Monday 16 October 2017

Return to Blydefontein Farm

Two years ago today, I received a cover concept (below) for my book A Taste of Bitter Almonds which featured a photograph (above) I had taken in Eastern Cape many years ago, combined with the image of one of my ancestors of Bengali slave descent. We eventually went with another cover concept, but here is an extract from the book of the story behind that photograph. 


I am standing alongside Madikane Gwiji on the ruined foundations
of the once-proud homestead that his father built, and the memories
of his childhood have come flooding back. He points out to me
the veranda where he and his family once looked out across their
prosperous mealie fields. But, having been evicted when he was
a child, some memories have gone forever: the 60-year-old can no
longer recall which weed-ridden square of bricks was which room.
Gwiji tells me that his great-grandfather, the clan’s patriarch,
whose first name he shares, was a wealthy man. He bought the
998-hectare farm Blydefontein – named after a reliable natural
spring on the land – for his seven sons and two daughters more
than a century ago. The patriarch’s grandson Dunster Gwiji literally
helped lay the family’s foundations for the future: he was trained
as a builder and a carpenter and brought his skills home to the hills
north of Kokstad, in East Griqualand, part of what is today southern
KwaZulu-Natal. Here he built a farmhouse of stone and brick,
designed to last generations. His son recalls that the house with the
sunny veranda was always a hive of activity. ‘It was a very beautiful
house and it was always full of children.’
To one side stood a large barn and to the other a farm school and a
small church, where the devoutly Christian family worshipped while
the Gwijis’ ‘many cows’ chewed the cud on the hillsides behind. For
decades, things were idyllic and the Gwijis were respected by their
white neighbours. Madikane Gwiji recalls that they used to take short
cuts across each other’s land without any incident. But the shadow of
apartheid reached even into the foothills of the Drakensberg. In 1953,
the Gwijis were forced from their home under the notorious ‘black
spot removal’ campaign, an attempt to consolidate land ownership
and occupation along racial lines. Perhaps in grudging deference to
their wealth and title, the Gwijis did not face the bulldozers. Rather,
they were forced into selling their property to a white farmer under
the pretence that it was a voluntary sale. The effects, however, were
pretty much the same: despair and dispersion.
‘It was too bad,’ Gwiji says. ‘I was at school in Kokstad at the
time. Our cattle and agricultural instruments had to be sold.’ Some
implements were left to rot on the land and some were taken by
the government. Blydefontein was divided in two in 1982, with
Mike Rennie, then the owner, selling off a portion to Kippy Bryden.
Dunster Gwiji’s magnificent farmhouse had already been pulled
down. Bryden initially maintained the farm school ‘for the people
around here, a few kids, my children’. But he was later told by the
government to close it, so he knocked the school down too. ‘In 1980,
I took my father to this place,’ Gwiji says, surveying the ruined
foundations of his childhood home. ‘He did not say anything, but I
could see it was painful for him.’
Dunster Gwiji died in 1988, long before his country was liberated,
never knowing the family would ever get their land back. Oddly
enough, it was Bryden’s father-in-law Bill Elliot – grandson of Sir
Henry Elliot, the first magistrate of the Transkei – who acted as
the Gwijis’ attorney as the NP government attempted to force the
family off their land, starting in 1949. At a celebration hosted today
by the Land Claims Commission, the Gwiji family have finally got
Bryden’s portion of their land back. They intend to rebuild the family
homestead. Meanwhile, negotiations continue via the Commission
for Rennie’s portion.
At the celebration women ululate and sway delightedly as
three-legged pots of lamb stew steam. I shoot photographs of
Gwiji youngsters standing in wonder on the brick remains of their
forefathers’ homestead, looking towards the future. Bryden, aged 59,
and his 58-year-old wife Ingrid sit on the stage in the marquee, looking
slightly uncomfortable. Bryden said earlier, while showing me the
extent of the returned portion of land, ‘I’m glad it’s all coming to a
close and I hope the people, when they get it, farm it nicely – but I’ll
help them.’ He said the Gwijis ‘are coming back to where they were.
These are my neighbours and they will be my children’s neighbours.’