Community reduced to squatting on their ancestral land

Big man evictions: A resident of Mokwalakwala farm walks amid the ruins of homes of families who have lived there for generations. (Lucas Ledwaba/Mukurukuru Media)

Big man evictions: A resident of Mokwalakwala farm walks amid the ruins of homes of families who have lived there for generations. (Lucas Ledwaba/Mukurukuru Media)

Anna Mamorabela walks through the scattered rubble of what used to be her family home. She carefully steps on sheets of corrugated iron lying over debris. She walks along a passage into one of the broken structures and rests her hands against the wood that once supported the wall.

“If you are a black person in this country, you are nothing.
We are treated like nothing,” she says, her gloomy eyes wandering around the destroyed homestead.

Mamorobela, who turns 70 this year, was born in this house that has now been reduced to rubble. Her family has lived on Kort Hannie, known by locals as Mokwalakwala, a farm perched high on the lush hills above the town of Modjadjiskloof in Limpopo for as long as she can remember. Her family traces their presence on the property back 200 years. In fact, her Aunt Maite Maake, 83, reckons they have been living on the farm “long before the white people came here”.

“Look how old I am. I was born right here. My parents were born here and they are buried here. Their parents were also born here and are buried here. Even the grandparents of my parents’ grandparents were born here and are buried here,” says Maake. She speaks in Khelobedu, the language of this part of the world made famous by the legend of the Modjadji rain queen.

The South African Human Rights Commission is investigating the circumstances that led to the demolition of the homesteads belonging to five families residing on the farm.

Anna Mamorobela’s  home is one of many that was was demolished in defiance of a court order. (Lucas Ledwaba/Mukurukuru Media)

The commission’s provincial manager, Victor Mavhidula, confirmed they are investigating but wouldn’t be drawn into divulging any details.

The investigation centres on the farm owner, Limpopo property mogul Michael Neophitou Toulou, who, in October last year, instituted court action against the people living on a portion of the farm.

Then, in November last year, a scene reminiscent of the brutal days of apartheid’s forced removals played itself out at Mokwalakwala. Scores of security guards armed with rifles, police officers and demolition men on a bulldozer stormed the farm as dawn was about to break.

Maake, who walks with the aid of a wooden pole, was emerging from her house to begin her daily chores when she saw them approaching. She knew trouble was brewing when none of them returned her greetings and ignored her inquiries.

In no time the bulldozer got to work, destroying the homes of her neighbours. She watched in disbelief as children and adults ran in desperate confusion and anger. Youths were running around trying to salvage what they could from the houses. When the bulldozer turned on her house she had to plead with them to save at least one significant object, her identity document.

By the time the roar of the bulldozer went silent, five homesteads — brick houses and earth-built huts — lay in ruins. A lifestyle, a legacy dating back more than a century, was flattened. Five families that had lived together for generations no longer had a place to call home.

The residents now live in ramshackle zinc shacks and canvas tents. They say their troubles started when they received a notice to appear before the land claims court in Randburg in October.

The matter was brought by Toulou against six respondents, Ludwig Marobela, Paul Maake, the Baroka ba Mokwalakwala, unknown individuals, as well as the station commander of the Modjadjiskloof police station and the minister of police.

Toulou is a prominent businessman whose tenants include government departments in Polokwane, Modjadjiskloof and other Limpopo towns. Toulou did not want to comment, asking for more time. A week later he had still not responded.

Anna’s aunt, Maite Maake, managed to salvage her ID document before the bulldozer came in a dawn raid. She wants her home rebuilt before she dies. (Lucas Ledwaba/Mukurukuru Media)

When Toulou took the matter to court, he said the respondents had intimidated him and taken other steps that suggested they intended settling other families on the farm. He also stated that the respondents had prevented him and his staff from going about their business on the property as wood vendors.

The residents opposed the application, arguing that the property was the subject of a land claim and that they were accordingly entitled to be on the farm as well as to effect improvements to accommodate the natural growth of the families occupying the property at that time.

Toulou claimed that the part of the farm where wood is collected and portion three, where the Mokwalakwala people live, had been invaded.

On October 18 Judge Jody Kollapen interdicted the residents from demarcating stands or allocating them to anyone, or constructing new structures, and from setting fire to any portion of the property or vehicles and any property belonging to Toulou.

He also interdicted them from disrupting the access and legitimate business of the applicant (Toulou) and to immediately restore his undisturbed possession of the area of the property affected by the alleged land invasion.

The remaining extent of portion 3 on Kort Hannie — where the families live — was transferred into Toulou’s name on February 1 2008.

Kollapen refused to grant an order for the demolition of unoccupied structures. He also said the application was not about evicting the occupants of the farm who, in terms of the law, could not be evicted without the written authority of the chief land claims commissioner if they had occupied the land in question before the commencement of the Restitution of Land Rights Act 22 of 1994.

In November the farm residents protested outside Toulou’s properties in Modjadjiskloof, demanding that he rebuild their demolished homes. They argued that the court never granted an order for any structure on the property to be demolished or that anyone be evicted.

As a result of this pressure Toulou made a commitment in an affidavit signed at Modjadjiskloof police station on 25 November: “I undertake to do a restitution of the evicted family of Mokwalakwala by building five (5) houses with effect from today the 25th of November 2018.”

He said the details of the structures, timeframes and other related issues would be discussed by the team appointed by the residents and included in an agreement to be completed and signed within five days.

In an undated memorandum of agreement, Toulou offered to build five houses measuring 500m2 to each of the families. The houses, to be built by March 2019, would be on land of 2 500m2, to which the families would be restricted. The size of the entire farm is 2 500 hectares. He also undertook to install prepaid electricity boxes in the five houses. But the residents still have to make a decision about the proposal.

Toulou offered the families an eight-room house to use as temporary accommodation, but they have refused to take up the offer, citing the stringent conditions attached to the deal.

In the meantime, life for Maake and other residents continues to be a daunting challenge. Their furniture remains trapped under heaps of rubble. Some of the items they managed to salvage during the unlawful demolition of their homes are lying in the open, exposed to the rain and the boiling sun of the lowveld.

“Life is so hard now. We used to plough here and feed ourselves and our children. But we cannot do that any more because we don’t know what will happen to us tomorrow,” says Maake.

During the demolition of her house she lost R5 000 in cash, which she had saved up so that her family wouldn’t worry about burying her when she died.

“Even today my heart is still sore. I was telling my grandchildren that if I die tomorrow they must take me straight from the mortuary to the mountain and bury me. They must not worry about bringing my body back here because I have no house.” — Mukurukuru Media

Evictions:  ‘Some people are above the law’

The Mokwalakwala case raises key issues about the security of tenure of farm dwellers. In 2005, the Social Surveys and Nkuzi Development Association said in a report commissioned by the parliamentary portfolio committee for agriculture and land affairs that one million people had been evicted from farms since 1994.

There are no reliable numbers; this survey, with the estimate by nongovernmental organisations of a total of two million people evicted, has been disputed by farmer organisations.

Last year, the minister of rural development and land reform, Maite Nkoana Mashabane, said it was “shocking that, in 2018, 24 years after we achieved democracy, illegal evictions and human rights abuses on farms still persist. It has recently come to my attention that, in some parts of the country, people face the indignity of not being able to bury their loved ones on land they have resided on for most of their lives.”

Limpopo-based land rights activist Vasco Mabunda says the Extension of Security of Tenure Act 62 of 1997 (Esta), which protects the tenure of farm dwellers, is still not being followed and implemented by landowners and government agencies.

He also cites the issue of power relations, noted in a 2003 South African Human Rights Commission report, as a contributing factor in the issue of illegal evictions.

The report found that farm dwellers, the majority of whom are black and poor, are at a disadvantage with regard to access to legal services compared with landowners, the majority of whom are white and rich.

Mabunda cited the Mokwalakwala case as a classic example of this situation.

“It shows that some people are above the law and untouchable. Here’s a man who demolished houses of poor people, some of them very old people, and there are no consequences,” he says.

Esta criminalises the illegal eviction of tenants without a valid court order or following the required procedure.

In 2008, the Human Rights Commission found in its report into land tenure rights on farms that there had been very little progress towards achieving security of tenure for farm dwellers and labour tenants. The report also found that progress against the recommendations of the 2003 report had not been effectively monitored and communicated.

The 2003 report noted the failure by government agencies, such as the police, to protect the rights of farm dwellers. It also noted that government employees, such as police and social workers, struggled to get access to farms and that farm dwellers do not have easy access to government departments and lack knowledge about the workings of the law.

Mabunda cites police complicity in such cases as one of the contributing factors. He asks why, if Michael Toulou didn’t have a valid court order, police presided over the demolition of the Mokwalakwala residents’ homes.

It is understood that the police presence during the demolition of the properties forms part of the SAHRC probe.

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