Did Switzerland Benefit From the Apartheid Regime? The Response of a Piece of Land

©tinyiko sam maluleke

My name is Valdezia, otherwise known as Klipfontein in government archives and in the annals of my latter history. In my day, I used to be a stunner – a foresty fertile jewel of the north – in one corner of what you have now come to call Limpopo province. Nicely ensconced between two rivers – Levubu and Mambedi – I was once as wild as I was untamed. You would think that the high walls of beautiful mountains and the layers of flowing hills that surround me would protect me from human and nature’s burglars alike. But alas! I have been burgled several times over.

Teeming with a wide variety of fauna and adorned by a diverse range of tropical flora, many fell in love with me at the very first sight.Those who had made their homes on and with me for years – mainly the Vatsonga but also some Vhavenda – were the envy of many. In my time and over the centuries, I have been walked and worked by many peoples, mostly in joy, but sometimes in fright, flight or fights. All through the 18th century, I developed a bond and a symbiotic relationship with the people who settled on me. These were the descendants of the ancient Maphungubye dynasty and the children of the great Munamutapa of Zimba ra Mabye who accupied much of what you have come to call Mozambique and Zimbabwe today.

Blood was spilt on me in the early half of the 19th century during the so-called difaqane or mfecane wars triggered by the expansion of the Shaka’s kingdom. I was a witness to the marauding and passing battalions of Mzilikazi. Silently, I watched the great waves of migrations as peoples moved across Southern Africa in flight from war and in search for greener pastures.

In 1852, the Afrikaners (then known as the trek boers) arrived with their wagons and their horses; apparently having migrated from the Cape in the so-called great trek. From the whispers of some of my inhabitants, I learnt that the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (South African Republic) was formed in December 1856. What puzzled me and my people was that I and them were summarily transferred into the ownership of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek. As if this was not enough, I was given a new name. Klipfontein. Neither I nor the people who lived on me could pronounce the new name. ©tinyiko sam maluleke

I woke up on the beautiful morning of the 3rd January 1872 to discover that I had been gifted by the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek to a Mr Willem Andries Pretorius.  This reality was to dawn slowly on me and my inhabitants. Within three months of acquiring me, Pretorius sold his Klipfontein to one Manuel Maria De Gama on the 3rd of April 1872. Nearly a year later De Gama sells me to a Scotsman called John Watt on the 7th of February 1872. Three years later John Watt sold me to a Swiss gentleman by the name of Paul Berthoud. He was apparently buying me on behalf of an organisation called La Mission Suisse dans L’Afrique Du Sud. This was on the 3rd of April 1876.

In four years, I was exchanged between four different owners. All this was done behind my own back and behind the backs of the people who for centuries had made their homes on my planes and beneath the hills that adorn my landscape. Throughout all these, I had a keen sense of being a dispensable commodity. My owners passed me so quickly between them like a rugby ball, I was left dizzy.©tinyiko sam maluleke

Nor do the mainstream histories about me and the surrounding areas – written mainly by the Swiss and their academic hangers-on – say much of the people who lived on me, except stories that relate to their own exploits and their so-called evangelistic work.  How did they manage to miss the vibrant life that existed outside the narrow confines of the artificial social construction called a mission station? How did they fail to listen to the rich history that preceded and surrounded them even as they were within a stone throw from the great Mapungubye? I do not understand how they failed to notice the meticulous social organisation and governance glued together by  a complex system of indunas, chiefs and kings. How did they manage not to see the innovative work(s) of a people who had for centuries been involved in iron and copper mining, sophisticated midwifery practices, pedagogic folklore, construction and the treatment of a wide range of diseases and ailments? There was life, history, work, knowledge, culture, agriculture and governance before the Zuid Afrikaansche republic and before the Swiss arrived.

Once they had acquired me, the Swiss young men Paul Berthoud and Ernest Creux proceeded to rename me (again!) into Valdezia. In four years I was given two names that had nothing to do with my past, present or future. My new name was given apparently in honour of their home province in Switzerland, the canton of Vaud. They also proceeded to start processes of ‘discipling’ the people, through the introduction of a Swiss school system in place of local systems of educating the young, church in place of local beliefs and traditions as well European building and agricultural methods in place of local building and agricultural knowledges and methodologies. Through these strategies they reckoned that they were taming and civilizing both the people and me, the land on which the people settled.

Of particular concern to me was the manner in which my landscape was re-ordered and remade by my Swiss owners, especially in the area designated as their mission station. European blue-gum and pine trees were introduced in place of what they saw as the nameless, meaningless pagan trees that littered their newly acquired Valdezia. More ‘civilized’ farming methods and produce were introduced. The ‘backward’ circle was replaced by the ‘civilized’ square in all buildings and built structures. The thatch roofs were hastily replaced by corrugated iron roofs.

But who says the circle is backward either in philosophy, architecture or engineering? Who says corrugated iron roofs are better than thatch roofs in the African climate? Have you noticed how those who once spoke against thatch roofs are living in thatch-roofed houses today? ©tinyiko sam maluleke

Knowledges that suggested that forests, rivers, frogs, snakes and mountains are alive and may carry vital messages as well as vital clues to humanity’s livelihood and future were not only ridiculed by the Swiss but actively rooted out. This is what was called animism and paganism – la culture païenne, they called it. The Swiss prohibited all trading and all entrepreneurship by Africans in Valdezia well into the 1990s. Entreprenuership and economic activity was also seen as part of pagan culture -la culture païenne. Yet the Swiss continued to trade and to engage in commerce right on me and back in SWitzerland where they came from. They banned and banished all other gods except themselves. Little did they know that the gods of the land do not die easily – they should have asked me. They prohibited and outlawed all other churches except their own. The drinking of alcohol was banned. Circumcision schools were outlawed. Forests were cleared of all ‘pagan’ trees, bushes, fruits and vegetables. In their place were installed civilised forests, trees, fruits and vegetables from Europe. All of these, I had to bear and carry on my back. All these terrible secrets I have had to keep in my chest.

Have you noticed how those who once taught that trees and rivers are lifeless things deserving no  respect and no veneration have since changed their tune? They now speak in favour of what they call ‘environmental sustainability’. They now speak to trees and campaign to save animals. One hopes this too is no passing fad.©tinyiko sam maluleke

Roughly fifty years after purchasing me, the Swiss sold portions of me to a select group of so-called educated and converted men who were their members – something for which the Swiss have never ceased to congratulate themselves ever since. But the new African landlords were buying land on which they and their ancestors had been living for at least a century before the Swiss arrived. Essentially they were buying their own land from the Swiss. This is reminiscent of the story of satan asking Jesus to kneel before him so satan could give Jesus the earth. But the earth already belonged to Jesus! You get my point? The creation of a new landlord class, created further social stratifications and resentment among the people who lived on me.©tinyiko sam maluleke

Yet some of the most vexing times in my life as a piece of land were during the reign of the Bantustan system in South Africa – starting in the late 1950s lasting up to the advent of democracy in 1994. First a decision had to be made as to which homeland would lay claim to me – Venda or Gazankulu was the question. It turned out that geographically I belonged to neither. I was a piece of land that sat wholly in a so-called white area. Yet the people who lived on me were not white and they overwhelmingly belonged to Gazankulu ethnically and linguistically. What do to? The Apartheid social engineers thought at and thought. At one stage they called me a ‘Tsonga finger’ which was irreverently and illegally poking into a white body (of land). Eventually they decided that the people who lived on me had to be moved to ‘their Gazankulu homeland’ leaving me to the whites in ‘whose geographic territory’ I was situated. Apparently, these black people who lived on me made me a black spot on a white body of land. But the Swiss did not wish to let go of me their ‘investment’.

Thus started a period of intense negotiations between the Swiss, the Apartheid government and the Gazankulu Bantustan about my future. Conspicuous in their absence were the Valdezia inhabitants in the negotiations regarding the future of Valdezia. Especially excluded from the discussions were the century old (at least) chieftaincy of the people of Valdezia. ©tinyiko sam maluleke.

In part, the negotiations with the Apartheid government were used both by the Swiss and the Gazankulu homeland representatives to sideline and elbow out the local chieftaincy whom the Swiss have resented from the first day they set foot on me. Instead a make-shift and artificial out-of-the-blue chieftaincy headed by an appointee they had selected was installed in the place of a chieftaincy long established and long known by the people. All this was done under the pretext of a quest to ‘save’ the people of Valdezia from being removed. The Swiss and their side-kicks have never stopped beating their chests in self-congratulation for their allegedly ‘selfless’ task of ‘saving’ Valdezia. I have silently looked on to all these shenanigans with dismay. They ‘saved’ neither me nor the people who lived on me. Maybe what they ‘saved’, at least for that time being, was their ‘investment’. How can a people who depend on me for their very lives save me? Only I can save them.

Over time, the benefits and meaningfulness of the Swiss and Bantustan salvation have evaporated into thin air. If you do not believe me come and visit me today and see for yourself.

One hundred and forty years later, neither I nor the people living on me look anything like we did at the beginning of the 19th century. I the land am almost bare. The forest that once adorned me is gone. The blue gum and pine trees are still here. But the rivers and the fountains have run dry. The birds and the animals that once roamed have left without  a word. All who can; have boreholes next to their houses. The rest buy their water from the borehole owners. There is significant overcrowding. The roads are still dusty and untarred. One hundred and forty years later I bleed and I plead. One hundred and forty years later, all descendants of the Swiss who chose to stay in adjacent farmlands have become wealthy land owners. One hundred and forty years later the vast majority of descendants of the people who lived on me remain landless and poor. ©tinyiko sam maluleke

The artificial moral universe created by the Swiss has collapsed almost completely. Shebeen and tavern trading businesses are thriving everywhere. Loud music plays in the taverns throughout the night. Rival churches have set themselves up at the doorstep of the Swiss church of Valdezia – armed with blurring loudspeakers and amplified musical instruments.  Business is booming for the traditional healers and sangomas – and why not – don’t they stand in the great traditions of the indigenous religions and spiritualities? The gods the Swiss tried to banish and suppress have come back to dance.  ©tinyiko sam maluleke

But social organization, governance, community cohesion and community leadership lies in apparent tatters. The local political council shows every sign of lack of vision, being one of the most divisive entities in the community and behaving more like the latest landlord rather than a body elected by the local people to serve the interests of all local people.

I am resilient and I have no doubt I and the people who live on me can rise again. For my renewal to happen several things need to happen. Central to these is a visionary local and provincial leadership with a keen appreciation of my historic trials and tribulations. I am also in need of friends who will act in solidarity with me, the people, the fauna and the flora which live on me. This must happen before I am auctioned off to the next set of burglars with yet another fancy name. Perhaps even the Swiss may wish to make amends for a piece of land from which the have derived so much more than money can buy for one hundred and forty years. After all did they not bury some of their own in my bowels?
©tinyiko sam maluleke