Dispossessed Mogopas, once proud landowners, want their 13,000 acres back


VENTERSDORP, South Africa -- Daniel Moloatsi, a wiry man of 62, climbs with ease up the steep rocky slope near his home and gazes across miles of brownish scrubland dotted by an occasional stand of trees.

Looking past the village of tin shacks where he lives, he points far into the distance to an invisible boundary that marks the line of battle for his determined little clan.

"All this land is Mogopa land," he said, referring to the community below. "When we get the title deed, we're going to slaughter cattle and have a celebration."

The Mogopa (pronounced Mo-ho-pa) had the deed to this large tract of land, about 13,000 acres purchased by the community in 1913 when its members trekked north from Orange Free State province and settled here in the mineral-rich farm country of Transvaal province.

According to the old men of the clan, they came with thousands of cattle, many of which were sold to white farmers in the region to raise money to buy the new land.

But in 1984, the Mogopa people, a branch of the Tswana tribe of northern South Africa, had an unhappy encounter with the white government and with apartheid policies instituted long after the small black community bought its land.

They were evicted by state security forces after the Mogopa land was zoned for whites. Their homes were bulldozed, and they were taken to a desolate area north of here designated for blacks.

The Mogopas responded by filing suit against the government, and they eventually won a high court decision that they had been wrongfully removed. But the South African government, even under its new reformist policies, has refused to give back the Mogopa land, which remains unsold and unoccupied except for cattle from neighboring farms.

"After we won the case, the government tried to give us a different land," said Mr. Moloatsi, a leader of the community. "But this is our land. Our forefathers bought this land."

President F. W. de Klerk has proposed the repeal of race-based land and residential laws under which an estimated 3.5 million people were forcibly removed from their homes in a campaign to create segregated communities. But the government has rejected demands for the return of land seized from blacks under apartheid. Officials said it would create chaos to try to give the land back to its original owners; they proposed assistance programs to help blacks buy new land.

The Land Acts are expected to be scrapped, along with other apartheid laws, in the current session of Parliament, which ends in June. Political groups such as the African National Congress and land reform groups such as the Transvaal Rural Action Committee have criticized the government's plan as insensitive and inadequate.

"Its effect is to codify the existing state of dispossession," said Aninka Claasens, a member of the ANC's land committee, which has proposed setting up a special court or board to settle disputes that arose from the apartheid laws.

Meanwhile, the Mogopa have embarked on a new strategy. Hundreds of community members moved back and began living as squatters on their old properties. At first they received permission from the government to come back and clean the old Mogopa cemetery. A few people stayed behind to keep the graves clean, and more came later despite threats and protests from government officials.

Now, there are 300 families -- a fraction of the original community of 6,000 -- living in tin shacks hastily erected next to the stone foundations of their former homes. The settlement creates a stark picture of living conditions for the Mogopa before and after their encounter with the government.

Before their eviction, the community had homes, schools and churches made of stone, the ruins of which remain on the land. Now they have shacks. The only permanent structure is a five-room brick school built to replace the one demolished by the government in 1984.

There is no electricity, no telephone service and no sewage service in the little village, where residents make daily trips to bore holes to fill buckets with water. The nearest store is a half-hour's drive to Ventersdorp, but few of the Mogopa have cars for the trip.

Mr. Moloatsi said the Mogopa were a healthy, cohesive, financially secure community before they were thrown off the land and transported to Bophuthatswana, the tribal homeland the government designated for Tswana people. Now, the community is desperately poor, he said, having lost its land, homes and cattle.

Some of the men work as laborers on white farms for meager wages, he said. Others have gone to the cities to look for work. Mr. Moloatsi himself is a laborer in a metalwork factory in the small town of Derby, about 20 miles away by dirt road.

"This government has really made us poor," he said. "We used to have cattle. We used to farm. Now, we want to farm, but we don't even have farm implements."

The Mogopa squatter community is in the middle of conservative white farm country, but Mr. Moloatsi said its members have had no trouble with the white farmers, some of whom were given permission by the government to graze cattle on the old Mogopa land.

One of the white farmers even sold the Mogopas cattle and goats to slaughter for a celebration soon after the community came back.

Leaders of the community, who were elected to a village council, say they have no dispute with the white farmers even though they have taken advantage of the community's misfortune.

"You can see how rich these Boers [Afrikaners] are," said Matthew Kgatistsoe, a member of the village council. "Their cattle have gotten fat on our land."

The Mogopa are among more than a dozen rural black communities that are fighting to reclaim land they lost because of apartheid.

"We've shown many communities how to fight with the government with no bloodshed," said Mr. Moloatsi.

"Some have been 20 years or more suffering for their land. We cannot say how we succeeded, although the graveyard was important. I guess our ancestors helped us get back on our land."

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