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Meeting Marti, Neruda and Langa in the streets…

Amabhulu amnyama andenzel’ i-worry, Amabhulu amanyama andenzel’ i-worry andenzel’ indlala (White-blacks are the source of my worries; white-blacks are responsible for my poverty), Andile Mngxitama remembers the song, was sung at a march of the Landless Peoples Movement (LPM) in the streets Umtata in 2002.

Gauteng Wednesday. About 3000 landless people marched to 30 Simmonds Street to the offices of the Gauteng Premier Mbazima Shilowa. The media placed the number between 500 (eTV) and 1500 (City Press). The Star’s front page covered the march, under the caption “Landless, Loud and in Your Face.”, showing a picture of two protesters, shouting angrily in the face of a cop.They arrived from Katlehong, Freedom Park, Protea South, Mandelaville, Orlando, Pimville, Alexander, Orange Farm, Lawley, Kagiso and, off course, from Thembelihle. They rolled out of the Jozi railway station like a swarm of bees. They hoist their sea of red and black LPM flags as they march to meet those who had arrived earlier. Ululations and a short welcoming toyi toyi concludes the ritual, and one big group is formed. Not a single orange is taken from the hawkers. They occasionally shout, “Down with forced removals!” “Down with political parties!”

Who are they and what do they want? These are the multitudes of the residents of informal settlements around Jozi, whose homes are made from corrugated iron. They are the poors of the new South Africa, now facing cruel forced removals, away from their jobs, their social networks, schools and clinics. They ask “Why are we moved from shack to shack?”. They ask “Why are we not consulted? “We are removed like animals” they say. Today they have come to get a commitment from their Premier, if their councilors are the ones removing them and the MEC of Housing is not listening at least the Premier might.

As usual, these forced removals happen in winter and are done in the name of “development” or “urban renewal”. They breed destitution.

At Shilowa’s office the marchers are told he is not available to take their petition. The Gauteng Director General, a certain Mr Mokoena, will receive the petition instead. The marchers balk at this idea: they did not only bring a petition they also want a commitment from the Premier that all forced removals will be stopped with immediate effect pending a summit to discuss the matter. If Mokoena cannot sign this commitment (already drafted by the organisers) then “asihambi silala la” (we going nowhere, we sleeping here tonight).

Mokoena, clearly disdaining either the cheek of these poor, dirty and loud marchers or the unfamiliar stench of poverty, walks away muttering something like “its your business and I’m going to call the Premier”. For the next two and half ours the marchers stay put, singing sons about their pain, hatred for their councilors, and hope in their collective action.

Mokoena emerges with a memorandum from the City Manager, Pascal Moloi. It simply denies that there are forced removals and says the trouble is caused by a minority who intimidate others leaving “voluntarily”. Mokoena does not read the last bit of his memorandum. Some confusion reigns among the people, whose understanding of English – as Mokoena knew very wel l- is not terribly good. Others shout with jubilation. After Mokoena’s memo is translated into Zulu, the people shout: “Down with forced removals!” Mokoena signs the commitment reluctantly, scribbling into it some lawyerly disclaimer. But the crowd is satisfied that their call for a moratorium on forced removals is now signed. Before we disperse, community leaders vow that, if there is no implementations of the commitment within seven days, they will return, this time not with a march but with “strong action”. The final ritual is accompanied by cries of “Down with NEPAD!” “Down with GEAR!”, “Down with forced removals!”


After lunch we go on a “field trip” to the Mbolompo community which lodged its restitution claim as long ago as 1996. These people were forcefully removed in 1984. A commercial forestry project emerged where there once lived a community. Because of the “commercial enterprise” the claimants are “advised” to enter into a “partnership” with the private company which planted foreign trees on stolen land. The reward would be 10% of the profits. The people want none of this bullshit. They want their land back!

We visit the only remaining grave. Utat’ Bam raises his hands above the head of the tomb: “our fathers, please forgive us for this neglect. We are still in exile and have not yet been returned to our land”. He continues, “Do not be puzzled by the strange faces you see amongst us: these are our friends struggling with us to return our lands, we know that since we were removed from here, you have not seen the sun, the roots of these foreign trees are also disturbing your sleep. We are still fighting for our land”. One cannot help thinking that these commercial pine trees, are a kind of vampire eating both the sunrays and causing havoc with the ground underneath where the dead should be sleeping. I’m told some community members are visited by their departed complaining about roots crushing through their ribs!

The people want the trees gone, so that they can live the way they know. They talk nostalgically about cattle, milk and plenty of fruit, before they were removed.


As we march through the streets of Umtata, I hear the song quoted above. The demand of these marchers in no different from their brothers and sisters in Jozi, they want “land, food and jobs!”. After the march an old man pulls me to the side: “Listen my son, the work you do is not liked by many people, you are in some danger, I know, I have been there. I have a potion to help you. I swear, no bullet will ever enter your body if you use the potion”. I have not responded to the offer. Yet.

Meeting Jose Marti, Pablo Neruda and Mandla Langa in Transkei

The night before the march I discovere that Jose Marti (the prime organizer and theoretician of Cuba’s Independence movement in 1895 ) was actually a literary critic. In my mind Marti was a patriarch of the independence struggle in the mould of Emil Zapata (the ideological inspiration of the Zapatistas). Marti, I know now, introduced the great American poet Emerson to Latin America. Amongst Marti’s discovered notes we read:

“I have journeyed through much of my life and partaken of its various pleasures, but the greatest pleasure, the only absolute pure pleasure which I experienced up to this point, was the one I felt one afternoon when I looked out from my room to the prostrate city and envisioned the future, thinking about Emerson”.

To get to know Marti a little better in Umtata might be a bit unexpected, but to stumble upon Pablo Nerunda, is just too much.

We are stuck (petrol ran out) between two villages just outside Umtata, Saturday morning. My colleague, Samantha, reminds me how peaceful the place is, away from mad Jozi. This reminds me that Neruda’s Memoirs are in my bag. I ask her to read me the opening chapter. I close my eyes to see – THE CHILEAN FOREST:

“Under the volcanoes, besides the snow- caped mountains, among the huge lakes, the fragrant, the silent, the tangled Chilean forest. My feet sink down in to the dead leaves, a fragile twig crackles, the gait rauli trees raise in all their bristling height, a bird from the cold jungle passes over, flaps its wings, and stops in the sunless branches. And then, from its hideaway, it sings like an oboe. The wild scent of the laurel, the dark scent of the boldo herb, enter my nostrils and flood my whole being. The cypress of the Guaitecas blocks my way..This is a vertical world: a nation of birds, a plentitude of leaves. I stumble over a rock, dig up the uncovered hollow, an enormous spider covered with red hair stars up at me, motionless, as huge as a crab. A golden carabus beetle blows its mephitic breath at me, as its brilliant rainbow disappears like lighting. Going on, I pass through a forest of ferns much taller than I’m: from their cold green eyes sixty tears splash down on my face and, behind me, their fans go on quivering for a long time. A decaying tree trunk: what a treasure!. Black and blue mushrooms have given it ears, red parasite plants have covered it with rubies, other lazy plants have let it borrow their beards, and a snake springs out of the rotted body like a sudden breath, as if the spirit of the dead trunk were slipping away from it. Farther along, each tree stands away from its fellows.. They soar up over the carpet of the secretive forest, and the foliage of each has its own style, linear, bristle, ramulose, lanceolate, as if cut by shears moving in infinite ways. A butterfly goes past, bright as a lemon, dancing between the water and the sunlight. Close by, innumerable calceolarias nod their little yellow heads in greeting. High up, red copihues(Lapageria rosea) dangle like drops from the magic forest arteries. The red copihue is the blood flowers, the white copihue is the snow flower. A fox cuts through the silence like a flash, sending a shiver through the leaves, but silence is the law in the plant kingdom. The barely audible cry of some bewildered animal far off. The piecing interruption of a hidden bird. The vegetable world keeps up its low rustle until a storm churns up all the music of the earth.

Anyone who has not been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet. I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing through the world.”

Dear reader, I reproduced the whole passage, in fear that if I did not, I would be denying you the beauty and joy of meeting one great Communist, who died in 1973 just after the USA toppled Allende in Chile.

Someone asked the workshop facilitator why have the many summits of the United Nations on development have not produced change for the poor? Why should the poor hope that the WSSD would be any different? Will it bring back the land? The answer we get is quite revealing:

“These Summits are like meetings between snakes and hawks, between cats and mice, predator and prey, under one roof”. [Then a pause] “Our leaders have also tasted blood, they now have doubts about the leaves we eat, they have joined the predators”.

Later, in the offices of Transkei Land Service Organisation (TRALSO), I lay my eyes on a Christmas card on the notice board. It was sent by the Office of the Chief of Land Claims Commissioner, Advocate Mgoqi. On the one side it’s a poem by Mandla Langa “Under the cover of Darkness.” The verses are identical to those of Utatu Bam. It talks about forced removals and how the defeated bade farewell to each other, “in a way only the defeated can”, the poem goes on . “Do not be angry when we neglect/To clear the weeds and put fresh flowers on the headstones/ we have nothing in our hands/in our hearts, we hold hope/ that no condition is permanent”.

On the other side of the card is Mgoqi’s response, titled “In the broad day light”. It’s supposed to be a fulfillment of the dream of home-coming, a celebration of the end of exile and its hardships. The poem is repulsive, not in the sense of being badly written: on the contrary, its stylistically competent. The poem is bad because it’s a fraud, the work of a salesman. It’s soulless. I tried to force myself read the poem again, it’s a grotesque experience. The lines turn into a vampire, slowly shading the preacher clothes, unable to resist the smell of blood, the demon reveals itself. [he poem is in bad taste, it’s an affront to the multitudes who are still landless.]

On the flight back to mad Jozi I ask for a gin and tonic. Then I descent into a melancholic mood, wondering whether I’m refusing to see the “great” changes which must be there. Surely we did not fight apartheid to descend into this cruel madness. Why am locked into this ugly side of life. I momentarily doubt the justness of my cause. I think maybe I’m blinded to the good around us. There must be some real progress, our new rulers cannot be so cruel. Maybe, maybe I just have not yet seen it.

Andile Mngxitama is national organiser of the National Land Committee ( He thanks the Centre for Civil Society ( for their support with the writing of this article.

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