Standing tall: Makhasaneni community activist Mbhekiseni Mavuso had to go into hiding after his life was threatened. Picture: SUPPIED
Standing tall: Makhasaneni community activist Mbhekiseni Mavuso had to go into hiding after his life was threatened. Picture: SUPPIED

Makhasaneni has the typical rural topography of KwaZulu-Natal: bulging hills and harmonic rivers. People plough the land and their livestock grazes freely.

When a resident of the village transitions to the other side, the land enfolds them in a final resting place. The people are the land, and the land is the people.

This Land, a documentary film by Miki Redelinghuys, was commissioned by the Land and Accountability Research Centre at the University of Cape Town, for rural people to bring the untold story of their struggle for rights and accountability on communal land into urban forums of legislative, political and corporate decision-making.

Redelinghuys stitched together the 48-minute film with diligent, journalistic precision. The narrative follows the people of Makhasaneni near Melmoth in KwaZulu-Natal as they battle an Indian company in its collusion with politically connected members of the elite in developing a vast opencast iron-ore mine on the land they have lived and farmed for generations.

Miki Redelinghuys. Picture: SUPPIED
Miki Redelinghuys. Picture: SUPPIED

"The Land and Accountability Research Centre wanted to raise awareness on the issue that rural communities are suffering because their traditional rights to land are not recognised, the fact that their interests are placed second to the interests of the traditional authorities and commercial enterprises," she says.

"The situation needs to be seen in the context of the Bantustan apartheid history, where many of the chiefs recognised and placed in positions of power by the apartheid regime were leaders who were prepared to co-operate with the apartheid government, and hence they are not recognised by the people.

"This is not so in all cases, but has created a complex situation, where legislation is required to protect the land rights of the people who live on the land."

The film starts by introducing community activist Mbhekiseni Mavuso and Induna Jaconias Dludla, a wiry old headman. What stands out about the two protagonists is their unwavering commitment to the community of Makhasaneni. Mavuso had been in hiding, as his life, and that of many of the activists he was working with to oppose the mine, were threatened.

Narrated by Stha Yeni, the harmony between words, shots, and the story results in a timeless piece of cinema that sketches out the journey of a people in their quest to protect their livelihoods. The rawness of their pain and sense of injustice are emotionally taxing to watch, and the tension between the people and those in power is woven throughout.

Like many other communities in SA, the community of Makhasaneni experienced the pain of forced removals during apartheid. What is fascinating is how they rose above it.

One of the many amazing scenes is where men descend from huge state-owned vehicles and try to lure the induna to a secret meeting, but Dludla politely declines their invitation, with the support of the people.

"The film is part of many conversations that has to be had on the issue.

In my opinion the story still needs to continue, but at the same time, the film as it stands has had an incredible journey

"Screening it around the country has unlocked so many conversations, so many stories," says Redelinghuys.

"It has reinforced my belief in the power of stories for change, stories as an important tool of activism and motivated me to continue with this work."

With the support of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Bertha Foundation, Plexus Films produced the film in partnership with Sunshine Cinema, using mobile units to ensure a broad reach across the country, including deep rural areas.

"We had a very specific deadline for completion as the film has work to do in the national debate.

"In my opinion the story still needs to continue, but at the same time, the film as it stands has had an incredible journey," says Redelinghuys.

In 2017 the film featured in the Encounters International Film Festival, and it has been screened at a number of local and international film festivals.

There could not have been a more fitting time to screen This Land — a few weeks ago, the communities of Somkele and Fuleni in northern KwaZulu-Natal crossed swords with a mining company in the Pietermaritzburg high court.

"What is significant in the quest by the state and corporations to sell mining as a development plan, is that they play on the false promise of development, while those that are politically connected get to feast at the table of plenty, and the rest get mere crumbs," says Bobby Peek, director of the environmental rights organisation groundWork.

"In this process people and communities are divided. But This Land shows that people need not be divided and they have the power to resist."

The film also highlights the important consultation and engagement process with communities. Its screening has assisted rural communities dealing with political and corporate bullying to stand up to them when upholding their rights.

The hardship that the people of Makhasaneni has endured is worn like scars on their backs, a passage to memories they have no choice but to remember.