one must tell us how to conduct this debate. We know our history and want our land,” BLF Eastern Cape leader Vuyolwethu Mnqobi said.

But there were also practical concerns about what would happen if the land was finally expropriated. Zamekile called on government to overhaul the department of agriculture and to empower future black land owners with the skills needed to profit from farming.

“Without training on how to use the land, its return would be useless, Zamekile said.

This concern was shared by the Enoch Gijima Farmers Association, which represents 327 livestock farms and employs around 16 000 people in the province.

“I have a question for the BLF. What are you going to do with the land and how are you going to eat if you do not know farming?” the association’s Pieter Prinsloo asked, triggering outrage and loud jeering in the hall.

Prinsloo said the debate should not get too emotional and insisting, “Not me or any of my predecessors have stolen land.”

But the Economic Freedom Fighters said it would not allow white farmers to denigrate black people asking for the return of their land. “More than 25 farms are owned by one or two men [here in the Eastern Cape], then you want to tell us how to act? Who are you? Don’t you have land where you came from?” EFF member Xolisile Phemba countered.

ANC Youth League member Xola Nqola pleaded with the parliamentarians to ensure that land is expropriated without compensation before their term expires next year, saying: “We do have the capacity to take land without you, but we do not want to act outside of the law. Let it be done before the end of your term or we will start here in [Queenstown] CBD.”

Meanwhile Nomvuze Nomphete, a resident of the area, argued that the debate was dominated by men. She called for gender parity when discussing whether the Constitution should be amended.

“Women have been left out of this process, so whatever process happens now must be inclusive of us.”

Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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