Elderly land claimants wait in vain for restitution

While the government fails to adhere to its own deadlines, the clock is ticking for a group of Black people who were evicted from their land in the decade before apartheid ended.

David Cele, 69, a resident of Hammarsdale in KwaZulu-Natal, was excited when he went to the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development’s land claims office in Pietermaritzburg along with some of his relatives in April 2016. “The government had finally seen our pain, that it is right that we are compensated for what happened when we were removed from our homes,” said Cele. “We were pushed off our land in a cruel way.” 

Six years later, that excitement has been replaced by deep disappointment. The department has failed to meet its own deadline for compensating the group of claimants, who had lodged their applications after the claims process was reopened for five years, from 1 July 2014 to 30 June 2019. According to Cele, they applied for compensation between 2014 and 2016 and were told to wait five years while older claims from previous years were being processed. 

“What saddens us the most is that nobody is telling us what is going on. The president should send [Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development] Thoko Didiza and other officials to explain to us what is going on. Will we get compensated, or will we die before seeing that money, like so many we started this journey with? 

4 December 2021: David Cele in Manderston.

“We registered in Maritzburg at the land claims office, but some cars were sent out to Vryheid, Eshowe, Umlazi and other places to register people who have land claims who need to be compensated.” 

Cele and about 20 other land claimants who were evicted from KwaManzabilayo in Manderston, about 25km south of Pietermaritzburg, meet regularly to discuss their claims’ progress, or lack thereof. He says some claimants who have died since the process started are now represented by their children, which presents difficulties. 

“Sometimes you find that the documents are missing. They are only left with two [pages] of a six-page document and you feel pity, because you can tell they don’t understand what is going on and they would need the clerk to check on the computer because the details of the beneficiaries are missing.”

Cele says the members of his clan were dispossessed of their land in the early 1980s when he was in his 20s. “What would happen is people settled on land that was filled with bushes and trees. They built houses and left the rest [of the veld] as is. White people arrived and offered the locals cows to work the land, clearing it of debris and trees. I don’t know whether they saw that the land is now workable and that [is why the] white man, who was named Manzabilayo (boiling water) by locals … began chasing people off the land using tractors. He and the other white farmers told us that was their land,” said Cele.

Losing a community 

The Natives Land Act of 1913 led to the apartheid government forcibly removing thousands of Black families from their land. The act limited African land ownership to 7% of land in South Africa. In 1936, through the Native Trust and Land Act, this was extended to 13%. The consequences of these discriminatory laws are still being felt by people such as Cele, who says he lost a whole community when he got thrown off his land.

“Besides my family of about 15 people, I remember some clans in our area were the Maduna, Shezi and the Jali clans that also scattered afterwards. Some are now in Umlazi, Mtubatuba and Georgedale. There were more, but these are some of the ones I remember,” Cele said. 

“We left KwaManzabilayo and went to Knoxville to a farm called Heavens, but I went to find work at a factory that made jam, also in a farming community. Our grandmothers and grandfathers, all the Zwanes, had to find new places to live. Our family graveyards are there. I could show you if we go there. I can never forget.” 

4 December 2021: David Cele speaks to a member of the Zwane family in Manderston.

Cele decries the government’s lack of urgency in dealing with the claimants’ plight. “What is painful is that I voted in the last election because I believe it is my responsibility as a citizen. Leaders are everywhere when they need us, but they are nowhere to be found when we need them. They don’t even care that this matter concerns ogogo nomkhulu (grandmothers and grandfathers) who could die before getting a word on whether they will get some sort of acknowledgement and justice for the cruelty they were subjected to when they were uprooted from their land, families and communities,” he said. 

“I see a lack of respect because when they say we should vote, we … get to the voting stations because we love our country. But when we need something, they pay no attention to us, especially after they have got what they need. Discrimination still exists when you look at how things are happening in South Africa. We are still being discriminated against.”

On 13 May, Didiza told Parliament that land restitution remains a challenge for her department. “We indicated our commitment to accelerating the resolution of old-order claims. In the past financial year, we have settled 240 claims, which covered both urban and rural claims,” she said. 

Cele fears the members of his claimants’ group will be made to wait for many more years. “The only language the government hears is a toyi-toyi, and we are too old to be on the road protesting. They should just do the right thing.”

4 December 2021: David Cele at his home in Section 2, Hammarsdale, KwaZulu-Natal.
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