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A rural somebody

Since 1960 the government has moved more than 3.5 million people off their land. The government said these people were living on ‘white’ land. So they moved them in big trucks to the homelands. They dumped the people in new homes called resettlement camps – and forgot about them.

Today every homeland has a resettle­ment camp in one of it’s corners. In those camps crops don’t grow and animals die. And people have to live there.

Inn July 1980 Piet Koornhof made another one of his promises. He said the government won’t force people to move again. But Piet’s promise was just like all the others. The government still plans to move 2.5 million people to the homelands.

The government trucks still drive around the countryside. They stop at some dry and dusty place. They build shiny tin toilets in the middle of nowhere. And the people wonder who they will dump next. Who will they tell to live in a place of death and shiny tin toilets?

Paul Maraba is a rural somebody who knows the meaning of resettlement. This is his story – and the story of millions of people in this country.


“I was born in a house made of grass. Our house was in a village called Middelfontein. The village was near a mountain called Mapatong in the district of Waterberg.

“My father died when I was a small boy. My mother was called Selina. She worked far away in Johannesburg. She only came home once a year. So I lived with my granny. I also lived with my big sister and my big brother.

“We were happy in the village. We had lots of cattle and plenty of food. My granny grew lots of big, round pumpkins.

“The thing I liked most in our village was a car – a big blue car called a 54 Chevy Impala. This car belonged to the doctor. He came to the clinic in the viIlage every Wednesday.

“I loved that car. It had lots of silver on it. And it had a radio. When I was at school I got sick every Wednesday. I just wanted to go and see that car. I went to the clinic so much I failed Sub. A at school.

“I got a big fright when I failed. I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to drive a big blue 54 Chevy Impala. So I worked hard at school. I passed my Sub. B.

” After schooI the big boys looked after the cattle. Little boys took the calves down to the river. We swam and caught fish.

“At night we sat by the fire. We listened to the grown ups talk. They talked about farming. They told stories about work on the white farms. They talked about how the farmers swore at them and hit them. They spoke about getting no pay.

“I· listened. And sometimes I felt frightened of the big world outside our vilIage.

“After the summer our crops were ripe. The men took the crops to the station at Nylstroom. We went with for the ride. The men loaded mielies and sweet potatoes onto the trains. And we went to buy sweets at the shop near the station.

” At the shop I met my first white boy. He was younger than me. I didn’t say anything to him. But the white boy began to kick me and hit me. He stopped when my nose began to bleed.

“I couldn’t do anything to him. So I just took my shirt and wiped my nose. It was the first time someone hit me. Well that night, by the fire, the people listened to my story.

“One day we were playing in the fields. I saw my brother running to the house. He had a brown envelope in his hand. It was a telegram for my granny. She could not read and write.

So Abie opened the telegram. He read and said, ‘Selina passed away. From Cookie’.

“Abie’s eyes began to water. Granny cried out in Afrikaans, ‘Here God! Selina lewe nie meer nie. Wat sal met haar kinders gebeur?’

“Soon after my mother died the government trucks came to Middel­fontein.


“I was 11 years old when the government moved us from Middel­fontein. The government lorries came early in the morning.

“The people packed all their goods onto the lorries. I never rode in a big lorry before. So I was happy to go for the ride.

“The men from the “government” said we were moving to a place near a big town.

“I felt happy. But I didn’t know how my life wouId change after that big ride. Before we left Middelfontein I had never slept with hunger in my stomach.

“The lorries dumped us at a place called Syferkuil in Bophuthatswana near Warmbaths. The place had nothing but bush – no streets, no houses, no toilets. The people didn’t know what to do.

“Most of the men were working in town. So the women began to build shacks. My granny was old. She couId not build a shack. So that night we slept under a table.

“That night I dreamed of our grass house and the clinic and the shiny blue car. I woke up cold and wet under the table.

“In the morning we had lots of work to do. The people worked hard. Everyone helped build the shacks. We even built a school. But it was not the same as our village. Our village was gone forever.


“Many people got sick in Syferkuil. We got sore eyes and mumps. Many people got a sickness called ‘Rooi­ maag’. This disease makes people shit blood.

“I think we got sick because we didn’t have toilets. We had no one to help us. Our clinic was gone. And the doctor no longer came in his big blue car.

“Our shack was crowded. My uncle, my aunt, my granny, my brother and my cousins all lived there. The wind blew through our shack. It blew the candles out. So we couIdn’t read at night.

“Many men from Syferkuil could not find jobs. We did not have enough food in the shack.

“My uncle began to drink and fight.

Everyone got cross. We all began to fight with each other. Unhappiness moved into our shack.

“At night I went outside to sit in the dark. I remembered our old grass house and the mountain. I remembered my mother and began to cry.

“My granny was too old to work. We had no money for food, clothes and school fees. So I left school after standard two.

“I wanted money for school fees. So I went to work on a white farm there was no other work. The boers came in tractors and took us to their fields. They paid 15c a day to children and 30c a day to adults.

“I didn’t like this. So I stopped work. Many of my friends also had no jobs. We felt angry and lost. We started a gang. We beat people and stole their money. My dream to become a doctor was gone.

“One evening I went with my friends to a shebeen. A woman came in. She put her baby to sleep on a bed in the room. Then a man came in. He was drunk. He walked to the bed and sat down – on the baby!

“I was angry. I shouted at the man. He tried to hit me. I ducked. Then he caught my throat. We fell over. He was on top of me. His hand was on my throat. With one hand I pulled his hand away. With the other hand I got my knife. I stabbed him.

“The man was not badly hurt and my aunt paid for the hospital. But it was a terrible day for me. Two weeks later I was arrested. I stayed in jail for eight weeks. Then I went to court. The magistrate gave me six lashes.

“I knew my life was going bad. I decided to go back to school. My sister sent me to school in the Transkei. I worked hard and finished form five in 1977.


“But school didn’t help me. I went to Pretoria to find work. But the pass office did not let me stay in Pretoria.

“So now I know. I belong nowhere. I must live in Syferkuil – where there is no work and only hunger.

“I also know there are many people allover the country like me. Now I want to work with the people of Syferkuil. We cannot go on like this. We take bad jobs. We work for boroko. We live in fear of the police. We must stand up and fight for a change in our lives.”

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