South Africa's Archipelago; Where they put 'surplus' blacks
Rooigrond, South Africa — The African sun is just past its zenith and starting a slow descent into a horizon obscured by scrubby thorn trees. For Chief Israel Mokate, it is the measure of another day away from his ancestral home.
"I want to go back there," he says, his eyes squinting into the distance. "Our fathers' graveyard is there. It's our tradition for the old men to join them. I also want to rest there."
The elderly African chief takes comfort in the belief that there is a place of reverence waiting for him in the collective memory of his people.
His is a faith that has sustained countless generations of his kinsmen, a deeply spiritual union that links Africans, their forebears, and their land.
However, Chief Mokate's wish, sanctioned by centuries of tradition, to "sleep where our forefathers are sleeping" will most likely be denied him -- by a government that he had no part in choosing.
The government is, of course, the white-minority government of the Republic of South Africa. And its policy of apartheid, or racial separateness, aims at the political, economic, and -- insofar as possible -- physical segregation of the races in this African nation.
Apartheid invariably provokes worldwide condemnation. Much of the criticism, however, dwells on the more obvious aspects of racial discrimination here -- the segregated toilets, segregated buses, segregated neighborhoods, and segregated schools in South Africa's cities and towns.
But it is here in the rural areas of South Africa, in places like Rooigrond, where the overreaching design of apartheid is being executed with steely determination, in a manner that is ony vaguely understood in the outside world.
For, over the past 33 years, the South African government has uprooted between 2 and 3 million black people and placed them in impoverished rural tribal reserves. The people involved in this mass relocation were, for the most part, not consulted. Moreover, they have virtually no legal way to oppose what amounts to their own dispossession. The process is continuing even now, and constitutes one of the largest forced relocations of humanity in recent history.
The goal goes beyond the mere physical removal of black people from proximity to whites; the eventual aim is to denationalize them, stripping them of any claim to political rights within South Africa.
Chief Mokate is only one among the masses of black people affected by this policy. He, along with hundreds of his followers, was moved off land the tribe had occupied for generations and placed on a desolate plot of ground here in the far northern part of the country, near the town of Mafikeng (formerly known as Mafeking).
The South African government has plans to do the same thing to perhaps a million more black people.
"This is one of the ugliest aspects of the apartheid policy," says Gatsha Buthelezi, chief of the Zulu tribe -- another of South Africa's ethnic groups that has been dispossessed under the apartheid policy.
"Hundreds of thousands of black people are being shunted around as if they were inanimate things."
The ultimate objective: creation of an archipelago of isolated islands of black people, existing within -- and, according to some analysts, providing a labor reserve for -- a predominantly white South Africa.
"There are a lot of archipelagoes in South Africa," posits the Rev. James Palos, a Methodist minister in Johannesburg.
"What we're seeing is a massive system of social engineering," says Dr. Margaret Nash, an Anglican (Episcopalian) Church worker.
"They're creating a storage system -- for people."
Over the past several months, this reporter visited dozens of the islands to which tens of thousands of black people have been forced to move. More often than not, they are in isolated rural areas, far from South Africa's cities and job opportunities. They sometimes lack even rudimentary health and sanitation facilities.
In some areas, black families have been jammed onto tiny plots of land, forbidden to grow crops or raise livestock, and left to fend for themselves. Many times, they weren't able to. That is why one of the first things to be built in many of the relocation camps is a graveyard.
Virtually all of these islands have one thing in common: a grinding, wrenching poverty as bad as -- or, in some cases, worse than -- Africa's poorest countries.
Yet they exist within the borders of Africa's richest nation. Moreover, they exist because of official South African government policy.
A 1967 internal government memo clearly spelled out the guiding government attitude toward black South Africans.
It states, "It is accepted government policy that the Bantu [blacks] are only temporarily resident in the European [white] areas of the republic, for so long as they offer their labor there."
That statement summarizes the prevailing government viewpoint even now: that black people are useful in "white" South Africa as long as they are productive. Once they aren't, they should be removed.
The same memo described those people specifically targeted for removal. They are blacks who, "for some reason or another, are no longer fit for work or superfluous in the labor market . . . the aged, the unfit, widows, women with dependent children."
The results of that policy of removing "unfit" people are painfully obvious in places like Rooigrond. It is a community with abnormal proportions of the very young and very old, with a scattering of the disabled.
These are people like old Chief Mokate; like the 78 small children jammed into a 12-by-14-foot front room of a mud-and-dung hut used as a school; like the woman in a pink dress who wanders aimlessly around Rooingrond, loudly recalling the days when she worked as a maid for a white woman in a city. Her fellow villagers make polite excuses for her verbal meanderings; her mental condition has worsened since coming to Rooigrond, they explain.
Rooigrond offers a useful starting place for an examination of what is happening in many of South Africa's tribal reserves. In this article, and four others following it, this newpaper will detail just how the South African government goes about disposing of its unwanted black populace.
Details of what happened to Chief Israel Mokate's tribe, and how it found itself here at Rooigrond, must come largely from the tribe's members; South African government officials gave only a sketchy account when questioned on the subject.
Unlike the mid-1960s, Chief Mokate's tribe -- describing themselves as part of the Moroka clan of the Botswana nation -- lived a pastoral life on several hundred hectares of land (one man claims the total was 1,200) near the town of Potchefstroom, in the western Transvaal Province of South Africa. The area was known as Machaviestad.
"Our forefathers stayed there for a long time," recounts Chief Mokate.
"When the white men came, they found them there."
The "white men" were most likely the Voortrekkers, descendants of early Dutch settlers at the Cape of Good Hope, who thrust into Africa's interior in 1835 to escape British rule and claimed what is now the Republic of South Africa for their own. Today, their descendants -- the Afrikaners -- control the South African government.
It was this government that informed the chief that the tribe's pasturelands could be owned only by whites.
"These were people on badly situated black areas and black spots," explains M. T. Cilliers, director of land matters for the South African government's Department of Cooperation and Development. That, he elaborates, means they occupied "ground in an area which is not proclaimed for residency by blacks."
That statement requires further explanation. By law, every inch of South Africa's land is proclaimed to "belong" to one or another racial or ethnic group. Whites, who make up about 17 percent of the population, claim for themselves 86 percent of the land. Blacks, totaling 71 percent of the country's populace, are allocated only 14 percent.
This 14 percent is made up of scattered parcels called, at various times according to the government's lexicon, native reserves, Bantustans, homelands, or, most recently, national states. Government policy holds that every black South African is, in fact, a citizen of one of these reserves by reason of ethnic lineage.
Each of South Africa's 10 major black ethnic groups is assigned a particular "national state"; they are speckled across tha map of South Africa in patchwork fashion.
The government allows blacks to live outside these reserves only to take up work in "white" areas, and ever since the present National Party government came to power in 1948, it has striven to group as many black people as possible into these reserves.
Thus it was that Chief Mokate's tribe was uprooted from its traditional grazing lands and placed here on a 300-hectare (740-acre) site at Rooigrond.The tribe was told the move would be only temporary until a suitable new site could be found.
That, however, was 10 years ago.
"We were forced to come here," Chief Mokate says.
For the first two years, the tribe lived in tents provided by the Government. They did not build houses, he explains, because authorities assured them "they would give us land as big as that at Machaviestad."
Over the years several sites have been offered, "but the land was not good," says the chief.
So the tribe's 470 people remain in a squalid settlement of 44 corrugated-iron, wood, and mud huts. The only water supply comes from a windmill. The nearest formal school is nearly 11 miles away, the nearest hospital 12 miles.There are no jobs in Rooigrond, and no regular bus to the nearest large settlement.
The land itself is unpromising, strewn with rocks and thorn tress.
"It's not good land," Simon Makodi, a resident, says.
The tribe's slippage is chronicled in the slow depletion of its cattle herd, the traditional African symbol of wealth. When the tribe came here a decade ago , says Mr. Makodi, it had 250 cattle. Today it has 80.
"The grass is no good for them, so the cattle die," he says.
The process by which his people were dispossessed of their land is only vaguely understood by Mr. Makodi. He keeps a dogeared copy of a 1949 book, entitled "Native Administration in the Union of South Africa," in his small hut and sometimes consults it in an attempt to make some sense of past events.
It is an unrewardng exercse. Since the book was published, the old Union of South Africa (formerly a self-governing dominion in the british Empire) has become a republic outside the Commonwealth. And, the white-minority government insists, the reserve into which the Mokate tribe was moved has become an "independent country."
In 1976, this reserve for Tswana-speaking people -- originally seven parcels of land scattered widely over central and northern South Africa -- was proclaimed the sovereign Republic of Bophuthatswana. It is a "country" only in the minds of apartheid's ideologues, its independence recognized by no other country except South Africa (and two other reserves-cum-republics, Transkei and Venda).
In the South African government's view, that means that Chief Mokate's tribe no longer has South african nationality. Consequently, when the group petitions the South African government for relief, it is referred to the Bophuthatswana government. That government, in turn, disclaims any responsibility for the tribe -- and has threatened it with eviction.
In the meantime, white farmers have taken over the tribe's land at Machaviestad.
"I can't understand why they did it," Mr. Makodi says. "The government wanted our land, so they just pushed us out."
What has happened to the Mokate tribe goes to the very heart of apartheid. For as Francis Wilson, a labor researcher at the University of Cape Town, points out, "The heart of apartheid is dispossession.c
The physical removal of black people from "white" areas is "absolutely crucial" to the apartheid policiy, says Sheena Duncan, national organizer of the Black Sash, a white women's organization so called because its members sometimes wear a black sash to mourn repressive government legislation.
Therefore, she adds, the government "moves all those unskilled workers as far as possible into the Bantustans, where it eventually sheds all responsibility for them."
Some people see removals of black people as simply a way of insulating South Africa's highly developed "first world" economy -- centered on its cities -- from the "third world" backwardness of the tribal reserves.
Government officials argue that if they did not shield the cities from an influx of unskilled rural dwellers, the urban areas would quickly become ringed with shanty slums of squatters, and that could give rise to urban unrest.
But other critics argue that removals of black people go beyond mere protection of the urban areas, and suggest there are far more malevolent motives guiding the government.
"It is," says Dr. Nash, the Anglican Church worker, "a system of deliberate impoverishment."
Dr. Nash notes that the reserves are overcrowded -- and overwhelmingly poor. Indeed, over 97 percent of South Africa's wealth is generated outsidem the borders of the reserves.
Few black people are able to achieve self-sufficiency in them, Dr. Nash says. Therefore, the able-bodied ones are forced to take up migratory labor in "white" South Africa. And, she continues, their labor generates wealth for the white areas -- little of which is channeled back to the reserves.
"I see it as part of the whole process of taking over the means of production ," she says.
"This system [of migratory labor] generates wealth for the employer group, and at the same time assures the permanent servitude and debilitation of the black community."
The South African government, of course, doesn't see things that way at all.
According to J. L. Serfontein, director of political development for the Departmant of Cooperation and Development, "the crux of the matter" is the government's present policy "to have separate governments for each national [ ethnic] group."
Sometimes, Mr. Serfontein adds, black people aren't residing in the areas the government has set aside for their particular "nation."
But, he explains, "if you want to have a government ruling its own people, in their own area of jurisdiction, you must have a consolidation . . . of this particular area."
"And," he concludes, "as a result of that, you need to move people from one area to another."
"There is a kind of rationality behind the policy," concedes a white agricultural worker, who asked not to be nemed.
"It may be a twisted rationality, an inhuman rationality, but there is a rationality."
The South African government rarely attempts to justify removals on grounds that they are moral -- only that they are legal.
Indeed, they are. South Africa's treatment of black people is firmly entrenched in a bewildering array of laws, regulations, and decrees that control virtually every aspect of black life.
Some of those measures were inherited by the present Afrikaner-dominated Nationalist government from previous administrations. But the present government has promulgated a number of other far-reaching laws since coming to power in 1948. Armed with these legal instruments, it has set about separating the races in a manner that critics charge is unnecessarily harsh -- and unabashedly racist.
The Rev. Mr. Palos, the Methodist minister, singles out five particular laws as the "pillars" of apartheid. They are:
* The Population Registration Act of 1950.
This law set up a rigid system of race classification for every South African , legally dividing the populace into categories of white, Colored (mixed race), and native (African). (Other racial groupings, such as Indian and Chinese, were established by a 1959 proclamation.)
The act, along with subsequent amendments and regulations, empowers the government to issue racial identity documents. People requesting "reclassification" from one group to another are subject to humiliating physical examinations to determine their racial "purity."
* The Group Areas Act of 1950.
This act allowed the government to set aside residential areas for specific ownership or occupancy by one racial group. It forms the basis for South Africa's racially segregated neighborhoods. Enforcement of this law has forced hundreds of thousands of people -- most of them Colored and Indian -- to move because they lived in the "wrong area."
* Natives Land Act of 1913.
This measure created the "native reserves" that form the basis for today's "national states." Blacks are forbidden to own land outside these reserves and can reside outside them only with government permission.
* The Natives (urban areas) Consolidation Act of 1945.
The act declared South Africa's urban areas off limits to blacks, unless they have specific government permission to enter. This permission is entered in a small reference book carried by each black adult. The book is known as a "pass book," the various measures regulating black movement in cities as "pass laws." Any black person caught in an urban area without the requisite "pass" is subject to arrest and deportation to the reserves.
Since the Nationalists came to power in 1948, there have been 12 million arrests of black people for violations of the "pass laws." Fully one-third of the people in South Africa's prisons -- or about 33,000 people -- are "pass law" offenders. In most cases, their only "crime" was coming to a city to search for a job or live with family members.
* The Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act of 1970.
This far-reaching law proclaims every black South African a "citizen" of one of the black reserves, regardless of whether he resides in these areas. As the reserves are declared "independent" of South Africa -- as three have so far been -- their "citizens" lose South African nationality.
These legal weapons give the South African government nearly total control over the movement of black people. And blacks, in turn, have few legal ways to resist removal to the reserves.
Many blacks are then left with a stark choice, says Michael Whisson, professor of anthropology at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. Simply stated, it is to accept removal to the reserves -- or be subject to arrest.
"They're offered a place in a resettlement camp," he says, "and there's nowhere else on the face of the earth they can legally live."
Tomorrow: How a white government "removes" its unwanted black subjects.