Desecrated graves in Madikwe sum up the injustices the Barokologadi endure
'There was a time when we came here and found the bones of our ancestors lying on the surface'
As he stares at the destroyed headstones that have fallen over the graves and heaps of rocks that cover the graves, Amos Setou says: "We have touched the bones of our ancestors."
A long, solemn silence follows. The cemetery, a few metres from the main gate of the acclaimed Madikwe Game Reserve outside Zeerust in the North West, is hidden by overgrown grass and dense shrubs.
"In loving memory of our father Kefase Caiphus Sephoti, born 15-04-1904, died 10-11-1947," reads the remaining intact headstone, which is protected by a steel fence.
The graves are all that remained after the Barokologadi ba ga Maotoe communities were forcefully removed from the land in line with apartheid dispossession policies in 1950.
In 2007, the government restored 26,166ha of the land to the community, who lodged their claim in 1996. About 16,000ha of their land is inside the Madikwe Game Reserve, while the rest borders the 75,000ha park to the east.
Setou, 51, is GM of the Barokologadi Community Property Association. He says that the state of the graves sums up the hurdles and injustices the community has faced since the land was restored.
"There was a time when we came here and found the bones of our ancestors lying on the surface," he says.
"We showed the reserve’s manager and he committed that they would enclose the cemetery, but there’s been no movement — as is the case with the rest of the conditions in the settlement agreement."
"We understand everything happens from the top [in the government]," Setou says.
The settlement agreement, which included the erection of an enclosure for the cemetery, was entered into with the government when the land was returned, but nothing has come of it. There has also been no progress on the development of the restored land for eco-tourism, lifestyle, agriculture and leisure ventures meant to uplift the struggling communities.
Although the progress was stalled by a dispute against the land settlement filed by one of the 15 clans of the Barokologadi, "there was no desire on either part of the provincial or national government to conclude the matter", says Barokologadi Community Property Association deputy chair Kwadi Makgophe, who was four years old when his family was forcefully removed.
We thought we were beneficiaries and would receive support from government. But now instead of applying the law, the government is not defending its decision to restore the land to us as the rightful owners
The Baphuting clan lodged a separate claim during the settlement process over some of the properties that were transferred, claiming that only they had rights to that portion of land. The dispute was concluded following mediation led by Supreme Court of Appeal judge Zuki Tshiqi in 2002, with the Baphuting group agreeing to relinquish their claim. But it is still haunting the beneficiaries.
Despite the government handing over title deeds to the Barokologadi in 2009, the regional land claims commission has continued to entertain the Baphuting claim, to the despair of the majority claimants. "We are amazed to find ourselves in this situation.
"We thought we were beneficiaries and would receive support from government. But now instead of applying the law, the government is not defending its decision to restore the land to us as the rightful owners," says Makgophe.
The dispute has been cited by government entities meant to assist the community with the transition of land ownership as one of the blockages in realising the grand plans they had for the Barokologadi.
"In 2016, the department of environmental affairs withdrew a R15m grant due to the dispute," says Setou.
The grant was one of several financial pledges made by the government when the land was handed back. Restitution beneficiaries of protected areas such as nature and game reserves cannot occupy the land they own for settlement, which means that the primary use for the land should be for economic advancement.
Having secured investment of at least R100m through the services of Vumelana Advisory Fund for the development of eco-tourism facilities which would make the land profitable, the Barokologadi Community Property Association now stands to lose out on the deal due to what they call "government failures".
The community has little faith that the government’s plans to expropriate land without compensation will yield any progress for people who were evicted and are returning to their land.
The association, in accordance with the act governing such bodies, cannot dispose of or encumber the communal land or immovable property without the written consent of the minister of rural development & land reform.
Although an environmental impact assessment, land use application and development sites for lodging facility have been approved for eco-tourism projects, consent from the minister remains elusive, more than two years after the application was made.
The community has also written to parliament’s portfolio committee on land reform and the chief land claims commission seeking intervention, to no avail.
"We thought they would be the happiest for us and open avenues for us, but it seems people were not happy that we went out on our own to get investors and did not do it through them," says Makgophe.
"The chorus that the president is singing of attracting foreign investment is pointless when they are not taking care of current investors."
For Segametse Dithlale, a young business person producing organic skin care products whose family also benefited from the claim, the delays have meant her potential business has been derailed. She was a member of the business forum established to formulate plans on how the land could be of best use to the communities.
"Irrespective of the structures that we put on the ground to enable ourselves to move forward, there has been a lot of years of this pull and push with the government," says Dithlale. "There were a lot of proposals on how to create opportunities … yet over 12 years later there are still no projects running as we wait for a piece of paper from the government," he says.
The Barokologadi Community Property Association is in consultation with its lawyers, considering taking the government to court for "holding it hostage".
Its investor has also threatened to sue, as R20m has already been provided for the earmarked developments.