Blacks of Charlestown relish long journey home

April 14, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

CHARLESTOWN, South Africa -- These days, there seems to be little that can take the smile from Matthew Sangwene's face.

Although he sits in front of a tin shack next to where his two-story house used to be and looks out over empty fields where a community once thrived, he smiles because he has come home.

A victim of apartheid policies, he has made a journey back that many others hope to make in the new South Africa.

For now, it is a journey made by a precious few, those blacks who actually had title to land, something that was illegal for most. But on these rolling hills in northern Natal on the border with the Transvaal, a white man sold off his farm to blacks when he returned to England after World War II.

Mr. Sangwene still has his deed. He refused to give it up even when the police came in 1977, loaded his belongings on a truck and, in front of his eyes, bulldozed his brick house into a pile of rubble.

Thousands who had no deeds had already been removed from Charlestown, starting in the late 1960s. But those who owned their land fought in the courts for almost a decade, losing at every turn.

The blacks of Charlestown were taken down a winding road, descending several thousand feet from the cool breezes of these hills to the dusty heat of the flatland township of Osizwene outside the industrial town of Newcastle.

Many reasons were given for the move. Pieter Schoeman, a white resident who is now helping in the resettlement, remembers it as if it were urban renewal.

"There were slum conditions," he said of the black community. "It was very difficult to govern it or to rectify it. I don't know if there were 5,000, 10,000, 12,000 people, it could have even been more. Sometimes things develop in such a way that it is better to clean the slate and start from scratch.

"When they were removed, for some it was very difficult, a bad time. But for others, it was a boon to be removed."

The blacks were told that the land was needed for mining. In fact, it was never mined, just leased to a local farmer who used it for grazing.

'Black spot'

The real reason was that Charlestown was a so-called "black spot," and the efficient engineers of apartheid whited it out. So the houses were bulldozed and the people coralled in the ghetto of Osizwene, Zulu for "where help is being offered."

Christine Xaba was 23 and away at school when she heard that her family had lost the battle to keep their home just up the road from the Mangwenes' place. The three-story house that Mrs. Xaba's father had built also fell to a bulldozer in 1977.

They were given a few hundred dollars in compensation and a plot in Osizwene with a tin shack about the size of a garden hut.

"My father tried to resist, but it was in vain," she said. "There were so many trucks that day to take our things. Everybody was crying. It was so painful.

"While we were still getting into the trucks, there the bulldozers go."

Mrs. Xaba said that returning to Charlestown remained a dream. "The people of Charlestown never rested since they were removed. They were always trying to come back."

With the dismantling of apartheid in 1990, it became possible for that dream to become a reality. On Nov. 6 of last year, the first citizens of Charlestown returned.

"It was a wonderful day," she said. "I cried and kissed the ground. It was so nice that day, so nice to be all home again."

Currently, courts are giving land back to blacks when ownership is clear-cut. The more complicated cases will be left up to a land court set up in the new constitution that takes effect after the April 26-28 election.

But the joys of returning home might be overmatched by the hardships of reconstructing a community. Reality quickly set in after the euphoria of Nov. 6, when hundreds of former Charlestown residents slaughtered a cow and partied all night.

Only a handful have moved back. For one thing, the cost of the move is too steep for many. For another, there are few jobs in Charlestown. Some of the industries actually had to follow their work force and moved to Newcastle.

Over the years, many did find good work in Newcastle and built substantial dwellings in Osizwene and other black townships that are served by electricity and running water.

Materials scarce

When they come back to their land in Charlestown, they can only construct shacks with whatever building material they can scrounge.

The pipes along the rutted dirt road that once brought water to numerous taps have long since corroded. Now water has to be fetched from cisterns placed every few hundred yards along the roads. Electricity might be years away.

None of this deters Mrs. Xaba. She's bought a house in the white part of town -- as have many blacks, causing a spate of "For Sale" signs reminiscent of block-busting days in the United States -- while her younger brother has put up a crude dwelling on the old family plot.

The foundation of the house of her parents, who died before they could return, now forms the basis for a small corral that holds three cows.

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