Excerpts from "War Stories"

Sifuna Izwe-We Want the Land

The Struggle for Liberation in 1980s South Africa

by Michael Slate

Revolutionary Worker #1227, February 1, 2004, posted at rwor.org

In early January, I read an article in the New York Times that just made my blood boil. Titled "Puzzle in Southern Africa: Landless Blacks and White Farmers," it put a spotlight on the fact that 10 years after the end of the apartheid system in South Africa (or Azania, as the revolutionaries there call it), millions of black people are still without land.

The Times article described a small town named Gabon--a squatter camp of 15,000 Azanians set up on a 123-acre hayfield that is part of an 8,400-acre white-owned farm. The people of this town live in shacks without electric, water, or sewage services. They have to walk a third of a mile every day to a roadside tap just to get water. There are squatter camps of landless people like this all over South Africa.

Under colonial rule and then under the rule of the imperialist-backed apartheid regime, the Azanian people had their land stolen outright from them, often at the point of the gun. The white settler rulers set up a dozen or more black "homelands" --the bantustans--and forced millions of Azanians into them. The forced removals and theft of land were codified in law. By the end of the apartheid regime in 1994, the white settler regime claimed 87% of the country-- including all of the most fertile land--and the Azanian people were confined to a bare and barren 13% of the country.

The ANC, led by Nelson Mandela, came into power and promised to change all that. They said they planned to transfer 30% of white-owned farmland to black people in five years. It was outrageous to begin with that the new government intended to take back less than one-third of the land that had been unjustly stolen from the people of Azania. But today, 10 years later, only 2% of the promised land transfers have taken place. More than 90% of commercial farmland in South Africa is still owned by 50,000 white farmers!

This glaring injustice in land ownership is part of a bigger picture. The formal end of the apartheid system may have brought black faces into the government and other seats of power. But tens of millions of Azanians continue to be without real political power--they are still oppressed and exploited.

The current government is promising to carry out the land transfer by 2015--but very little is actually being done about it. Promises continue to become lies. Land seizures by desperate peasants and farmworkers occur regularly throughout the country. And there is open talk about the potential for all of this to erupt in rural rebellion.

Land redistribution--land to landless peasants and farmworkers--is key to the liberation of the Azanian people. A genuine revolution in a country like South Africa must resolve the land question, as part of overthrowing the local oppressors and the imperialist dominators.

In 1987 and 1990, during the upsurge of struggle against the apartheid regime, I traveled throughout South Africa as a correspondent for the Revolutionary Worker, talking to many Azanians in the townships and in the countryside. The RW published my reports under the title "War Stories." As I read the recent New York Times article, the faces of the landless peasants I met during my visits to Azania played out in front of my eyes like a movie. I could hear their voices like it was yesterday.

What follows are excerpts from the "War Stories" series I wrote for the RW back in 1991.

Blood Farm

Green hills and rocky mountains stretched out as far as we could see. A narrow road followed the hills up and down. It wound through the pine tree farms and the tea, banana, and sugar cane plantations that filled the spaces between the hills. At the base of each hill a dense fog covered the roadway. Every 15 minutes or so a huge flat-bed truck came hurtling down the road like a wild roller coaster car let loose at the top of one of the mountains. Each truck had a rough-made pen on the back that was overflowing with a ten-foot-high load of newly cut sugar cane. As the trucks careened towards the sugar refineries in Durban, stalks of cane shot off of the back like sparks. Children from local villages and farm laborer settlements darted out into the road in the wake of the trucks to collect the sugar cane that had dropped onto the highway.

It was early Sunday morning and we had been on the road for a couple of hours. We were deep in Natal Province and heading northeast towards the South African border with Mozambique. Technically we were in Kwazulu, the bantustan reservation established by the apartheid regime for the Zulu people and ruled by the notorious reactionary Gatsha Buthelezi and his Inkatha organization. This area was part of the 13 percent of the land that is supposed to be reserved for black people, but the revolutionaries in the car with me pointed out that all of the farms and plantations in the area were owned by whites -- individual farmers and large South African and foreign corporations.

We were on our way to a very remote part of Natal Province to see what we could find out about a struggle being waged by some local peasants to reclaim their land. None of us knew much at all about the struggle or the people involved in it except that it was led by a man named Lucky and that it had the South African authorities very worried.

To reach the area where the struggle was centered, we turned off of the main road and drove 30 kilometers down a dirt road that cut right through the biggest farms in the region. Every few kilometers there were clusters of mud huts with rooftops made of thatched grass. The huts, called amqhugwane in Zulu, were set back about a hundred feet from the road and behind barbed-wire fences. We decided to pull over at the first group of huts to ask about Lucky and if anyone knew where we could find him.

A young comrade who had grown up on a farm in another part of Natal led the way. As he held the strands of barbed wire far enough apart for us to step through, he explained that the huts on the white- owned farms were always grouped together in clusters so that the farmer could be sure that everyone wakes up at the same time and goes to work at the same time.

There were about six huts in this cluster. In the middle of the compound there was a huge iron pot for cooking. Cowhides were stretched out on homemade frames and set out to dry. Near the cooking pot there was a half finished drum made out of a hollow log with a cow hide stretched over one end. A couple of young children stood staring at us, their faces showing a mixture of curiosity and fear. One of the comrades began to speak to the children but before he could finish an older man came up behind us yelling. Three or four snarling and bone thin dogs stood at his side. He demanded to know what we wanted. As one of the comrades explained what we were doing and what we wanted, the old man began to smile. He told the children to get the dogs under control and then he began to tell us his story.

"I have lived here all of my life and before me others from my family lived here all of their lives. I have seen white farmers come and I have seen them go. But always we stay here. My family has been here so long that I don't even know when we first came. But conditions here are so bad now that maybe you should take me with you wherever you are going or wherever you have been. We have no food and we have no money. The farmer gives us very little rations and they are gone.''

The old man stretched his arm out in a semicircle and pointed to the fields that surrounded his compound. "All of this land was ours, but now I am not even allowed to grow the food that we need. This is happening to all of us here. Not very far from here where I live, there is a whole community of people, the community of Emagozini, who have been forced off of their land so that a game reserve can be built. Where will it stop. I know this Lucky you are looking for. You will have to find him down the road.''

We drove down the road a little further, passing by farms named Makensie Farm, Golden Farm and Van Tonder Farm. As we drove, one of the comrades commented on the area. "This area can tell us a lot about what the peasants are facing in the countryside. You know the white farmers come and put their names on the farm, but the people here have other names that tell of the history and the reality of their situation. That last farm we were on, the people there have their own name for it. They call it Egazini Farm. It means an area of blood. The white farmers can come and name the land whatever they want, but it will always be Egazini Farm until the people liberate the land.''

We Want the Land

As we approached the next cluster of huts, one of the comrades yelled out in Zulu to a young child standing in a doorway. He turned and explained: "I asked if there were dogs, and if there are dogs I asked her to bring them under control. These dogs will tear you apart but the people need them. They use the dogs to protect themselves in the night and their belongings when they are at work in the fields. They must protect themselves from the farmers, the local whites and from the Induna, the local tribal leader, who often works with Inkatha and the farmers.''

A middle-aged woman came out to speak to us. She stood next to a small animal pen that held three cows. The space in the pen was so tight that the cattle could barely move. The woman pointed to the animal pen as she began to speak. "Look at our cattle. You see how thin they are. There is all of this land but there is nowhere we are allowed to graze our cattle. They must stay in the pen. The farmer says the land is his and we cannot use it. And still we must protect our cattle. Thin as they are the farmer will still come and steal them. They tell us that we are only allowed to keep five cows and if we have more we must kill the extra or the farmer will take them. I can only say one thing, all of our problems come because they have taken our land. I want the white farmers to leave. We will take the farms. We will use the land to grow the food and graze the cattle. Sifuna Izwe, we want the land. Then, when we have our land, life will be meaningful.''

Looking for Lucky

We still hadn't found Lucky but we had been sent down to the local shop as the best place to find someone who could put us in touch with him. When we pulled up there were dozens of people hanging around outside. A few scrawny cows roamed the parking lot, and hundreds of local people were watching a soccer game in an empty field up behind the store. We left the car to ask if anyone could direct us to Lucky. We approached two young women who said they knew Lucky but that we would not be able to find him today because he was in Cape Town. Inside the store, the clerk told us that he also knew Lucky but that we would not be able to talk to him today because he was in Johannesburg. When we returned to the parking lot an old man yelled out to us in Zulu. He wanted to know who we were and what we wanted. When the comrades explained our mission, he invited us to join him and his friends to talk about the situation.

The old man led us to a clearing about 50 feet from the store. On the way he explained that he also knew Lucky but that we would not be able to see him today because he was in the mountains. When we reached the clearing we were greeted by about a dozen men ranging in age from early 20s to 60 or more sitting around on some old logs drinking the local home brew and talking amongst themselves. When the old man who had brought us to the clearing explained who we were and what we wanted, the men fell silent. One of the men demanded to know if we were there to form a union. When we assured him that we were not union organizers the group talked among themselves and agreed to talk with us. One of the older men announced that he would tell us their situation. His voice erupted from his throat as he told his story. It was a voice that had been molded by generations of rage.

"We are slaves here. No one can tell you different. We work on the plantation six days, from before the sun comes up until we can no longer see to work. We are paid nothing, nothing at all. We are given food rations of porridge and sugar. We are allowed to keep five cattle for each of our families. But not even our cattle are safe. Just recently the company, the Sapekoe Tea Company, and white men who work for the company came to us and stole most of the cattle in the area. They took them and then sold them at an auction and said that it was necessary because we owed the company the money. They said that our work was not enough to pay for our living arrangements. They say we must pay for our living arrangements. They say they are kind enough to let us live on the land and they give us food and overalls to wear for work. So if our work doesn't pay for all of this then they must make up the difference by selling our cattle. And if we break any of their rules, they say that we must also pay the fine by giving them one or two cows from the five we are allowed. We cannot survive following their rules. They say our children must not stay in the area unless they also work 12 months for the farmer. They tell us that we must honor the contract we have with the company and the white farmers. They say our contract is that we are allowed to live on the land if we work 12 months for the farmer. Then, if we need money we are free to go to Johannesburg to seek work. But they say we must only stay in the city for six months and then we must return to work for the farmer for 12 months again. If we do not come back then our families will not be taken care of by the farmer, they will have no place to live and no food. And they say that the law can make us return, so we should just do it so there is no big trouble for us.''

When the old man had finished I asked if any of the men remembered a time when the land belonged to them. This set off an immediate and angry uproar among the men. The old man who had spoken before jumped up off of the log and spoke again. "The land is ours! It always has been and it is today. Because Sapekoe and the white farmers have taken it from us will never mean that the land is not ours. We must take it back. When we asked if you were here to form a union, if you had said that was your mission we would not have spoken with you. We have had some come here to form a union and they told us that with the union things would get better. They said that they could force the company and the farmers to pay us wages. So they went to the government and the government came and told the farmers that they must pay us for our labor. So the farmers called a meeting and they told us that if they must pay us then we must pay them for our living needs and that we must no longer keep our cattle. They told us the choice was ours. We said that we would keep our cattle. The union people were angry. You see, they do not understand. We don't need one more blanket or some more porridge. We don't need money to buy these things. We need our land! We want our land! We never sold our land to them and we never gave it to them. But none of us here remember a time when we could say that this land belongs to us, that we own the land. We were all born under white rule, and since the white man has come they say that they own the land, not us. When Sapekoe came to this area they were very friendly at first. But then someone, I don't know who, told them the land was theirs. There are maybe four white farmers and 100 white managers in the area and there are 30,000 or 40,000 of us. But we own nothing and the white man says he owns it all. They took us from our small farms where we could grow food and graze our cattle and moved us. They said that this was valuable land that the company needed and so they moved us to places where we could grow nothing and where there was no place to graze the cattle. When we said that we couldn't live there they told us that we could live by working the land for the company. We have learned that we can't live this way, we need our land to live.''

I asked the men if any of the political organizations had come to their area and if they thought that the negotiations with the government would bring any change for them. They looked at me like I was insane before one of the younger men spoke. "We are forgotten people here. We know nothing of these organizations you talk about. We have never seen them or heard of them. We don't know anything of negotiations, these talks you say are happening. We do know that the white man always wants to talk. Talk, talk, talk and we keep on dying. Talk will not help us.'' I asked the young man what the people in the area would do if an organization did come and begin to lead a fight to take back their land. One of the young comrades with me translated my question but he only got as far as translating the phrase "take back our land'' when all of the men jumped up and demanded, "When? Tonight?''


The closer we came to Keiskammahoek the hotter and dustier it got. The area we were headed for was up a large hill and the only way up was a narrow dirt road that wound past a Ciskei military outpost. A few bantustan soldiers were resting on top of a South African supplied "hippo'' -- an armored personnel carrier parked outside the gate to the outpost but did nothing more than eye us suspiciously as we drove past. When we reached the top of the hill the comrade whose family lived in the area asked us to pull over for a minute so we could get an overview of the area before we drove into the community. When the dust cloud our car had raised on the road settled down we were stunned by what we saw. Everything was brown and dry as far as we could see in any direction. The earth looked mean and hard.

The only break in the dry brown color of the dirt came into view as we got closer to the settlement. Off in the distance, just above the settlement area, there were three bright green patches of land. The comrade explained that these were the only plots in the area that received any irrigation--one belonged to the Ciskei government and another belonged to a rich white farmer. The third plot was a little different from the other two. For one thing, it was much smaller and much closer to the settlement area than either of the other two. It was also surrounded by a fence 15 feet high and topped off by a roll of razor wire. In the middle of the plot there was a small cinderblock house that resembled township housing in most of the country. The comrade explained that this house and this plot belonged to the man who cooperated with the apartheid regime when the people now living in Keiskammahoek were forcibly removed from their land. This man volunteered to be relocated to Keiskammahoek and then did his damnedest to convince the other Azanians that they should just go along with the government's seizure of their land. His reward for serving the government was this little plot of irrigated land and the cinderblock house. The feeling of the people towards this traitor was indicated by the high fence surrounding his property and the guard dogs roaming around the yard.

As we entered the settlement the comrade explained that it was divided into two distinct areas. The first was the area we were in--an area of cinderblock houses mixed in with traditional huts and all packed in pretty close to one another. Each house had a little yard of dirt that looked like concrete. These houses belonged to people who had at first resisted the forced removal but then gave up and let the government move them out to Keiskammahoek. The other area was a little more remote and it consisted of plank houses pushed close to one another and little or no land at all. These were the houses assigned to those who resisted the forced removals and were only taken to Keiskammahoek after they were defeated by the government, the army and the police.

We parked the car in the cinderblock housing area first and started walking down the dusty paths that separated the houses. A few bony cows, some bonier dogs and a couple of pigs wandered up and down the paths, desperately searching for something to eat. Some older people sat off in a yard preparing to thatch a rooftop for one of the traditional huts. We left the path at a small cinderblock house that had been made a little bigger by the addition of another room built from a mixture of sticks and mud. A young woman invited us in and went to get her father. After a few minutes an old man, his face creased and dried hard from years of battling the barren dust of Ciskei, came into the room and sat down on a straight-back wooden chair. The young comrade from the area had explained to us earlier that the desire of the people for their land was so intense that we must be careful not to give them the expectation that we were there to help them get their land back. The comrade began the conversation by explaining who we were and what we wanted to talk about. The old man eyed us carefully for a couple of minutes. A rooster crowed off in the distance and the old man wiped his face with a sweat-stained towel as he began to talk.

"I am not so sure what to do now. I want my land, but even if it is available I don't know if I will be able to go and get it. I have tried to make my life here where they put me but it is most difficult. I have tried every year to plant here in this ground but very little will grow. This year there is even less rain and so nothing is growing. My land was more than eight morgen. But here I now have five hectare. On my land I was able to plow and harvest and I was even able to buy a tractor. On my land I could take care of myself and my family. But here, I have been here for many years now and there is nothing I can show to say that I am productive.

"I was not taken from my land. I heard that we would all have to leave our land and I resisted for a short time but then I heard that if we didn't go to this side, go to where the government wanted us to go, then we would have to leave all. With this idea in my head I decided to come to this place. When I first came to this place I was down there, down where you first come into the community. This was the area where those who had to be forced to come here, those who resisted to the end, this was the place they were taken. In this area you had only plank shacks and you were not allowed a plot to farm. The government put us in some shacks there and then said that if any one of us was willing to come and stay here permanently then we could move to this part of the community and we would have brick houses and some plot to farm. I came there with 21 stock, 21 cows and I stayed down there for one year before I came to this place here. By the time I came here I had only three cows--the others had died from hunger or were stolen. I came up here because I thought I would be able to plant and also save my cattle. I was wrong.

"When I first came here there was a natural dam out in the forest. The government came and said to us that we could use this water for our land. But then dogs and animals started to die in the water and so we must stop using this water. We then tried to use the water from the river. But there was a hospital up there--it is no longer operating--and this hospital was sending all of its rubbish into the river so soon we had to stop using this water too. We then applied for different ways of getting water. We tried to use the water tank but someone would put a dead animal or other things in the water to make it unusable. So when the hospital stopped operating we had to return to using the water from the river. Today I survive mostly by luck. I can plant some little bit but very little grows here so I survive mostly by luck.

"At the time that I left my land to come here I was only thinking that if I didn't come here then there would be soldiers coming to punish me. At that time and under such things I did not think of good things or bad things about what this place would be. I only thought, `Let us see what this new place is.' Even now I do not think of how bad it is here. I only think that I was forced to come here and I think that if only I can go to my land again then everything will be good and I can say how bad it is here. I know it is bad because they have always lied to me. I was told when I came here that I would get water for my land and I would get two cows that I could use for milk and other things, but these things were never done. The promises were lies.''

The old man walked us to the door of his house. As we stood outside he pointed across the hill to the bright green patches of land owned by the white farmer and the Bantustan government. As he pointed to the green patches his voice rose in anger. "That is really killing me. Those green lands show that it is possible to get water and make the land grow some things. But they will never bring the means for doing that to us. We must hammer the earth where it is dead and try to bring things to life. It is not possible, and when I see the green and see what is possible it makes me see what they have done to us.''

100% Resisters

We left the cinderblock housing section of the community and headed over towards the section with the plank housing. This was the area that was occupied by those who had resisted the forced removal from their ancestral lands and who still refused to accept the permanency of their situation in Ciskei. As poor and desperate as the cinderblock section of the settlement was, this section of the community was even worse. Small, two-room houses made out of rotting planks and patched here and there with a mud and stick mixture stood side by side on dusty dirt roads. Car batteries and portable generators provided the only electricity in the area and even they were rare. But the main difference between this section of the community and the other section was in the spirit of the people. For almost 15 years the apartheid regime and the bantustan government have punished their resistance by forcing them to live in these crumbling houses and refusing to grant them any land to farm. This only served to intensify the fire that burned in the bellies of the people and steeled them in their determination to take back their land.

Most of the people in this section were either old men, women or very young kids. The comrade who had grown up in this section of the community explained that most of the younger men, and some of the younger women, were gone--either to a school outside of the community or to the city to work in the mines and factories or as house servants for a white family. Some did farm labor in other parts of the country. We drove up and down the narrow dirt roads searching for a woman who, the comrade explained, had been one of the main leaders of the resistance to the forced removals. She had helped organize the community to build barricades and booby traps against the trucks and soldiers of the South African government. When some in the community started to surrender to the regime and accept the forced removals, she fought even harder. She was eventually jailed for her actions and when she was released the forced removal of the people had been accomplished. She was dumped with everybody else out in the Ciskei. But, according to the comrade, she never accepted the theft of her land and was continuing to fight the government to this day. We stopped and asked after the woman at a number of the houses but no one seemed to know where she was. A group of women tending graves on the outskirts of the community said she was gone. Finally, the comrade from the area decided that the woman was either gone or the other people were protecting her from the strangers asking about her.

After failing to find this woman, the comrade suggested that we visit his grandfather who also lived in that section of the community. But first we had to stop and buy a half full bottle of traditionally brewed beer. After buying the beer, we pulled up in front of a tiny plank house and were greeted warmly by an old man standing in front. The comrade introduced us to his grandfather, who then sent some children to the neighboring houses to summon his friends. We went into the old man's house and sat quietly for a few minutes while the comrade offered the half bottle of beer to his grandfather as a gift. And, following the custom of the Xhosa people, the comrade walked around the room pouring a little bit of the beer into each corner of the room as an offering to his family's ancestors before presenting the gift to his grandfather. After making the offering to his ancestors, the comrade stood before his grandfather, took a taste of the beer and explained that this beer was something that belonged to us, something we had brought with us on our journey and that now we wished for him to share it with us. When the old man accepted the gift and embraced his grandson we were all free to talk. The old man and his friends told us their story, each one filling in facts that the other might have forgotten.

"In my home my land was not less than four morgen, and I was able to farm and live on what I planted and on my stock. When they first came to steal our lands, many of our people first resisted by having some lawyers come and argue with the white man in the courts. But some of us, we resisted physically. We fought with everyone who was a part of taking our land. You have seen the home of the man who was the first to come here, the man who worked with the government to help them bring us here and steal our land. You have seen the fence he must have around his place. We hated him so much. In fact, when he first began to help the government he had a taxi business and we would always block the roads so that he was not able to run his taxis because of what he was doing. We fought with everyone who was against us, and many of us were imprisoned for trying to stop the thief from taking our land. When we would block the roads in our area, the police would come in big lorries and so then we would fight against them also.

"We were fighting to protect our lives. Our land was the source of life to us. I cannot recall how long this land has been ours. I am 80 years of age and I was born and raised there and so was my father and his father's father. The whites began talking about removing us from our land a very long time ago. The first to bring us the news were the `qualified farmers' that the government sent to us from here in Ciskei. They would come and offer us help and advice, and then they would say to us that the government has said that we will be removed from our land and if we want to get land and continue to farm on this side then we should just go with them and not fight when the whites come to take our farms. We always waited for a reason why we must leave our land, but that reason never came to us. This was the land of our ancestors and we had always lived there. It was the `Land of Blood,' it was given to our people who were already living there by the white men when our people helped them with a battle a very long time ago.

"All of us resisted when they came to take our land. But some surrendered after a short time. The first to be moved here are the ones who live in the brick houses down there. They were the first to go and sign their names to be moved. The others of us who stayed continued to fight. We would block the roads so that the army and the police could not come. We were imprisoned for that. They took us to the jail in town. When we were imprisoned the lorries of the government, the trucks, came and took the belongings of those who were in jail. They took the kids and families of those in jail and then they would destroy the houses, knock them down and in some cases even burn them so that the people could never come back. And then the trucks were brought to the jail and the whites just said `Kwela,' `Go In!' and we were brought here. This was 1977 and 1978. They gave us some little money for our houses but we were given nothing for our land. They just said that our land belongs to the white man now. We were told that we would get the same land as our land when we were brought here. But you can see that was a lie, we have no land. We were told that we would only live in these temporary shelters for five years at most and then we would get better housing. But we have been in these temporary shelters for 13 years now and we get nothing. We are still being punished for fighting against the thief who takes our land.

"The idea has come to us that we must just leave this place and go and take our land back. But we know there will be resistance because our land is already occupied by the whites. But still, we would go tomorrow if we could and take back our land. We have not forgotten and we have not surrendered. We were powerless when the white man came and took our land. They had the guns and that gave them all of the power. We could have done more to stop the taking away of our land because we were prepared to die for it. If we were equipped we could have resisted stronger.''

The Promise

Our final stop in Keiskammahoek was a visit to the oldest people in the community. After a short drive deeper into the plank-house section of the settlement, we pulled up in front of a small and narrow house. A group of young children lined the road out front and played with home-made wire push toys. A group of older youths, 12 to 15, gathered up across the street from our car and watched to see what we wanted. They broke out in smiles and laughter when the comrade explained the purpose of our visit. One of them ran to tell the old couple in the house that they had visitors and within a minute we were being ushered into the house to meet the old couple.

An old man sat in the front room of the house waiting for us. He sat behind a plain wooden table and his wife, wearing traditional jewelry, stood beside him. The old man said a few words in Xhosa to his wife and she handed him a book that he opened up to show us an inscription as he started to talk. "You see this here, it is a bible and it says that in 1727 the German church came and found us already on our land. I keep this book to remind us how long ago it was that the church came and found us already on our land. We would never leave it. It was only the guns that made us leave it and come to this place. I am 86 years of age and every day I think about my land and taking it back from those who took it from us. If someone was to come to this place and say, `Let's go and take your land,' I would be the first ready to leave. I have very few things to get ready, everything I need is on my land. If they were to say that we must walk back to my land then I would say that I am 86 years of age but I am fit enough to make the trip if I am allowed a few rest stops. I will go back to my land before I die. That is a promise.''