Plucky black community resists South Africa's removal plan

The events of the past year have made this picturesque black farm community one of the most tragic - and some would say courageous - examples of black resistance to the might of the South African government.

Right now the people of Driefontein are struggling to regroup amid feelings of despair and defiance. So far they have refused to give way to the government's insistence that they surrender their land.

A year ago community leader Saul Mkhize, who spearheaded resistance to the government order that the blacks move out of their community, was killed by a white policeman.

To the horror of Driefontein residents, many of whom witnessed the shooting, a South African court acquitted policeman Johannes Andries Nienaber earlier this month.

Gathered in a small farmhouse on a wet autumn day, a group of Driefontein landowners said they still have no intention of going quietly. They also expressed anguish at the loss of Mr. Mkhize and fear about the implications of the court ruling.

''If you are a black and go out and shoot an animal, it is a very serious matter (to local white officials). But if a white shoots a black man, it is as nothing,'' a farmer says. He spits out the last word.

''This means we can all be shot like birds,'' says another resident, matter of factly. ''The government has agreed our lives are worth nothing.''

Driefontein lies in the path of Pretoria's relentless drive to rid South Africa of as many blacks as possible by sending them to the so-called ''homelands,'' 10 rural territories to which blacks have been assigned citizenship. The new ''citizens'' of these homelands then lose citizenship in South Africa.

At least 600,000 are estimated to have been moved to the homelands from established communities like Driefontein in the past 20 years, according to a recent study by the so-called Surplus People Project.

Driefontein lies in a gentle valley surrounded by timber stands, pastures, and maize crops. Horses and bicycles are the common forms of transport.

Blacks here bought farms in 1912, a year before the South African government prevented blacks from ever again purchasing land outside the ''homelands.'' Their land has been passed to their heirs. But the federal government is intent on eliminating these so-called black spots from South Africa.

The 5,000 people of Driefontein saw the first evidence they were to be moved in the 1970s, according to the Black Sash human rights organization.

Government officials painted numbers on the houses, designating which families would be moved where. Apparently Zulus were to be sent to the Babanango area, which is to become part of the Zulu homeland, and the Swazis to Lochiel, which is to become part of the Swazi homeland of KaNgwane.

The people of Driefontein elected a community board in 1980, apparently at government urging. It was chaired by Steven Msibi. After initial resistance to the removal, he apparently decided to go along with it.

Residents were initially told the removal was for ''homeland consolidation.'' More recently the government said a new dam would inundate the farms. But Black Sash claims the dam would affect only about 10 percent of Driefontein. Residents say they welcome the dam and will gladly surrender whatever land it requires.

Early in 1982 some 100 people signed affadavits favoring a move. But Mr. Msibi said later the affidavits were signed out of fear.

Black Sash says the government warned residents that those who did not sign by a certain date would get no compensation when the move took place.

In late 1982 Mkhize emerged as the champion of resistance to the removal. He presented the Legal Resources Center - a kind of public law clinic - in Johannesburg with the signatures of most of the landowners asking for help in resisting the move. In December 1982 Driefontein elected a new council board of directors. Mkhize was chairman.

The government refused to recognize the board. Townspeople say local officials stepped up harassment of residents, arresting those not having proper ''pass'' documents and interrupting pension payments to members of the community.

On April 2 last year Mkhize called a community meeting at a local school. Its purpose was not revealed. Police arrived, declared the meeting illegal, and after a series of disputed events, Mkhize was shot and killed.

Policeman Nienaber admitted firing the fatal shot but claimed he was under attack. Residents say Nienaber was never seriously threatened. The court largely accepted Nienaber's version of events.

Critics of the ruling were particularly upset by the judge's comments that Mkhize was ''an arrogant, somewhat impolite, man with a strong personality.''

Human rights advocate and opposition member of Parliament Helen Suzman said she knew Mkhize well and felt his strength was a virtue, and she never found him arrogant or impolite.

''One only hopes that the impression is not created that if a man stands up for his rights, attempts to make him lie down again will be condoned by the authorities,'' Mrs. Suzman said.

Meanwhile, residents of Driefontein think about the future. They are discussing the need for another school and a health clinic.

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