MIRIAM GAMEDE, the personification of human dignity in her tidy iron shack, shows no trace of bitterness as she describes how she was removed from her ancestral land at gunpoint in the early hours of Nov. 15, 1977.
``White soldiers and police with guns came and ordered us into buses,'' she says. ``Then the bulldozers moved in and flattened our houses made of mud bricks and grass.''
The harshness of the evictions contrasts with the scenic beauty of the Tsitsikama - ``place of many waters'' - which Queen Victoria ceded to the Mfengu in 1841 in return for their support in the fight against the Xhosa.
Mrs. Gamede, like other members of the 4,000-strong Mfengu community, has cause to be outraged. The entire community was forcibly removed by government decree in the name of apartheid, which sought to remove all black South Africans from ``white'' South Africa and relegate them to impoverished black homelands.
Gamede is one of some 3.5 million black South Africans who were evicted or dispossessed at the height of apartheid, from 1960 to the mid-1980s. In the mid-1980s, international opinion forced the white minority government to review what many saw as a horrific experiment in social engineering.
Gamede's plight - and that of millions of other black South Africans - will remain after the country's first nonracial ballot in April elects a transitional government of national unity in which blacks will form the majority for the first time in the country's 350-year history.
The legacy of apartheid will be a constant reminder of what the country's black majority has suffered under a systematic plan by the state to deny them political and human rights.
But the white farmers of the Tsitsikama Valley have taken the first steps to restoring those rights to the Mfengu.
The first real sign of hope for the Mfengu came in early 1993 when the 19 white farmers acknowledged that their land was the Mfengu's rightful property. They began working on a plan to sell their farms back to the government, so the government could give the land back to the Mfengu.
What makes their plan unique is that at least half the farmers -
highly successful dairy farmers - are prepared to stay. They would lease their land back from the Mfengu Trust while using their expertise to train the Mfengu in modern commercial farming techniques so that the productive capacity of the land is maintained.
This has been acknowledged by the Tsitsikama Exiles Association (TEA) and the African National Congress (ANC) as a creative response to the problem of land restitution that could also provide a model for the greater problem of land redistribution.
The Mfengu, a peace-loving and homogenous offshoot of the Xhosa-speaking peoples, lived on the land for a century and a half as successful peasant farmers who tended cattle, sheep, and goats and grew subsistence crops.
They sold their surplus in the marketplace while their sons went out to work in the plantations of the Tsitsikama forest.
For the Mfengu, the move to the inhospitable site at Elukhanyeni in the Keiskammahoek district of the Ciskei homeland 200 miles to the east was the beginning of a nightmare in which these peasant farmers lost all their livestock and equipment and saw their elders die of broken hearts. Their only crime was that they were black and occupied a piece of land designated by Pretoria officials as a ``black spot'' which had to be removed.
``They wanted the land to give to white farmers - it was too fertile for blacks,'' says Mashwabada Msizi, chairman of the TEA, which has linked the scattered residents since their removal in 1977. ``Our ideal of getting the land back has kept us together,'' says Mr. Msizi, himself a victim of the removal. ``It's blood land. Our people will go on foot and take their land back if necessary - even from a future government.''
The site at Elukhanyeni - which ironically means ``place of light'' in the Xhosa tongue - was not suited to farming. There was insufficient water, no grazing land for the cattle, and no jobs.
They were not compensated for the land, their suffering, or the loss of livestock. Some received meager compensation for the destruction of their homes.
``We asked the officials: What have we done? They said it was not our land and we must go. But I know it is because of apartheid that we had to move,'' Gamede says. ``Some who resisted were put in jail; many babies died and most of the old people died after the move.'' Gamede's husband, a successful farmer, died in 1980, three years after the move. In 1981, she and her family were stripped of their South African citizenship when Ciskei was granted ``independence'' by Pretoria's white rulers.
But the hardship and trauma of the past 16 years cannot conceal the joy on Mrs. Gamede's lined face at being back close to the land where she raised her daughter and two sons.
Last year, with the help of international donors and humanitarian groups, some 29 Mfengu families have returned to the Moravian Mission station adjoining their historic land. Each family has erected an iron-and-wood shack on a concrete base, and water and sanitation have been provided. They are back with the mixed-race ``coloured'' folk of this town who are said to be descended from the Mfengu.
The men have begun planting sweet potatoes and corn near their houses, and the old magic of the forest community is beginning to return.
``I am much poorer today than when I left here 16 years ago,'' Gamede says. ``But I am happy to be back in the place that I love. I am old now,'' the 63-year-old woman says, ``but the children might take over. They still know how to work with cattle.''
George Xayimpi, a pensioner who walks with difficulty from the injuries he sustained in the removal, sees a link between the political changes and the prospect of returning to his ancestral land.
``If our jailed leaders had not been released, we would have no hope of getting our land back,'' he says. ``Naturally, I will vote for Nelson Mandela in the election.
``We are not looking for revenge. The Bible does not say that. We don't want an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. We just want to live here,'' says Mr. Xayimpi.
Those who have returned are only too aware that a long struggle lies ahead before the community can regain the land it farmed for nearly 140 years. It has already been a long struggle that has harnessed the support of influential figures like Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, himself a Mfengu, and a plethora of civil rights groups led by the Johannesburg-based Legal Resources Center.
Linking up with the city of San Francisco in 1992 has brought financial and moral support, which has helped to keep the profile of the determined Mfengu community alive.
The Mfengu turned down an offer from the government in September to return one quarter of their land, still owned by the state, and provide development assistance for the returnees. The government offer was a response to a summons issued against the state and the 19 white farmers by the TEA in May 1991.
The government did not respond to the farmers' offer by the Nov. 16 deadline, because they were reluctant to set a precedent that could force their hand in demands by at least 39 other communities for restoration of their land.
``We have decided that the only way of solving this problem is to give the legal ownership back to the Mfengu,'' says Gerdie Landman, a dairy farmer who was voted the country's most successful farmer in 1993.
The farmers are asking about 5,000 rand per hectare ($600 per acre) for land that they bought for 1/20th of that price in 1983. They argue that their asking price was determined by independent evaluators, and they say it is easily explained by capital expenditure and improvements that have been dictated by intensive dairy farming.
Mr. Landman, chairman of the group of 19 farmers, was himself the victim of a forced removal when his sheep farm near Queenstown was earmarked in the early 1980s for incorporation into the Ciskei homeland as part of the government's homeland consolidation plans. (Each time the government resettles blacks from a ``black spot'' to a tribal homeland it usually compensates the homeland by expropriating some adjacent farming territory and annexing it.) ``It was terrible, but it was government policy. We fought against it, but we had to accept it,'' Landman says.
He feels the same way about the dispossession of the Mfengu but insists that it was the government - and not the farmers - who took away their land, and it is the government that must return it.
``We have no quarrel with the Mfengu and they have no quarrel with us,'' says Landman, who sports a neatly clipped moustache and a tweed hunting cap as he strides around his farm in a business-like fashion. ``I grew up with Xhosas and speak their language fluently. If they love the land, then I know them well and would be happy to work with them.''
Landman says his philosophy is to treat his 20 workers as partners rather than employees, and he rewards long service and loyalty by giving them some of his 200 milking cows and 200 heifers and calves.
He says he is prepared to bend over backward to help train Mfengu and set them up as farmers on a business basis.
``But simply to give these people the land back would not be fair and would put undue pressure on them,'' he says.
Landman says some of his fellow farmers will bail out when they get their money from the state. Their farms could be divided into productive units, allocated to Mfengu farmers, and developed around a central dairy.
Deputy Agriculture Minister Tobie Meyer, who has so far balked at setting a precedent for restitution where land has passed into private ownership, is due to decide later this month on the Mfengu land. But this will address only the tip of the iceberg of the land problem in a post-apartheid South Africa.
Looming even larger is the participation of blacks on a significant scale in commercial farming and the overwhelming problem of rural poverty.
Faced with a seven-year drought, the removal of government subsidies, uncertainty about a future government's policies, and random attacks - more than 80 farmers were murdered in criminal and political attacks last year - the country's 60,000 or so white commercial farmers have become one of the major obstacles to change. They have sided overwhelmingly with the right-wing forces in the Afrikaner Volksfront, which is demanding white autonomy in an Afrikaner state.
In recent months, a crisis has developed in some places, such as the eastern Transvaal, where white farmers have stepped up eviction of labor tenants - laborers who work for meager wages in return for accommodation on white farms. Civil rights groups representing the labor tenants, who form a substantial portion of the estimated 1 million farmworkers nationwide, have appealed to the recently-formed Transitional Executive Council (TEC), a multiracial commission charged with overseeing the country's transition to democracy, to halt the evictions.
White farmers fear future land claims by black farmworkers and appear to be trying to preempt such claims.
But there does not appear to be a large pool of aspirant black commercial farmers. Minor amendments to current legislation would enable white farmers to sell off portions of their land to small black farmers and extend state support and research services to them.
In addition, the World Bank estimates that the state holds some 320,000 hectares (128,000 acres) of unoccupied arable land that could go a long way toward settling aspirant black farmers without sparking massive white insecurity.
The outgoing administration of President Frederik de Klerk has scrapped laws that have systematically blocked an equitable distribution of land and has made some legislative changes that will allow for compensation for those dispossessed under apartheid.
The ANC has only begun to formulate a coherent policy regarding the vital land issue, which remains unresolved in neighboring states like Zimbabwe after more than a decade of independence.
ANC Secretary-General Cyril Ramaphosa has no illusions about the problems that the land issue poses for the ANC. ``Unless we settle the land issue, we do not have a country,'' Mr. Ramaphosa says. ``If we handle it badly, we tear South Africa to pieces. If we manage it well, we create the foundations of a truly united nation.''