Companies destroy graves for profit

Farm owners and agricultural companies continue to illegally destroy the graves of dispossessed residents to make way for planting and deny relatives access to pay their respects and perform rituals.

The Extension of Security of Tenure Act says farm workers have the right to visit and maintain their family graves, even if they have left the farm. But this is not always the reality for current and former farm workers in the Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga. 

The act states that the owner of the land can only set conditions that ensure visits do not endanger the owner’s life or property, or unduly disrupt work. Farmers cannot refuse to allow people to visit their family’s graves.

However, in the Eastern Cape, five former commercial farm workers are bitterly disappointed after the farm’s owner allegedly flattened and then planted potatoes on their mother’s grave on Riverview farm in the Cookhouse region, part of the Michael Vermaak Boerdery.

The five sisters née Geswint – Roos Stuurman, Clara Rooy, Chrissie Jordaan, Margaret Gitywa and Rebecca Manewil – were born on the farm to farm-worker parents and spent their childhood there. They moved to Kariega (then Uitenhage) to attend high school and later studied, worked and married there.

Their mother, Jane Geswint, died at the age of 47 in 1983 and was buried on the farm. The sisters say they visited their mother’s grave annually until 2019.

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“The first Vermaak farmer we worked for in the 1980s had no problem and availed the land for burials. We would return every year to pay our respects at the gravesite,” says Stuurman. But a contact who asked to remain anonymous for fear of victimisation sent the family information and photos in 2019 showing that the grave had been flattened and planted over with potatoes.

Stuurman’s husband of 40 years, Kiewiet Stuurman, says the family then received a message via third parties that they should not bother returning to visit Jane’s grave again.

Stuurman, the eldest sister, says she is hartseer (heartbroken) about the situation. What irks her most is that she did domestic work on the farm from the age of 12 and it involved carrying Michael Vermaak on her back until he was six years old.

“I grew that child up. The child had to always be by my side. I had to wash him and do everything for him. I even had to sleep in the dairy to be closer to him,” says Stuurman.

‘Everything in my power’

Kiewiet Stuurman says he emailed Vermaak to ask for a meeting, but did not receive a reply.

“I told him, the lady that is lying there [Jane Geswint] gave birth to the love of my life. So I am going to do everything in my power to enable my family to visit their mother’s grave. My wife grew him up as if he was her own baby and yet today he is a heartless human,” he says.

Stuurman adds that the family laid a charge of disturbing graves at the Kamesh police station in March. They are waiting for a police escort to the gravesite. “We know we are going to get trouble from him if we show up alone to visit the graves,” he says. 

Vermaak did not respond to questions or agree to meet on the farm, saying: “We will get back to you when we are ready for a meeting.” 

29 March 2021: From left, Kiewiet Stuurman, Roos Stuurman, Chrissie Jordaan, Clara Rooy and Margaret Gitywa, who want answers after their mother’s grave was destroyed on a private farm in Cookhouse, Eastern Cape. (Photograph by Sibongile Jonas)

The Stuurmans have a WhatsApp message in which Vermaak denies the existence of the grave. “Where are the graves? We didn’t flatten any graves. We did clean around graves at Cabrere where we’re going to make fields, but we haven’t flattened any graves. Come have a look please. Make sure of your facts before you make any accusations, please,” Vermaak writes in the text message.

The farm has a flourishing dairy and grows potatoes and lucerne. The other Geswint sisters say the situation has affected them badly. “I see that farm’s potatoes in the shop and I cry because I know those potatoes could be coming from my mother’s grave. I can’t even eat potatoes anymore. Vermaak should have asked us first before destroying our mother’s grave. There was an expensive stone that my father built with his own hands on our mother’s grave and it was beautiful but he removed it,” says Rooy.

The two other sisters, Jordaan and Gitywa, agree. “The previous owners, Andrew and Anton Vermaak [relatives of Vermaak], were respectful and planted around the graves. But not this one,” says Jordaan. Gitywa just wants Vermaak to “pay for what he has done”. 

Kiewiet Stuurman says he is concerned that the graves of other farm workers on the farm will suffer the same fate.

Under investigation

Eastern Cape provincial police spokesperson Colonel Sibongile Soci confirmed that Stuurman had provided the police with death certificates for the workers buried on the farm. She said the Cradock police station is investigating the case and it had brought in an anthropologist from Pretoria to assist.

“The investigating officer contacted the complainant telephonically and the complainant was interviewed. There are a few outstanding matters which have to be dealt with to assist the investigation, including complainant [Stuurman] must be fetched in Kariega to point out the scene, and involvement of crime scene management and criminal record centre in the process and confirmation at municipality to confirm if the gravesite/s was/were registered,” said Soci in her written response.

To supplement the Extension of Tenure Act, a 1925 law – the Removal of Graves and Dead Bodies Ordinance – states that the desecration or destruction of graves is not allowed without the written permission of a member of the executive council.

Graves destroyed in Mbombela

Despite this, the graves of farm workers continue to be destroyed in post-apartheid South Africa. 

Vusumuzi Thabethe, 47, lives in Section D of Msholozi township, which falls under the City of Mbombela, in Mpumalanga. Thabethe and other residents protested in 2017 against a farmer who had dug up and destroyed graves to create a plantation of macadamia nut trees. He speaks next to an electric fence that’s been erected to prevent them from gaining entry to the farm. “There were 35 graves up there that were destroyed,” Thabethe says, pointing to the macadamia trees.

He adds that more graves were destroyed on the farm than the 35 he is talking about. “We showed them the graves. They acted as if they understood, but we then noticed that they were destroying them, saying they wanted to plant the macadamia trees. They said they don’t care about the graves and the people died a long time ago,” he says.

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Thabethe says they notified the farmer to stop digging, but no one listened until the diggers uncovered a newly dug grave with a coffin wrapped in blankets. It was only then that the farmer began to heed their request. “This tells me clearly that apartheid still exists and it’s not easy to defeat it if you don’t have money. They overpowered us because of their financial muscles,” Thabethe says, adding that the farmer allegedly hired archaeologists to remove the remains from the already destroyed graves, tampering with the evidence of their existence.

Isaiah Mabuza, 37, a Msholozi ward committee member, says members in government have failed to intervene. The farmer has blocked a convenient alternative route to the White River Crossing shopping centre and residents “are no longer allowed to go see their family members’ graves and to perform sacred rituals”, says Mabuza.

The exact number of destroyed graves is unknown, but the Mpumalanga News newspaper reported in 2017 that the farmer had allegedly flattened 167 graves on the land. Thabethe says residents have submitted a claim to the land. “We want the claim to pass so that people can get back their land. When it comes to the destroyed graves, they must compensate those families and must tell us where they took those graves to, where did they put the bones of our families?”

In search of graves

On the other side of the province, in Mkhondo, Lizzy Maziya, 55, works in a busy guest house. She recalls her sister alerting her to an ordeal she had. She asked if they could go to their forebears’ graves on Good Friday to pay a visit. On arrival, Maziya says, they couldn’t detect where the graves had been on the unnamed gravel road outside town.

It’s unclear who owns the gum tree forest but most of the trees in the area belong to paper company Mondi, and before reaching the forest there’s a Mondi signboard. 

Khehla Mkhwanazi, whose name comes from his deceased grandfather, is more than 70 years old. He doesn’t remember his exact age. It is past 5pm on a Thursday and Maziya has come to fetch Mkhwanazi, her uncle, to search for the graves. 

After hearing that they have to go to the forest to search for the graves, Mkhwanazi is visibly terrified. “You want that farmer to beat, shoot and murder us. Yey! I am scared of that farmer,” he says, but nevertheless agrees to come with Maziya. He’s the only remaining elder and all of his direct family members have died. He says there are at least four family members buried on that land, which has now been turned into a forest.

“We went through the forest and there were a lot of weeds,” Maziya says. “We couldn’t find the graves. My parents were working on the farm, I grew up there. We had a dedicated space where we’d bury our deceased members.” Some of the family members were buried in the 1960s. 

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