Author uncovers an extraordinary tale of her slave ancestors and their forgotten village

Review: Vivien Horler

Land of My Ancestors, by Botlhale Tema (Penguin Books)

land of ancestors

The cover picture features Botlhale Tema’s grandparents Stephanus and Elisa Moloto, with their daughters Bernice, Christina and Madira and their nephew William Moloto in the 1920s.

If you should visit the Pilanesberg National Park near Sun City,  you might come across an old monument and a newer memorial stone that hints at an almost forgotten history.

They are in the shade of an ancient wild olive tree under whose branches a small Dutch Reformed congregation used to hold their services until they built a little church. Today the church and associated cottages are gone, and the surrounding land is as empty as it was when the first missionary arrived on what had been the farm Welgeval.

In Land of My Ancestors Dr Botlhale Tema tells the extraordinary story of Welgeval, the origins of the people who lived and farmed there for more than a century, and how they lost the village in 1980 when the government of Bophuthatswana incorporated the land into the Pilanesberg National Park.

Tema says she grew up grew up happy. As a child every weekend she and her family would travel back to Welgeval, where she knew everyone and was related to nine out of 10 people she encountered.

Midway through a distinguished career which included being secretary-general of the SA National Commission for Unesco, and later director of the African Union Commission, she made an extraordinary discovery.

It emerged she was the descendent of slaves, of people who had been seized as children and young women to work on Boer farms in what became the western Transvaal.

The discovery left her shattered and she writes: “How did my people transform that amount of pain and trauma from their past to produce me, who felt privileged by my upbringing?”

Even as children Tema and her friends were aware their families were different from people in neighbouring villages. They had no chief, and many of the older people spoke a lot of Afrikaans. Their mothers baked bread, grew maize and sweet potatoes rather than sorghum and beans, and in addition to keeping cattle they also raised pigs, using the fat for making soap, all activities uncommon among other black communities.

Tema says she had always thought the only South African slaves were those brought to the Cape by the Dutch East India Company. But while involved in a Unesco project called the South African Slave Route, she discovered there Boers would raid villages in the northern Transvaal and bring back “black ivory” – women and children – to work on their farms. These were not necessarily lifelong slaves – in many cases the children could leave the farms when they turned 25.

Tema came across a book describing how a Dutch missionary arrived in the Rustenburg area in 1862 to establish a mission station, and bought the farm Welgeval. His first converts were Dutch-speaking Africans – Tema’s direct ancestors ­– who had been kidnapped from their village 400km away by a Boer commando in 1852.

The people of Welgeval prospered, but it was not always easy to hang on to their land. The Land Act of 1913 was a blow, and at some point in the 20th century they ceded their title deed to the Bakgatla tribe in return for a financial bail-out. This was problematic when, after 1994, both the people of Welgeval and the Bakgatla lodged a land claim.

Tema says she became obsessed with the need to document the family story for the generations to come, interviewing her older relatives and searching through libraries and archives for details. This was a godsend during the land claim process. Although the dispossessed Welgeval families did not have the title deed they needed, Tema’s research for this book had turned up papers documenting the history of Welgeval’s ownership.

And while Welgeval could not be returned to the families, a creative form of restitution has been accepted by them.

This is a story of a place and a people, and of land and its ownership.

It is also the story of the emphasis placed by the people of Welgeval on education, and I was struck once again by the wickedness of the apartheid government which in the late 1950s began deliberately dismantling the excellent schools and colleges for black students run by various church denominations. People like Tema and her father, a school principal, were beneficiaries of that system, and my heart breaks for the generations subsequently condemned to Bantu education, leaving a legacy that affects millions of South African children today.

 

 

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