S. Africans get church land Long denied title, blacks are gaining ownership of homes

December 25, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NAZARETH, South Africa -- Florence Hlongwa today has a home and garden of her own -- and a deed of title to prove it. But for more than 50 years, she was not allowed to own the land on which she lived.

Her house is a little brick and stone rancher, built by her husband in 1943, on church land on a green hillside 20 miles

outside the Indian Ocean resort of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. Now, the Roman Catholic missionary order that owned the land has given it to her -- part of a fledgling effort by churches here to redistribute their lands, frequently ill-gotten during the colonial and apartheid eras, to landless South Africans.

In Hlongwa's front yard, the roses, oleander and summer flowers bloom. Inside, the tiled floor gleams, and the walls are adorned with family photographs.

But for all the pride she has taken in her home, she was, for most of her married life, effectively an illegal resident in it, defying government decrees that she should move.

Until the change of government here from white minority rule to black majority democracy in 1994, Hlongwa, and thousands like her, could not hold title to their properties, particularly in areas designated for "whites."

"If you don't own something, it's easy for someone to take it away," said Hlongwa.

In the 1960s and 1970s, she watched fearfully as blacks from nearby communities were forcibly removed under the government's "homelands" policy to make way for the expansion of the white community of nearby Pinetown. She had her house assessed, determined to try to seek compensation were she to be evicted.

But she stayed. With the backing of the missionaries, she and her neighbors stalled all attempts to move them. Across South Africa, others were not so fortunate. The "Bantustan," or homeland, policy eventually forced 87 percent of the people -- the blacks -- onto only 13 percent of the land in a government campaign to create tribal sectors.

With the arrival of the first missionaries in the mid-17th century, churches quickly began to acquire land until, today, they own an estimated 7 percent of the territory, or 32,948 square miles.

"It's been a concern of the church throughout its history," said Eddie Makue, head of the justice department of the South African Council of Churches, which represents 23 denominations, including the mainline religions. "But it never became more apparent than it did after our liberation [from apartheid].

"In the search to find answers to the high level of poverty, we uncovered that churches could contribute by making some of their land available for use by the poor and the marginalized."

The churches, he said, were trying to set an example for industry -- and particularly the mining giants -- to join in the land redistribution effort.

As part of that effort, the government of Nelson Mandela announced this month that it would transfer 1.2 million acres of public land to private householders next year.

In 1990, the country's largest conference of religious leaders called for the return of land to blacks, but left it up to individual churches. So far, only a handful have complied.

Noting that the political atmosphere under the Mandela government was "much more conducive for churches to implement their ideals," Makue said he hoped that religious leaders would accept that their lands must be "effectively utilized."

"We want to see it as a contribution the church is making consciously, willingly and in humility, in order to be exemplary," said Makue. "We are talking about a history here where people have had a very unique relationship with land, and the land removal and land deprivation has become a very painful experience for many people. Therefore, it is not just a question of making land available but of reconciling a relationship which has been broken."

In KwaZulu Natal, the Mariannhill Missionary Institute is giving most of its land, purchased last century, back to those such as Hlongwa, who thought she would never own a place of her own.

"I am very pleased," said Hlongwa, one of the first to receive title. "It was a long wait. Only the new government made it possible."

The land on which Hlongwa lives is part of 12,350 acres bought in 1882 by the abbot of a Trappist monastery at Mariannhill. The monks wanted to be self-sufficient and needed the land for farming. They also had the idea of forming an African Christian community on the land and built 150 houses at a development called St. Wendoline.

There, at the turn of the century, people bought their plots and registered the purchase with local authorities. Eventually, the missionary work clashed with the Trappists' restrictive rules. The abbot was posted to a remote monastery and, in 1909, the monks were replaced by the Missionaries of Mariannhill, a new, independent Catholic order.

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