A historian’s personal journey
As Heritage month draws to a close, one of our regular contributors goes on a compelling and deeply personal expedition into her family’s past. We can all learn from the loving care with which this brother and sister went in search of their Ancestral Homestead.
Before 1995 September 24th was observed in KwaZulu-Natal as Shaka Zulu’s day. I get charged up when September begins, not only because I am a historian and a heritage practitioner, but also because it has become a time when South Africans give themselves a chance to become acquainted with other cultures. A time when the country is awash with these bright colours that have been adopted by different cultures to symbolise their beauty and identity.
Some may argue that we run the risk of making this day or perhaps month about fashion parades. We often recognise only fashion, song and dance as facets of culture. Understanding the messages that come with different garments, poetry, song and dance, we become cognisant of the values and lessons attached to it. To bring about heritage and cultural consciousness, we have to start somewhere.
In August, my family held a reunion. The Mbathas with their sub-families came together to make merry and build closer family ties. It had become evident that our family only met during funerals or other ceremonies. It was seen as important to meet on a beautiful day in order to ceremonialise and give praise. Members were advised to either come dressed in traditional attire or be smart casual. I honestly expected beautiful traditional regalia but most people decided to be “modern”.
It became important for me to conduct some historical research on the origins of the Mbatha people in general and of our family. This was a daunting task but it had to be carried out. My brother Mpumelelo Mbatha and I then embarked on a journey to the old family homestead.
The family resided on a very big plot between Newcastle and Danhauser in KwaZulu-Natal. Prior to moving to the area, the family lived in Gingindlovu. It is not quite clear why the family moved, but during oral interviews, it was mentioned that people may have had a disagreement with the Zulu nation in the area. They were then compelled to relocate and purchased an area that became their home for decades to come.
My brother and I got comfortable in takkies and gumboots and we started out. After a good 40 minutes’ drive from Ladysmith, we finally reached our destination. The first thing I realised was the vast flat land that was unoccupied. There were also dilapidated structures, evidence of which warrant people’s existence. The first building we come across was a school with a collapsed structure in front of it.
It turns out our great-great-grandfather, Mr Silas Mbatha, donated land so that the school could be built. At present it has been newly rebuilt with clay bricks. In the past it was constructed using Scoria, the basaltic lava ejected as fragments from an ancient volcano, typically with a frothy texture. It is is widely used in the area.
An interesting phenomenon for geologists as this rock proves that there was a volcanic eruption in this area once upon a time.
The remnants of the original school structure are still visible. During oral interviews, Aunt Phindile Mbatha spoke about the fact that they attended school there. Khulu Silas further donated land and a church which was known as the Gardens Methodist Church, formally opened on 21 August 1888.
An interesting fact is that the church was built from sandstone. According to my knowledge, sandstone is mostly found in the Free State and the fact that many buildings – even dilapidated structures – are made from this stone, leaves room for further and interesting research.
During oral interviews with family members who stayed in that area when they were of school going age, it turned out they used to mine some coal closer to the homestead. But they were restricted by the law and the authorities. So they had to “steal” what was rightfully on their land.
Similarly the stone quarry that was also in Khulu Silas’s land also did not belong to him. When family members inquired about this, the company that took ownership of that quarry claimed that Khulu Silas gave it to them for free. Since there is no evidence to prove this, it has become difficult for the family to stake their claim.
The church is not being used at the moment unfortunately as it is a ruin. Just another aspect of the apartheid legacy. After black people were forcibly moved out of the area, the church fell into disuse. Symbolically the entrances to the church have been boarded up. We clambered up through what used to be windows to get inside the church.
And there inside we found plaques honouring Khulu Silas and great-grandpa Samson (his son). Tattered and in pieces but still there. My brother and I then spent ages lovingly trying to piece together the broken jigsaw of the plaques.
We felt compelled to do this. Seeing the broken pieces lying on the ground was heart breaking. We felt as if their legacy had been destroyed.
Outside we took time to reflect. We gazed at the land, trying to picture how it all was in the time of our Ancestors. The big family house, the animals grazing, the harvest, the school and church as well as the children playing. I could just see my aunts fetching coal from the forbidden area and I laughed. I pictured Ntomizodwa whom we fondly referred to as Maqumbane.
More than anything, I felt a sense of calm and serenity. I would have loved it here. Part of their legacy, this physical heritage has been left in ruins. But I felt a warmth rushing through me as their intangible, much more important heritage touched my soul.
“I’m so happy to be doing this,” I thought.
The family were forcibly removed from here in the 1960s and that is when they settled at Emnambithi. The apartheid government had introduced the Group Areas Act and the family homestead was regarded as being in a white area.
In 1962, the Minister of Bantu Administration and Development stated in Parliament that there were about 350 Black spots in South Africa, 250 of which were in Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal). These had been identified after the National Party government came into power in 1948. The people living in these areas were told that they had to move to undeveloped areas far from towns and transport. Places where there was no work, no schools, no shops and no transport. Although they were originally told they would be compensated, this was a lie. Fortunately, when most of our family moved to Emnambithi, they stayed in Steadville where there were schools at least.
In the new place the house had only two bedrooms. This large family that had been living comfortably in their big home before had to now share a very small space. One can only imagine how difficult it must have been to adjust to their new life.
At the time black families were not allowed to own houses. They were forced to be rent paying tenants. This meant they were not allowed to extend their homes nor even build extra rooms at the back to relieve the over-crowding of their homes.
And to add to the cruelty, the apartheid government did not even utilise that land they had been forced to give up. In recent times a road has been built through the family plot by the local municipality. But we could still see stones and rocks that were used to demarcate the area.
We took a moment of silence to take it all in. I turned off my camera to stand on what used to be our Ancestral Homestead. My mind tried once more to recreate the reality of that time. Made of sandstone, it surely must have been a beautiful house. I could see where the veranda used to be. I smiled, thinking; “This is where my ancestors walked, such a sacred place”.
We then went across the road to the cemetery. The original gate is still there, although it could use some refurbishing. The cemetery is divided into rows, according to surnames. There are 12 Mbatha people buried before you get to Khulu Silas who unfortunately did not have tombstones. This made it very difficult to identify their resting places. I have come to appreciate the importance of tombstones.
During our family reunion, I gave a presentation of our journey into our past and also recited the Mbatha clan names. A significant moment during our ceremony as this spells out exactly who we are, and where we come from. With modernisation it is very easy to forget the importance of knowing who we are. It is events such as these that bring back and instil that sense of belonging and pride in our heritage. A reminder of our roots, our heritage and legacy. Although it was only a one-day event, our cultural identity will continue to be strengthened by it. Delving into our history was a chance for us to value ancient wisdom and to continue to build the legacy that our forefathers had started.
To me, Heritage month means I get the opportunity to express myself through my culture. Although this should be something one gets to do all year round. But we have lost respect and love for these precious intangible treasures. Certain things to do with our Ancestors are frowned upon. This is my opportunity to educate people. When one understands the reason behind cultural practices, then we are in a better position to respect them and make them our own. It is also best to hear from the horse’s mouth, the Elders, because we run the risk of misinterpreting certain practices.
Most importantly, while clothing and song are important, our heritage goes much deeper.BACK TO TOP