Tough resistance to forced resettlement. South Africa's white government has run into two `black spots' that won't go away -- without a fight

Venerable Alfred Ngema sits cross-legged on a hand-woven straw mat under the shade of a peach tree. Casting a glance at the thriving corn fields and herds of plump cattle that stretch out behind him, the elderly black farmer tells his citified white visitors with a twinkle ``even you would like to come and live here.'' That, in a nutshell, is the problem facing the prosperous rural black settlement of Kwa Ngema. The South African government wants the land reclaimed for whites. The motivation is not so much that whites want to come live at Kwa Ngema. Rather, the aim is to rid ``white'' South Africa of yet another black community -- officially called a ``black spot'' -- and export its black residents to tribal ``homelands'' where the government feels blacks belong.

Yet Kwa Ngema, and its similarly threatened neighboring community of Driefontein, are throwing up a resistance that the South African government has rarely seen in the 20 years it has been forcibly resettling blacks. The resistance may not be decisive. But it has forced Pretoria to hesitate.

Kwa Ngema and Driefontein, located about 200 miles east of Johannesburg, are prosperous rural communities of postcard beauty. Mud and wood homesteads dot a green and rolling landscape where many families produce enough food to feed themselves, and at times, a surplus. Kwa Ngema in particular retains a pastoral form of life rarely found in South Africa today. Women still grind corn by hand and horses are used for transport.

``We love it here,'' says Alfred Ngema, the grandson of Stuurman Ngema, who was given land rights to Kwa Ngema in the 1860s by the white Afrikaners who settled the Transvaal Province. After the Boer War (1899 to 1902) King Edward VII of England entrenched those rights for Stuurman's descendants. Blacks bought up the land of neighboring Driefontein in 1912 and have resided there ever since.

No aspect of South Africa's segregationist policies is so widely condemned as the forced resettlement of blacks. Even domestically, white South Africans are increasingly questioning the practice. Some of the government's own supporters can no longer see any purpose to the policy, which they feel ``costs'' more in terms of international condemnation than it ``gains'' in furthering the separation of the races.

Still, Pretoria has shown a steely determination to resettle blacks. At least 2 million people -- mainly blacks -- have been uprooted by the government over the past two decades. (The 2 million figure comes from the government, though independent estimates put the total at 3.5 million.)

Just last year, for instance, the government forcibly resettled the people of Mogopa, a black village west of Johannesburg. Even a rare public protest from the Reagan administration, which prefers to use ``quiet diplomacy'' in dealing with South Africa, failed to halt the move.

Last December the Reagan administration came under heavy fire for not effectively promoting change in South Africa. President Reagan responded with his harshest criticism of apartheid in a speech commemorating international human rights day. Reagan asked Pretoria to abandon two practices in particular: detention without trial and forced removals of blacks.

Both Kwa Ngema and Driefontein have been threatened with removal for many years. The government decided to move the communties in the 1970s. The plan apparently is to relocate the 4,000 people of Kwa Ngema and the 10,000 people of Driefontein to new areas that are now or will be incorporated into the KaNgwane and KwaZulu homelands. But the recent completion of the Heyshope Dam near Kwa Ngema and Driefontein has added a new urgency to the pending removal. The sluice gates of the dam have been closed and water has begun covering some of the low-lying areas of both communties.

The government concedes that the decision to build the dam was made after the decision to clear the Kwa Ngema and Driefontein ``black spots.'' But the rising water has now provided a convenient expedient for the removal sooner rather than later. Both communties say they can live quite comfortably with the new dam. They are pleading with the government to allow them to stay on the land not affected by the water.

Driefontein and Kwa Ngema have begun to effectively use the courts to resist the government's removal plans.

Late last year, Kwa Ngema took the government to court and got an assurance from the government that it would compensate people forced to move their homes to higher ground (still in Kwa Ngema) to avoid being flooded. This means the government will have to pay double compensation should it ultimately go ahead with the removal of Kwa Ngema to the ``homelands.'' The government's willingness to pay for the local move to avoid the water is seen by some as an indication Pretoria is reexamining the Kwa Ngema removal.

On the other hand, the compensation agreement may just have been a step by the government to avoid the more costly alternative of Kwa Ngema using the courts to stop the filling of the dam. Kwa Ngema apparently has the legal right to do this since the dam is covering some of its land, and the community was never consulted about the dam by the government in the first place.

Kwa Ngema and Driefontein have also used the courts to gain the right to hold community meetings -- something they cannot do without the permission of the local white government officials. These meetings often stiffen the communities' resolve to resist the removals.

Though Driefontein and Kwa Ngema are neighbors and face a common threat, they are different sorts of communities. People in Kwa Ngema retain a faith that the South African government will in the end do the honorable thing and that the force behind the removal is not so much government ideology as it is the covetousness of the local white farmers who want Kwa Ngema's land. Drie-fontein, on the other hand, has become more militant in its resistance, and is deeply suspicious of the government.

Last July the Kwa Ngema Committee -- a group of local leaders -- wrote to South African President Pieter Botha: ``We are landowners who have built up our lives and history at Kwa Ngema -- we beg you not to make us landless squatters in some impoverished homeland area.'' At the very least, the committee pleaded, would the government inform Kwa Ngema about what its plans were for the community? But there has been no response to the letter.

Prior to writing Botha, the Kwa Ngema Committee wrote Queen Elizabeth II of England, asking her to intercede on their behalf. When Botha visited Britain last year, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher reportedly raised the issue of Kwa Ngema with him.

Despite assurances while in Europe from Botha that South Africa did not force blacks to move (rather it convinced them to do so), the government acted in a way in October that seemed to indicate a removal was imminent. Government officials began digging up the graves at Kwa Ngema and moving them to a hastily prepared cite near the entrance to the community. Long trenches were dug and the bones from the original graves put in boxes and lowered into the trenches. The removal of the graves was stopped when Kwa Ngema community leaders threatened the government with violence.

The people of Kwa Ngema think the government was moving the graves temporarily, in preparation for the community's final removal. The grave-moving incident has left a sense of shock and disbelief in Kwa Ngema. Blacks pray to their ancestors and the hamhanded removal of some of the graves has left the community indignant.

Driefontein's militancy seems to stem from the killing in April 1983 of Saul Mkhize, a local leader who had resisted the removal. Mkhize was addressing an anti-removal meeting when the police arrived. The police declared the meeting illegal, and in a disputed series of events, shot and killed Mkhize. The white policeman who shot Mkhize was later acquitted in a South African court.

For a year or so, Driefontein seemed immobilized by the shock of Mkhize's death and the subsequent court acquittal. But in the past nine months, the community has regrouped and with outside legal assistance begun to fight back. With the help of lawyers and the courts, Driefontein residents have forced the government to resume paying pensions, authorizing pass documents, and allowing the community to hold meetings. (The people of Driefontein say these rights and services were denied them in recent years to pressure them into agreeing to the removal.)

Another develoment that has helped Driefontein and Kwa Ngema resist being removed by the government is the unexpected support they are getting from one of the ``homelands'' where they are to be moved. Over the years, ``homeland'' leaders have often assisted Pretoria by agreeing to accept resettled communities as long as they are also given additional land in the bargain. But in this case, Enos Mabuza, chief minister of KaNgwane, has told Pretoria he would not accept political or administrative responsibility for any residents from Driefontein or Kwa Ngema. The Black Sash human rights organization says this is the first time a homeland leader has so strongly fought South Africa's resettlement policy.

The removal of ``black spots'' like Driefontein and Kwa Ngema is part of a policy of stripping blacks of land rights that dates back to 1913. The Natives Land Act of 1913 stipulated that blacks could no longer purchase land outside the ``homelands.'' The 10 homelands represent about 13 percent of South Africa's land surface, while they cater politically for blacks who represent over 70 percent of the total population. In the last 20 or so years, the South African government has set about eliminating the pockets of black-owned land outside the homelands through removals.

The government claims blacks are resettled through a process of negotiation with the community and that the removals are in the interest of the ``development'' of rural areas.

But in both Driefontein and Kwa Ngema residents say the government negotiates with unrepresentative members of the community and tries to set them up as leaders when in fact they speak for only a very small minority.

Church and human rights organization workers who have helped ``resettled'' communities say blacks are rarely if ever given comparable land or property rights. Many resettled communities slide into poverty after being uprooted.

The South African government appears to be aware that the removals of Kwa Ngema and Driefontein are being strongly resisted. The government also seems sensitive to the international outcry such a removal might cause, particularly with the heightened criticism of South Africa's racial policies in the United States at the moment.

Yet Pretoria says it has already made the decision to resettle both communities. Under normal circumstances the government might simply delay for months or even years, hoping the resistance that has built up at Kwa Ngema and Driefontein would slowly disspate. But in this case the rising water level may force the government to act soon, one way or the other.

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