Tales from Dystopia XVII: Ethnic cleansing and Christian objections to it
Fifty years ago today, on St George’s Day, 1964, Christian students at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg arranged a protest meeting against “blackspot removals”. “Blackspots” were black marks on the apartheid map showing land owned by black people in areas designated by the government for occupation by whites, and the government was dedicated to their removal by expropriating the land from the owners. Most of the occupiers of that land were peasant farmers.
The fate of black peasant farmers was not of particular interest to the overwhelmingly white student body at the university, though in that year there was also a student protest against the Bantu Laws Amendment Bill, which would make life for black people generally much more difficult. A few Christian students were aware of the ethnic cleansing that was taking place in the blackspot removals, and thought that it was a matter of Christian concern, if not of general student concern, and so organised a protest meeting.
Here is an extract from my diary for that day:
I composed a letter to the Minister of Bantu Administration and Development, about the theological objections to apartheid in general and blackspot removals in particular. I took it to Rob Hofmeyr, who agreed with it, and after lunch took it to Fr Sweet, who said it was “sound”.
John Aitchison came to see me, and we both went to see Ken Lemmon-Warde, who said he was not coming to the Ansoc meeting tonight, but was going to Durban to hear the gospel — from an evangelist called Eric Hutchings. The implication was that we didn’t have the gospel. Later he told us, when we had challenged him on that, that we had the bull by the hair on the middle of its belly, and not by its horns — whatever that means. He also said that the devil was climbing into us. John asked him if, as a Christian, he thought it was a good thing — blackspot removals, that is, and pointed out some of the advantages Ken said they had — like typhoid. Ken said it might be a good thing if they all died of typhoid, since they were all heathen anyway. We pointed out that the majority were probably Christian, and that even among the heathen, and those who did not believe in him, our Lord healed sickness.
In the evening we had the meeting — about 50 people came. Not many Christians — it probably wasn’t “spiritual” enough for them. Peta Conradie, Bridget Bailey, John Aitchison and Richard Thatcher were there from Ansoc. Mike and Wally sent their apologies. Ken Lemmon-Warde had gone to hear “the gospel” — according to St Eric. Peter Brown gave the facts about blackspot removals — a rough estimate of the number of people who would be affected, cases in which compensation was inadequate. In some cases owners had probably been paid less than half the value of their property. In Kumalosville land was expropriated and compensation was offered at R42.00 an acre. In exchange they were offered a free half-acre at Hobsland, with the option of buying another half acre for R110.00.
“The leaders of Judah have become like common land-thieves. I will vent my wrath on them like a flood. Ephraim is in agony and crushed in judgment, because his mind was bent on following false gods. That is why I am the moth which rots the fabric of Ephraim, I am the dry rot which ruins the house of Judah.”
Calvin Cook, the minister from the Presbyterian Church, spoke, giving theological reasons why we should oppose the removals. Then we voted on a resolution to be sent to the Minister of Bantu Administration and Development. About 45 were in favour of it and four were against, one of whom, Pat Erwin, stayed to argue afterwards.
The objections raised by some Christians to the holding of such a meeting, namely that it was secular and political rather than “spiritual” or “evangelical” was typical of the response of some white Christians to apartheid — that we should not be concerned about it, but rather be concerned with “the gospel”, which they defined rather narrowly.
The objection that those being removed were all heathen was typical of white ignorance at the time (I won’t say anything more about the callousness of the remark that it would be a good thing if they all died of typhoid).
John Lambert and other historians have since made a study of the black peasants who were the main victims of ethnic cleansing in Natal in the 1960s and 1970s, and has shown that they were mostly a group they called “the kholwa” (from Zulu amakholwa, “believers”). This group arose because life was uncomfortable for Christian believers under the Zulu monarchs and African chiefs, so they bought land that white colonists in Natal had appropriated, and settled there as peasant farmers and, in the 19th century, as transport riders.
Lambert has shown that they were much more efficient farmers whan most whites, and that much of the fresh produce sold in cities like Durban and Pietermaritzburg, especially milk and vegetables, was produced by the kholwa. Immigrant white farmers could not compete in efficiency, and so in the late colonial period in Natal tried to induce the colonial government to introduce laws that would favour them and discriminate against black farmers. This process is detailed in Lambert’s thesis (see reference below).
It is estimated that in the apartheid era some 3-4 million people (most of them black) were ethnically cleansed to clean up the apartheid map, and the kholwa of Natal were among the main victims of this process.
This now has repercussions today, in the talk of land restitution.
The National Party government made enormous profits by expropriating land from black people with inadequate compensation and selling it to white people at much higher prices. Now there are moves to restore the land that was taken, but it brings new difficulties with it, because the people from whom the land was taken are long dead, and so the compensation will be given to their descendants. But just because your grandfather was a good and efficient farmer does not mean that you will be, and in many cases where the land has been returned, the descendants of the dispossessed owners resort to “people farming” becoming absentee landlords letting the land to landless people who work in the cities, and the land is not farmed.
I do not know what the solution to this problem is, but this is just one of the ways in which apartheid, though it officially died 20 years ago, still exercises a malign influence in the present as its chickens come home to roost.
This post is one of a series of Tales from Dystopia, describing what life was like in the apartheid era in South Africa.
Notes and References
Etherington, N.A. 1971. The rise of the kholwa in Southeast Africa. Yale University: Ph.D. thesis.
Hayes, Stephen. Was material self-interest more important than religious conviction to the Kholwa. Available online here.
Lambert, John. Africans in Natal, 1880-1899 : continuity, change and crisis in a rural society. (1986, Unpublished PhD thesis).