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Sol Plaatje,
Native Life in South Africa

Chapter 4

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Introduction etc. | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 20 | Chapter 21 | Chapter 22 | Chapter 23 | Chapter 24 | Appendices etc.

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Chapter IV      One Night with the Fugitives

  Es ist unkoeniglich zu weinen -- ach,
  Und hier nicht weinen ist unvaeterlich.

"Pray that your flight be not in winter," said Jesus Christ;
but it was only during the winter of 1913 that the full significance
of this New Testament passage was revealed to us.  We left Kimberley
by the early morning train during the first week in July,
on a tour of observation regarding the operation of the Natives' Land Act;
and we arrived at Bloemhof, in Transvaal, at about noon.
On the River Diggings there were no actual cases representing
the effects of the Act, but traces of these effects were everywhere manifest.
Some fugitives of the Natives' Land Act had crossed the river in full flight.
The fact that they reached the diggings a fortnight before our visit
would seem to show that while the debates were proceeding in Parliament
some farmers already viewed with eager eyes the impending opportunity
for at once making slaves of their tenants and appropriating their stock;
for, acting on the powers conferred on them by an Act signed
by Lord Gladstone, so lately as June 16, they had during that very week
(probably a couple of days after, and in some cases, it would seem,
a couple of days before the actual signing of the Bill)
approached their tenants with stories about a new Act which makes it criminal
for any one to have black tenants and lawful to have black servants.
Few of these Natives, of course, would object to be servants,
especially if the white man is worth working for, but this is where
the shoe pinches:  one of the conditions is that the black man's
(that is the servant's) cattle shall henceforth work for the landlord
free of charge.  Then the Natives would decide to leave the farm
rather than make the landlord a present of all their life's savings,
and some of them had passed through the diggings in search of a place
in the Transvaal.  But the higher up they went the more gloomy
was their prospect as the news about the new law was now penetrating
every part of the country.

One farmer met a wandering native family in the town of Bloemhof
a week before our visit.  He was willing to employ the Native
and many more homeless families as follows:  A monthly wage
of 2 Pounds 10s. for each such family, the husband working in the fields,
the wife in the house, with an additional 10s. a month for each son,
and 5s. for each daughter, but on condition that the Native's cattle
were also handed over to work for him.  It must be clearly understood,
we are told that the Dutchman added, that occasionally the Native
would have to leave his family at work on the farm, and go out
with his wagon and his oxen to earn money whenever and wherever
he was told to go, in order that the master may be enabled to pay
the stipulated wage.  The Natives were at first inclined to laugh at the idea
of working for a master with their families and goods and chattels,
and then to have the additional pleasure of paying their own small wages,
besides bringing money to pay the "Baas" for employing them.
But the Dutchman's serious demeanour told them that his suggestion
was "no joke".  He himself had for some time been in need
of a native cattle owner, to assist him as transport rider
between Bloemhof, Mooifontein, London, and other diggings,
in return for the occupation and cultivation of some of his waste lands
in the district, but that was now illegal.  He could only "employ" them;
but, as he had no money to pay wages, their cattle would have
to go out and earn it for him.  Had they not heard of the law before?
he inquired.  Of course they had; in fact that is why they left
the other place, but as they thought that it was but a "Free" State law,
they took the anomalous situation for one of the multifarious aspects
of the freedom of the "Free" State whence they came; they had scarcely thought
that the Transvaal was similarly afflicted.

Needless to say the Natives did not see their way to agree
with such a one-sided bargain.  They moved up country, but only to find
the next farmer offering the same terms, however, with a good many more
disturbing details -- and the next farmer and the next --
so that after this native farmer had wandered from farm to farm,
occasionally getting into trouble for travelling with unknown stock,
"across my ground without my permission", and at times
escaping arrest for he knew not what, and further, being abused
for the crimes of having a black skin and no master, he sold some of his stock
along the way, beside losing many which died of cold and starvation;
and after thus having lost much of his substance, he eventually worked his way
back to Bloemhof with the remainder, sold them for anything they could fetch,
and went to work for a digger.

The experience of another native sufferer was similar to the above,
except that instead of working for a digger he sold his stock
for a mere bagatelle, and left with his family by the Johannesburg night train
for an unknown destination.  More native families crossed the river
and went inland during the previous week, and as nothing had since
been heard of them, it would seem that they were still wandering somewhere,
and incidentally becoming well versed in the law that was responsible
for their compulsory unsettlement.

Well, we knew that this law was as harsh as its instigators were callous,
and we knew that it would, if passed, render many poor people homeless,
but it must be confessed that we were scarcely prepared
for such a rapid and widespread crash as it caused in the lives of the Natives
in this neighbourhood.  We left our luggage the next morning
with the local Mission School teacher, and crossed the river
to find out some more about this wonderful law of extermination.
It was about 10 a.m. when we landed on the south bank of the Vaal River --
the picturesque Vaal River, upon whose banks a hundred miles farther west
we spent the best and happiest days of our boyhood.  It was interesting
to walk on one portion of the banks of that beautiful river --
a portion which we had never traversed except as an infant in mother's arms
more than thirty years before.  How the subsequent happy days at Barkly West,
so long past, came crowding upon our memory! -- days when
there were no railways, no bridges, and no system of irrigation.
In rainy seasons, which at that time were far more regular and certain,
the river used to overflow its high banks and flood the surrounding valleys
to such an extent, that no punt could carry the wagons across.
Thereby the transport service used to be hung up, and numbers of wagons
would congregate for weeks on both sides of the river
until the floods subsided.  At such times the price of fresh milk
used to mount up to 1s. per pint.  There being next to no competition,
we boys had a monopoly over the milk trade.  We recalled
the number of haversacks full of bottles of milk we youngsters often carried
to those wagons, how we returned with empty bottles and with just
that number of shillings.  Mother and our elder brothers
had leather bags full of gold and did not care for the "boy's money";
and unlike the boys of the neighbouring village, having no sisters of our own,
we gave away some of our money to fair cousins, and jingled the rest
in our pockets.  We had been told from boyhood that sweets were injurious
to the teeth, and so spurning these delights we had hardly any use for money,
for all we wanted to eat, drink and wear was at hand in plenty.
We could then get six or eight shillings every morning
from the pastime of washing that number of bottles,
filling them with fresh milk and carrying them down to the wagons;
there was always such an abundance of the liquid that
our shepherd's hunting dog could not possibly miss what we took,
for while the flocks were feeding on the luscious buds of the haak-doorns
and the orange-coloured blossoms of the rich mimosa and other wild vegetation
that abounded on the banks of the Vaal River, the cows, similarly engaged,
were gathering more and more milk.

The gods are cruel, and one of their cruellest acts of omission
was that of giving us no hint that in very much less
than a quarter of a century all those hundreds of heads of cattle,
and sheep and horses belonging to the family would vanish
like a morning mist, and that we ourselves would live
to pay 30s. per month for a daily supply of this same precious fluid,
and in very limited quantities.  They might have warned us
that Englishmen would agree with Dutchmen to make it unlawful
for black men to keep milch cows of their own on the banks of that river,
and gradually have prepared us for the shock.

Crossing the river from the Transvaal side brings one
into the Province of the Orange "Free" State, in which,
in the adjoining division of Boshof, we were born thirty-six years back.
We remember the name of the farm, but not having been
in this neighbourhood since infancy, we could not tell its whereabouts,
nor could we say whether the present owner was a Dutchman,
his lawyer, or a Hebrew merchant; one thing we do know, however:
it is that even if we had the money and the owner was willing to sell the spot
upon which we first saw the light of day and breathed the pure air of heaven,
the sale would be followed with a fine of one hundred pounds.
The law of the country forbids the sale of land to a Native.
Russia is one of the most abused countries in the world,
but it is extremely doubtful if the statute book of that Empire contains a law
debarring the peasant from purchasing the land whereon he was born,
or from building a home wherein he might end his days.

At this time we felt something rising from our heels along our back,
gripping us in a spasm, as we were cycling along; a needlelike pang, too,
pierced our heart with a sharp thrill.  What was it?  We remembered
feeling something nearly like it when our father died eighteen years ago;
but at that time our physical organs were fresh and grief was easily
thrown off in tears, but then we lived in a happy South Africa
that was full of pleasant anticipations, and now -- what changes for the worse
have we undergone!  For to crown all our calamities, South Africa has by law
ceased to be the home of any of her native children whose skins are dyed
with a pigment that does not conform with the regulation hue.

We are told to forgive our enemies and not to let the sun go down
upon our wrath, so we breathe the prayer that peace may be to the white races,
and that they, including our present persecutors of the Union Parliament,
may never live to find themselves deprived of all occupation and
property rights in their native country as is now the case with the Native.
History does not tell us of any other continent where the Bantu lived
besides Africa, and if this systematic ill-treatment of the Natives
by the colonists is to be the guiding principle of Europe's scramble
for Africa, slavery is our only alternative; for now it is only as serfs
that the Natives are legally entitled to live here.  Is it to be thought
that God is using the South African Parliament to hound us
out of our ancestral homes in order to quicken our pace heavenward?
But go from where to heaven?  In the beginning, we are told,
God created heaven and earth, and peopled the earth,
for people do not shoot up to heaven from nowhere.  They must have had
an earthly home.  Enoch, Melchizedek, Elijah, and other saints,
came to heaven from earth.  God did not say to the Israelites
in their bondage:  "Cheer up, boys; bear it all in good part
for I have bright mansions on high awaiting you all."  But he said:
"I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt,
and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters;
for I know their sorrows, and I am come down to bring them
out of the hands of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land
unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey."
And He used Moses to carry out the promise He made to their ancestor Abraham
in Canaan, that "unto thy seed will I give this land."  It is to be hoped
that in the Boer churches, entrance to which is barred against coloured people
during divine service, they also read the Pentateuch.

It is doubtful if we ever thought so much on a single bicycle ride
as we did on this journey; however, the sight of a policeman ahead of us
disturbed these meditations and gave place to thoughts of quite another kind,
for -- we had no pass.  Dutchmen, Englishmen, Jews, Germans,
and other foreigners may roam the "Free" State without permission --
but not Natives.  To us it would mean a fine and imprisonment
to be without a pass.  The "pass" law was first instituted
to check the movement of livestock over sparsely populated areas.
In a sense it was a wise provision, in that it served to identify
the livestock which one happened to be driving along the high road,
to prove the bona fides of the driver and his title to the stock.
Although white men still steal large droves of horses in Basutoland
and sell them in Natal or in East Griqualand, they, of course,
are not required to carry any passes.  These white horse-thieves,
to escape the clutches of the police, employ Natives
to go and sell the stolen stock and write the passes for these Natives,
forging the names of Magistrates and Justices of the Peace.
Such native thieves in some instances ceasing to be hirelings
in the criminal business, trade on their own, but it is not clear
what purpose it is intended to serve by subjecting native pedestrians
to the degrading requirement of carrying passes when they are not
in charge of any stock.

In a few moments the policeman was before us and we alighted
in presence of the representative of the law, with our feet
on the accursed soil of the district in which we were born.
The policeman stopped.  By his looks and his familiar "Dag jong"
we noticed that the policeman was Dutch, and the embodiment of affability.
He spoke and we were glad to notice that he had no intention
of dragging an innocent man to prison.  We were many miles
from the nearest police station, and in such a case
one is generally able to gather the real views of the man on patrol,
as distinct from the written code of his office, but our friend
was becoming very companionable.  Naturally we asked him about
the operation of the plague law.  He was a Transvaaler, he said,
and he knew that Kafirs were inferior beings, but they had rights,
and were always left in undisturbed possession of their property
when Paul Kruger was alive.  "The poor devils must be sorry now," he said,
"that they ever sang `God save the Queen' when the British troops
came into the Transvaal, for I have seen, in the course of my duties,
that a Kafir's life nowadays was not worth a ----, and I believe that no man
regretted the change of flags now more than the Kafirs of Transvaal."
This information was superfluous, for personal contact
with the Natives of Transvaal had convinced us of the fact.
They say it is only the criminal who has any reason to rejoice over
the presence of the Union Jack, because in his case the cat-o'-nine-tails,
except for very serious crimes, has been abolished.

"Some of the poor creatures," continued the policeman,
"I knew to be fairly comfortable, if not rich, and they enjoyed
the possession of their stock, living in many instances just like Dutchmen.
Many of these are now being forced to leave their homes.
Cycling along this road you will meet several of them in search of new homes,
and if ever there was a fool's errand, it is that of a Kafir
trying to find a new home for his stock and family just now."

"And what do you think, Baas Officer, must eventually be the lot of a people
under such unfortunate circumstances?" we asked.

"I think," said the policeman, "that it must serve them right.
They had no business to hanker after British rule, to cheat and plot
with the enemies of their Republic for the overthrow of their Government.
Why did they not assist the forces of their Republic during the war
instead of supplying the English with scouts and intelligence?
Oom Paul would not have died of a broken heart and he would still be there
to protect them.  Serve them right, I say."

So saying he spurred his horse, which showed a clean pair of hoofs.
He left us rather abruptly, for we were about to ask
why we, too, of Natal and the Cape were suffering, for we,
being originally British subjects, never "cheated and plotted with
the enemies of our Colonies", but he was gone and left us still cogitating
by the roadside.

Proceeding on our journey we next came upon a native trek
and heard the same old story of prosperity on a Dutch farm:
they had raised an average 800 bags of grain each season,
which, with the increase of stock and sale of wool, gave a steady income
of about 150 Pounds per year after the farmer had taken his share.
There were gossipy rumours about somebody having met some one
who said that some one else had overheard a conversation
between the Baas and somebody else, to the effect that the Kafirs
were getting too rich on his property.  This much involved tale
incidentally conveys the idea that the Baas was himself getting too rich
on his farm.  For the Native provides his own seed, his own cattle,
his own labour for the ploughing, the weeding and the reaping,
and after bagging his grain he calls in the landlord to receive his share,
which is fifty per cent of the entire crop.

All had gone well till the previous week when the Baas came
to the native tenants with the story that a new law had been passed
under which "all my oxen and cows must belong to him, and my family to work
for 2 Pounds a month, failing which he gave me four days to leave the farm."

We passed several farm-houses along the road, where all
appeared pretty tranquil as we went along, until the evening
which we spent in the open country, somewhere near the boundaries
of the Hoopstad and Boshof districts; here a regular circus had gathered.
By a "circus" we mean the meeting of groups of families,
moving to every point of the compass, and all bivouacked at this point
in the open country where we were passing.  It was heartrending
to listen to the tales of their cruel experiences derived from
the rigour of the Natives' Land Act.  Some of their cattle had perished
on the journey, from poverty and lack of fodder, and the native owners
ran a serious risk of imprisonment for travelling with dying stock.
The experience of one of these evicted tenants is typical of the rest,
and illustrates the cases of several we met in other parts of the country.

Kgobadi, for instance, had received a message describing
the eviction of his father-in-law in the Transvaal Province, without notice,
because he had refused to place his stock, his family, and his person
at the disposal of his former landlord, who now refuses
to let him remain on his farm except on these conditions.
The father-in-law asked that Kgobadi should try and secure a place for him
in the much dreaded "Free" State as the Transvaal had suddenly
become uninhabitable to Natives who cannot become servants;
but "greedy folk hae lang airms", and Kgobadi himself
was proceeding with his family and his belongings in a wagon,
to inform his people-in-law of his own eviction, without notice,
in the "Free" State, for a similar reason to that which sent
his father-in-law adrift.  The Baas had exacted from him
the services of himself, his wife and his oxen, for wages of 30s. a month,
whereas Kgobadi had been making over 100 Pounds a year, besides retaining
the services of his wife and of his cattle for himself.
When he refused the extortionate terms the Baas retaliated with a Dutch note,
dated the 30th day of June, 1913, which ordered him to "betake himself
from the farm of the undersigned, by sunset of the same day,
failing which his stock would be seized and impounded,
and himself handed over to the authorities for trespassing on the farm."

A drowning man catches at every straw, and so we were again and again
appealed to for advice by these sorely afflicted people.
To those who were not yet evicted we counselled patience and submission
to the absurd terms, pending an appeal to a higher authority
than the South African Parliament and finally to His Majesty the King who,
we believed, would certainly disapprove of all that we saw on that day
had it been brought to his notice.  As for those who were already evicted,
as a Bechuana we could not help thanking God that Bechuanaland
(on the western boundary of this quasi-British Republic) was still
entirely British.  In the early days it was the base of David Livingstone's
activities and peaceful mission against the Portuguese and Arab slave trade.
We suggested that they might negotiate the numerous restrictions
against the transfer of cattle from the Western Transvaal and seek an asylum
in Bechuanaland.  We wondered what consolation we could give
to these roving wanderers if the whole of Bechuanaland were under
the jurisdiction of the relentless Union Parliament.

It was cold that afternoon as we cycled into the "Free" State from Transvaal,
and towards evening the southern winds rose.  A cutting blizzard
raged during the night, and native mothers evicted from their homes
shivered with their babies by their sides.  When we saw on that night
the teeth of the little children clattering through the cold,
we thought of our own little ones in their Kimberley home of an evening
after gambolling in their winter frocks with their schoolmates,
and we wondered what these little mites had done that a home should suddenly
become to them a thing of the past.

Kgobadi's goats had been to kid when he trekked from his farm;
but the kids, which in halcyon times represented the interest on his capital,
were now one by one dying as fast as they were born and left by the roadside
for the jackals and vultures to feast upon.

This visitation was not confined to Kgobadi's stock,
Mrs. Kgobadi carried a sick baby when the eviction took place,
and she had to transfer her darling from the cottage to the jolting ox-wagon
in which they left the farm.  Two days out the little one began to sink
as the result of privation and exposure on the road, and the night
before we met them its little soul was released from its earthly bonds.
The death of the child added a fresh perplexity to the stricken parents.
They had no right or title to the farm lands through which they trekked:
they must keep to the public roads -- the only places in the country
open to the outcasts if they are possessed of a travelling permit.
The deceased child had to be buried, but where, when, and how?

This young wandering family decided to dig a grave under cover of the darkness
of that night, when no one was looking, and in that crude manner
the dead child was interred -- and interred amid fear and trembling,
as well as the throbs of a torturing anguish, in a stolen grave,
lest the proprietor of the spot, or any of his servants, should surprise them
in the act.  Even criminals dropping straight from the gallows
have an undisputed claim to six feet of ground on which to rest
their criminal remains, but under the cruel operation of the Natives' Land Act
little children, whose only crime is that God did not make them white,
are sometimes denied that right in their ancestral home.

Numerous details narrated by these victims of an Act of Parliament
kept us awake all that night, and by next morning we were glad enough
to hear no more of the sickening procedure of extermination
voluntarily instituted by the South African Parliament.
We had spent a hideous night under a bitterly cold sky,
conditions to which hundreds of our unfortunate countrymen and countrywomen
in various parts of the country are condemned by the provisions
of this Parliamentary land plague.  At five o'clock in the morning
the cold seemed to redouble its energies; and never before
did we so fully appreciate the Master's saying:  "But pray ye that your flight
be not in the winter."

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