Community deprived of land by apartheid hopes for a homecoming

April 30, 1991|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa -- For Isaac Tembani, it is a matter of faith that his people will overcome their bitter experience with apartheid and return to the land they occupied before the South African government threw them off.

"The Bible says the truth is mighty and it prevails," said MrTembani, a soft-spoken man who often refers to his people's experience in biblical terms. "We're telling the truth. We're not making lies. That land was given to us. If we're telling the truth, then it must prevail."

Mr. Tembani, 62, is a leader of a community of 4,000 peoplknown as the Fingos, who lived primarily as subsistence farmers in the Tsitsikamma Valley near this coastal city on the southeastern edge of South Africa. The entire community was removed at gunpoint in 1977 in accordance with a government decree that "black spots" be eliminated from sections of South Africa designated for whites.

The Fingo land was surrounded by white farms, which made it a black spot on the white landscape, so the people were ordered to leave. Most were transported 200 miles to Ciskei, a black homeland for the Xhosa tribe.

The Fingos, who are not Xhosas, were forced to sell their cattle because there was no grazing land in their new home, and they had difficulty farming the new land, which was smaller and of poorer quality than the TsitsiSee FINGO, 2, Col. 4FINGO, from 1Akamma property. More than 100 children died over the next few years, and most of the men left the Ciskei to find work in cities far from home.

"They were scattered to the four winds," said Judy Chalmers, volunteer with the Black Sash, a women's organization that helps victims of apartheid. "It was a real effort for them to keep a core group together."

The land occupied by the Fingos before their removal -- 20,000 acres of desirable farmland -- had been granted by British colonial authorities who ruled South Africa in the last century in return for Fingo support in an 1834 war against the Xhosas, and it had been held in trust for the Fingos and their descendants for over a century.

"God worked through the British people to give the Fingos that land. That land was not stolen from anybody. The British didn't rob somebody to give us the land. They said this is your land to be kept in trust for your descendants," said Mr. Tembani, sitting in his small, neat house in the black township of New Brighton, just outside Port Elizabeth.

He is the leader of a group called the Tsitsikamma Exile Association, whose major purpose is to get the land back.

"The Israelites were in Egypt. They were slaves there for 43years, but eventually they went back to Canaan because God gave them the land. After 430 years. So if the Israelites got their land after 430 years, why can't we get our land?"

The Fingos are among more than a dozen black communities asking the government to return their land now that President F. W. de Klerk has decided to repeal the apartheid laws under which the communities were forcibly removed. One of the communities has moved back to its

land, which remained unoccupied years after the people were removed, and others have made plans to return in defiance of the government.

Under South Africa's Land Acts, to be scrapped in the current session of Parliament, almost 90 percent of the country's land was reserved for the white minority. Blacks were denied the right to own land in the designated white areas and were removed by government security forces if they already were settled there. An estimated 3.5 million people were driven from their homes under apartheid laws drafted to create segregated communities.

Mr. de Klerk's government has said that it will repeal the discriminatory laws that dictated where people could live or own land. To promote black landownership in the new South Africa, ** the government also plans to initiate a series of aid programs to help blacks buy land any place they want.

"The objective is to do justice to all the citizens of our country, also as far as rights to land are concerned, to broaden opportunities for all while preserving lawfully acquired rights," Mr. de Klerk said in a statement introducing his land reforms.

But government officials have steadfastly refused to consider the question of returning land taken from communities, such as the Fingos, who were removed against their will and not compensated properly for the loss of their land.

"If we were to try to restore land to its original owners, we would have to

go back too far into history," said Stoffel van der Merwe, minister of education and development aid. "By opening up land and making assistance available, we hope to compensate those who were disadvantaged under the previous system."

The Fingos say that they never were compensated for their land and that the government gave them small amounts of cash, seldom approaching a fair amount, for the homes that were demolished before their eyes by government bulldozers.

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