Mahlomelane Johannes Mthembu tells of how he began life on a farm then worked on the mines, was sold as slave labour to white farmers and finally ended back on the land.
This is an excerpt from For the Love of the Land: Being a Farmer in South Africa Today edited by Ivor Price and Kobus Louwrens (Tafelberg, 2019).
Once, I was sold to different farmers
I live on a gravel road, at 80 Sweetwater Street in Doornkuil, just outside De Deur in Gauteng. The road to my three-roomed shack is very narrow. It's just wide enough to accommodate a car on the faint tracks, which are overgrown by grass. But no cars come to my house anyway, so I'm not too bothered about the state of the road.
To lock the lounge door, the only exit and entrance to my house, I use a big chain lengthened by a wire so that it can wrap around the entire door. The lounge is furnished with two couches, one big and one small. Both are very old. The big couch has two small white scatter cushions with black polka dots.
There is a small white table in the centre of my lounge. I suspect it is reaching the end of its life because it has been there for so many years. That said, I am not yet prepared to lose it. It is very special. If I were to lose it, where would I put my tea? I am addicted to my tea. Even when the sun is exceptionally hot, as if gravity has pulled it closer to the earth, chasing lizards and snakes out of their narrow holes, I need my tea. When I drink it, the heat is forced out of my body through perspiration, which eventually cools me down. And when it is so cold that my nerves and sweat glands shrink to help keep my body temperature constant, I need my tea even more. After every sip, the warm, moist breath escapes my mouth - drifting out into the world - and I am grateful for the aroma of my tea.
Apart from my small table, there are also four chairs, each one a different make and design. The lounge is connected to my small kitchen but there is a curtain to separate them. Since I do not have electricity in my house, I have two paraffin stoves in my kitchen. I mostly use the two-plate stove for boiling water, while the single-plate stove is for cooking.
The biggest and perhaps heaviest pieces of furniture are the two beds in my bedrooms. Neither bed has a duvet but at least they both serve their purpose of keeping me comfy when I pass out. Neither bedroom has a door. Instead, each entrance is covered by a semi-transparent curtain. There is a very thin line between what is private and what is out in the open here. Too much movement, or moving too quickly, is likely to jeopardise my privacy while I am bathing.
There is a collection of things under my bed that are very valuable to me. Moments frozen in time. Photographs that take me back to my youth and pictures that are mementos from my adulthood. Reminders that I was once a renowned organiser, a fighter, ambitious and smart. These photographs are a record of the hard, fractured life I've endured under the eye of the sun and in the shadow of the night.
Besides these souvenirs, there are documents and books that are quintessential to my perspective on life and human existence. There is a first issue of the Azanian Labour Journal with a cover sketch of Steve Biko raising his right fist, showing Amandla! On the top right, there is a red star and a man holding a pickaxe. The journal discusses several labour-related issues, including one section that asks, 'With whom should workers in South Africa unite?' In its editorial section, ZK Matthews is quoted: 'I do not know if it is possible to approach history without bias. But if it is necessary to accept that all history is biased, the important thing is that all biases are represented.'
There is also a Tribute magazine published in June 1991 with a cover of Winnie Mandela captioned, 'Winnie Mandela WHY?' The magazine's first page talks about the deaths of Tsietsi Mashinini and Hector Pieterson. The pair are referenced in connection with issues that were troubling South Africa in the early 1990s, the black-on-black violence. The first page tells us that Mashinini and Pieterson would have asked us to weep for the Pretoria students who had declared their schools no-go areas and prevented educators from teaching - an action contrary to what Pieterson was murdered for by the apartheid government in June 1976 - while demanding accessible, transformed education.
There are many other precious documents, including the newsletter of Dr Abu Baker Asvat. Known as the people's doctor, he was a mentor and close friend of mine. Abu was killed on 27 January 1989 but the motive for his death remains unclear. By the 1960s, he had committed his life to fighting against discrimination and the oppression of black people. He was inspired by the black consciousness ideology and believed that true liberation was through active action - meaning that revolutionaries had to work at grassroots level.
Outside my house there are two trees that bear an abundance of delicious, large peaches. Once they are ripe, I skin them with a knife and chop the fruit into smaller pieces to make traditional canned jam. I mostly eat the jam in the December holidays and offer it to the occasional guest, if I ever happen to have one. All of this can be found on my eight-and-a-half-hectare farm. Though I have very little of great value, I consider myself very wealthy. I am at peace because I own land, which represents life to me. It means everything. Without it, I am nothing.
I am Mahlomelane Johannes Mthembu. I was born and bred in Emangusi at uMhlabuyalingana, northeastern KwaZulu-Natal. My father had six wives, my mother being the last, and I am the last-born child of both my parents. My father had 40 children, 17 of which were girls and 23 of which were boys, myself included. I never attended a formal school and I grew up as a herder. I can't remember exactly how old I was when I started herding my father's cattle, since age was not something we really cared about then.
My father's cattle were very different. Even today, I still wonder what he did to them. All his livestock had white hair on their legs and heads. When other people tried to breed their cows with my father's, the calves were born with different colours, not resembling any of my father's animals. I always found this quite incredible.
I still have vivid memories of how disciplined my father's cattle were, so much so that when they were about to enter someone's field or plantation, all it would take to bring them to a standstill was a whistle from afar until I could get close enough to redirect them. I do not know exactly how many cows my father had, but there were enough that we weren't able to milk them all every day. He even kept some in our neighbours' kraals. I loved being a herder very much. I come from a communal village where those who had more than they needed had to share with those who did not have as much. It was not uncommon for us to give milk away to those who did not own livestock. At least then we would all have something to eat.
In the early 1940s, I started my first job on a sugar cane plantation at Empangeni. I worked there for two years and then moved back home. I must have been about 19 when I decided to look for a job outside KwaZulu-Natal. In October 1948 I left for Gauteng with my cousin Amon Masinga, affectionately known as Big Up, to work in the mines. But we could only find transport in Siteki, Swaziland. I can't remember crossing any borders on our way to Siteki, as some territories were unmarked or not fenced with barbed wire.
We crossed the hills and mountains on foot because, like most black people, we did not own cars. If we came across travellers riding donkeys going in our direction, we would hop on at their discretion to make our journey a little shorter. On our arrival at Siteki, we signed the documents and waited for our transport to the Gauteng gold mines. And so, my farming life came to an end. But it would not be so forever.
For my first two years working at the mine, I earned two pound ten per month, which I suspect is about R50 today. When I eventually left this job, my papers and pass were not up to date, so I had to stay, illegally, closer to the City of Gold at Thobi Street in Sophiatown. My papers were outdated because I owed pass tax to the apartheid government. The tax was ipondo (about R2) for a year, which I had failed to pay, and the debt had accumulated to eight pondos as I stayed longer and longer. When I think of it now, it makes me laugh that I couldn't even pay ipondo for one year. The currency was strong back then. Five cents had value - you could buy serious groceries with it.
When I left the mine, I became self-employed and ran a drycleaning business. But this got me into serious trouble with the government, since it was against the law for a black person to run a business if he was not working under a white person. At this time, the country was governed by the National Party, an administration under DF Malan. The pass laws were strict; if you were found in the city without a pass, you would be incarcerated and sold to farmers who needed free labour on their farms.
When police officers put their handcuffs on me, I would get very angry and punch them if need be. When they asked where my pass was, I would tell them that my papers were not up to date. If they demanded to arrest me, I would tell them that I would walk myself to the police station provided I was not handcuffed.
I was sold to different farmers across the country where I worked for free. Yes, I had returned to my farming life, but this time I was a farm slave, everywhere from Kimberley in the Northern Cape, to Bethal and Witbank in Mpumalanga, and some farms in Gauteng. I can't even recall how many times I was thrown into jail for a pass. I decided that, if I was still alive when freedom came, I would want to own land and employ Afrikaners to serve as my farmworkers, so that they could feel what it was like to be exploited. I was sick and tired of seeing black people being humiliated for their skin colour, as if one chooses which race one is born into.
After being in and out of jail and having my freedom curbed at the whim of white farmers, I went back to Sophiatown in the mid-1950s. But the National Party was adamant and passionate about its racial programme of regrouping people according to their race. We were no longer needed near the city, which forced us to be evicted to the south of eGoli - we were moved to Meadowlands, Soweto.
Many horrors were inflicted on us when we were evicted from Sophiatown. I remember that those who were moved to two-roomed and three-roomed houses were given just one candle to light up the whole house. Some of these houses had rocks inside them, others had grass. We were exposed to untold indignities and physical and psychological torture, all of which have shaped my perspective when it comes to race.
When I arrived in Meadowlands, my dry-cleaning business was no more and I became a car mechanic. I had eight children. Three of them have died and I have five left. Today, my third-born still lives in Meadowlands and both of us receive the government pension grant.
My life in Meadowlands again involved a series of arrests. Now I was to be falsely accused of being a man I had never met before, someone about whom I had heard only rumours. His name was Big King and he was a wanted criminal. Apparently, he was a guerrilla soldier from the Mau Mau movement, which emerged in response to the inequalities and injustices that Africans were subjected to in British-controlled Kenya.
The Mau Mau movement attacked white settlers and police officers, who became witnesses to testify against Africans. Here in South Africa, Big King is rumoured to have waged a series of attacks against white farmers at Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal, Bethal in Mpumalanga, Lichtenburg in North West and some Gauteng farms. He would take everything he needed from white people's farms.
My wrongful arrest led to my house being taken away from me. I went to the Black Sash, a women-led organisation that demonstrated against discriminatory legislation, to plead against this unjust decision. But I was turned away. They said that they could not help people involved in politically linked crimes. And so, I became homeless and ended up squatting or living wherever I could find a temporary place to sleep.
After many years, I moved to Race Course in Kliptown where I ended up helping people who were being evicted by the government. By this time, I had come to know a lot of leading struggle stalwarts such as Tsietsi Mashinini, Winnie Mandela, Jacob Zuma, Chris Hani and many other veteran soldiers who were underground, in and out of the country. I became a community activist advocating for human rights and fighting for people to be able to own land. I had an activism forum called Sizanani for the Homeless People.
Just a few years away from the dawn of democracy, I moved to Slovo Park where I rented a space for my motor mechanic business, which became quite successful. I became the first person to build a shack there - a shack I still have. I became the chairperson of the area and allowed people to build more shack houses. That is how the Slovo Park informal settlement as it is today was started. And that is why I say that some of the photographs underneath my bed take me back to a time in my life when I was a high-profile person. Those days are gone now.
Now, I am nobody. Some of the people who fought alongside me for black people to own land are no more. They have been swallowed by the soil, and it is only by grace that I am still alive. My head and face have grown so much grey hair. My hardened, dry hands epitomise the hardships I have endured.
I am 94 years old and all I live for now is my land, where I plough only vegetables from other African countries. My love for pan-Africanism developed during my activism era and I plough these vegetables to honour the heroes and heroines whose lives became a sacrifice for our land. At the dawn of democracy and in the early 2000s I travelled throughout the country, this time not as a slave farmworker but as an agriculture trainer.
I changed my homeless forum into the Sizanani Agricultural Community Development Project and through it I conducted intensive agricultural training in partnership with the Gauteng Provincial Farmers' Union. In 2001, the union recognised me as the organiser of the year.
Now, my farm along the gravel road at 80 Sweetwater Street is collapsing. When I received it from the government, I was promised financial assistance, which never happened. I live here alone. The woman with whom I am sharing the last days of my life sometimes comes to visit me. My remaining children have all but deserted me, though some of them do occasionally come to check up. Most of the space on my farm has been colonised by weeds and grass. I know that I am no longer strong. I struggle to walk, so now I plough while seated on a crate. I have decided to find two workers to assist me. Since I do not earn much, I give them whatever I have. I cook for them and pay their salaries with my pension money. Often, this leaves me without any money to sustain myself. I improvise and sometimes eat some of the produce from the farm.
Next to my farm there is a township called Kanana or Thulamntwana, which is not far from Orange Farm. Most of the youth survive by engaging in criminal activities. Poverty and hunger push them to stop at nothing. In 2009, three years after getting my farm, I planned to establish a poultry business, but my dreams were cut short when criminals came at gunpoint and stole all the corrugated iron used to cover the poultry shed. There are only two corrugated iron sheets left on the shed, which now represents my broken dream. I feel a deep twinge in my heart whenever I look at that structure.
The criminals did not stop there. Others came to steal two JoJo tanks, each with a capacity of 5 000 litres, which helped me to irrigate my crops. I was torn apart. With the proceeds from my produce, I saved up to R7 000 in order to request the municipality to put a metered box on the farm so that I could irrigate my vegetables. The criminals returned to break into my shack. They stole all my food, the produce I kept in the house, and the ploughing and harvesting tools I use on the farm. Indeed, my farm is on the verge of collapse. I wonder what I am still doing here. I have every reason to leave and live elsewhere but I have so much love for the land that I can't.
Umhlaba is the beginning and end of life.
We are born in the land of diamonds, gold, and abundant plant and animal species. God brings light to the land from the stars. God cleans the land with the rain. And we murder each other. As our blood flows through the land, we die and go back to it. As my life draws to an end, I know that I have used everything I can to protect my land, even when crime has hit me hard and obliterated all my ambitions and dreams. I do know that this land is mine, the most important and greatest asset on earth. As I prepare to part from my physical being and return to the soil, my great hope is that the land, which has witnessed wars, revolutions, bloodshed, the decimation of precious species by humankind, will continue to be kind and sustain life.
As told to Magnificent Mndebele, who is is a fulltime writer at New Frame.