Land – a dirty little four-letter word mixed up with heritage

Ouma Belle in her mud cottage up against the Swartberg mountain.
Ouma Belle

It’s going to be a solitary Friday pilgrimage.

I have to meet a business associate in George about a property transaction and decide to spend an extra day traipsing around in the district between Oudtshoorn and Matjiesrivier, near where my mother grew up.

Even though it’s school holidays, the kids elect not to drive with me. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe this is a trip I need to make on my own.

This is as close as I can get to going back to my roots, at least a root I never really thought I had, until relatively recently.

It’s prompted by the realisation that I’ve never totally discarded the idea we were parachuted into the council housing development in Gelvandale in 1960. Not that anybody ever claimed that, but I couldn’t help thinking, growing up as a child in that barren place, that that’s what happened. My family and I were parachuted into the township.

How else could the disconnectedness to anything before, to any prior world, be explained? There was no easy personal or social evidence to countermand my imaginings that we were simply dropped here by some big-hearted person who found us wandering in the wilds.

Of course, such imaginative annihilation of a past would have found huge favour among the National Party racists. It suited their policy for us to think they were doing us a favour by building these nice council houses for us in the  middle of nowhere, bringing us home from who knew where, giving a place to the nowhere people – or in Poppie Nongena’s mouth, ‘die swerf mense‘. How magnanimous of the boers.

Now I am on my way to the southern Cape, looking for a thread to Ma’s – my mother’s – family, which I had re-discovered at a recent clan gathering. The yearning to know more about my ancestors has been ignored long enough.

I haven’t done the Langkloof in about 30 years.

From festive season trips between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town as a child, I remember it as a boringly straight road, but there’s something different today, the scenery is warm and inviting, mountains hugging the road where it curves into a pass. The van moves – really, ‘she moves’, as Pa would say – king of the mountains, nobody’s passed me today. David Sanborn’s belting out Maputo, a favourite Friday music piece.

Through Oudtshoorn, turn off towards Prince Alfred on the R328 just before the Cango Caves, looking out for Matjiesrivier.

I’m driven. No pun there. I’ve thought of this trip forever. Every kilometre seems to take me somewhere deeper; drawing, pulling me in.

Ma once said that Matjiesrivier got its name from travelers who came over the mountain and described the scenery below as a series of small mats or ‘matjies’. She loved coming upon the mats as she trekked across the mountain to-and-from George.

So, my eyes are peeled for mats as I ascend and descend every hill.

Of course, I get lost a couple of times. It wouldn’t be me driving if I didn’t. Mr Mervin Blaauw, my geography teacher at Gelvan High, would not be impressed that I can’t read a map properly today. I take on a Winston-man ruggedness, laying the map out on the bonnet and poring over it with my one foot hooked onto the bull-bar.

But Matjiesrivier is more than a spot on a map. It covers a huge area, until I realise that what I’ve mistaken for the settlement name is actually the river. And a pretty long river it is too. But where the heck is the town or at least the settlement? I realise I’ve gone too far when Calitzdorp appears on the horizon.

There is a serenity about the life here. Hell, it’s hard, and poverty is tangible, you can’t romanticise that, but the kids look happy, frolicking in muddy fields or riding bicycles. Bicycles? Why am I surprised the kids have mountain bikes and not hand-me-down dikwiels?

People are warm and friendly, up to a point. I notice an immediate reticence when my questioning instincts take over and I ask about that family who lived on a particular farm or so-and-so who worked in the forest before leaving for better prospects in the town.

I notice that the farmers actually stop without prompting to give lifts to people walking on the side of the road.

I wonder how Ma used to go to town. She often spoke about walking over the mountain to Oudtshoorn, even to George, but surely she couldn’t walk too often? It’s a quite distance to Matjiesrivier.

Maybe Boeta Tom (her stepfather) had a donkey cart. Which way would they go? Was this road, the one I’m on, the shortest route? Or could they take short-cuts across farms that are now off-limits to the van. I wonder which way she travelled when she left the farm to make the big trek to the Bay, Port Elizabeth. Did she catch the train in George after telling her mother ‘ek ga’ baai toe‘?

I pass Dallas farm. In the context of Misgund and Uitkyk and some farm names that pay homage to local language and lifestyle, I’m offended that some idiot would introduce such an inappropriate title. If this was the wild west, I’d pull out my six-shooter and take pot shots at the sign on the wooden post. But this isn’t the wild west and I don’t have a six-shooter.

Mention the Johnson clan name and lights go on.

I’m referred to Oom Hekkie, Henry Johnson, a retired farm worker whose homestead is marked by a neat honour guard of aloes at the entrance. Hekkie is not much help, though. His knowledge about his extended family – especially the relatives who moved away from the farm – is limited.

Perhaps it’s that people who stay behind on the land don’t have to remember too much about who they are or where they’ve come from. They just exist in the sure knowledge that it’s like this, always has been. It’s we, who are forced out or gravitate by our own volition to the towns and cities, who must find a connection to everything, who must identify again and again a root to something far away in space and time.

I do learn – unsurprisingly – that Oom Hekkie is the son of Oupa Hekkie, who was one of about eight children. A sister, Ouma Belle, is the only living member of that generation. She stays up on the hill, but I’m advised to first stop at the house at the bottom of the hill to check if she isn’t visiting with her daughter.

I’m realising quickly that the Nissan SUV is not a 4×4. That sounds silly. Of course, I knew that it wasn’t a bundu-bashing vehicle, but I had hoped it wouldn’t embarrass me when I encounter dinkum Johnson farming stock – I don’t want to be the idiot relative from the big city who got stuck in the mud. The roads are really wide pathways and it’s easy to find my way blocked, with options limited to gingerly reversing right out, or executing a 40-point turn to point myself back down the hill.

Belle, or Isabelle Johnson, is all of 92 years and four months old, she tells me. I’m reminded that only the very young and the very old relate their age in years and months.

She talks to me in a mud house halfway up the mountain, the upper reaches of which have already cast a wintry shadow over the landscape below, even though it’s before three o’clock.

A kaggel stove burns continuously for warmth regardless of the season. The family is painfully poor. Ouma Belle’s son James has been laid off from the farm he’s been working on. Now he waits for the season to change. In-between he mopes around in the mud cottage, filling and re-filling his pipe.

I am a stranger in every imaginable sense to this family, except for our common humanity and the slightest possibility that our roots may have been intertwined a few generations ago.

Ouma Belle is stone deaf and as cantankerous as can be. The tuft of hair sticking out from under the doek is pure white and straight, no kroes strands here. Her skin is wrinkled but through all the lines which the years have given her, I realise: She must really have been a stunningly beautiful belle in her younger days. And the scariest thing is, she looks just like I imagine Ma would have looked today. But I immediately caution myself – considering that I may merely be desperate to find a connection here.

But she is still extremely fit and walks up and down the mountain to visit her daughter and grand-daughter.

As die ounoi nou sê sy wil loop dan kan ons niks sê nie; sy gaan loop,” (if the old lady says she wants to walk, there is nothing we can do; she will walk) is her son James’s take on Belle’s fitness.

It’s eery observing the generation gap playing itself out between a 70-something-year-old man and his nonagenarian mother.

James seems to have a need also to establish more than an arm’s-length connection with me.

His grandfather was a building contractor, he says, and an Englishman – “hy’t pure Engels gepraat” (he spoke fluent English), he says, a clear nod to my haltingly limited and badly accented Afrikaans.

There’s not much more I can ask about Belle or her family. Whether she is a significant part of Ma’s history, is a seductive thought but most likely illusory, I decide, and make moves to head back down the hill.

I may obtain more useful family histories on a next farm.

At the bottom of the hill, where I stop to open the farm gate, two policemen in a bakkie are waiting for me. They get out and walk around my van.

They’re both very suspicious but I think I’m now used to one or another suspicion about me.

‘What business are you in?’ one policeman asks.

I figure the question is the Swartberg equivalent of ‘are you a perlemoen or dagga smuggler?’ Maybe there’s a secret and illegal witblits distillery in the mountain and the types who come to stock up look exactly like me.

I mumble something about property. Wrong response, I realise immediately.

‘Land claim?’ he asks.

His colleague’s eyebrows raise almost imperceptibly, but I don’t miss it.

From the ensuing discussion – more likely, from what is left unsaid – I realise that there have been more than enough people popping up out of nowhere, talking about land claims. Maybe that’s put the community all at sea, raising the stresses and strains just enough for a local policeman to wish he didn’t have some land activist or would-be claimant or distant relative like me scratching in his dirt.

Talk about land is a huge, extremely emotive issue heavy with the pain of dispossession – sometimes wrought by one sibling in a family on another but, more generally, as in the rest of our country, by groups across racial lines. Dispossession of khoi and coloured people from their land by white settlers remains a festering sore for the indigenous inhabitants who still stay here. Emotions run wild, talk is harsh, angry.

The whites, whether they’ve been here for generations or are recent escapees from the rat race in Gauteng or Cape Town, have no clue about the hurt and if they do, it seems like they couldn’t care less. As far as they’re concerned, they’ve bought the land in a legal, commercial transaction or else inherited it. And there’s no way their ancestors or the previous owners stole anything. There’s no appreciation of historical injustice or race-based legacies.

The locals get even more het up with visitors who ask too many stupid questions – like ‘do you know so-and-so, do you know where they stayed, when they moved away and why’.

It turns out that someone down the road towards Prince Alfred has raised an alert with the local police about some stranger in a fancy car looking for ‘erfporsie’.

I smile at the suggestion from the cops that I’m stirring up trouble over my lost inheritance but decide this is not the place to engage in a debate about who I am and what my intentions are. The aggression just below the veneer of respectable officialdom is almost palpable. The last thing I want is to be arrested for arguing the toss about my rights on an almost deserted farm road.

But the suspicion and downright hostility gets to me. I realise my personal quest to piece together something approaching a family history has been stymied by a dirty little four-letter word on the tongue of everyone, land.

Good intentions are confounded. While the journey has been an interesting one, it’s not worth going further.

And so I say to the policemen: ‘Don’t worry, I’m leaving the area now. I’m on my way home.’

  • I met Ouma Belle in 2005. I’ve not had any contact with her relatives since then. Please click the Subscribe button to the bottom right of this post to receive regular updates from this blog.
Land – a dirty little four-letter word mixed up with heritage
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4 thoughts on “Land – a dirty little four-letter word mixed up with heritage

  • 23rd September 2018 at 4:37 pm

    Wonderful story, beautifully written & So true!
    I once spent time with an employee, one Bernadette Wangra, trying to find the paperwork at land affairs in Pretoria, with regard to the expropriation of her fathers land in Klipspruit. No chance , was just lost , as the halfwit Afrikaans lady said!

  • 23rd September 2018 at 7:07 pm

    Hey Ray have you ever thought of writing a best seller I mean with all the adventures youve incounded in your life the best one is when you transported the bed to Gramstown. You could make a fortune

  • 27th February 2019 at 10:34 pm

    I am also researching my family tree and a great chunk of it starts in Matjiesrivier. I’ve heard that the land problem is a very big problem. How do I convince people that I am interested in the legacy and not the land?

  • 14th January 2020 at 4:50 pm

    After some research we found that our grandparents farmed half/half with the farmers in Matjiesrivier over the years but unfortunately their is nothing of substance they could show for their efforts.

    White farmers and their children still prosper , what an injustice

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