The Land Is Ours tells the story of South Africa’s first black lawyers, who operated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In an age of aggressive colonial expansion, land dispossession and forced labour, these men believed in a constitutional system that respected individual rights and freedoms, and they used the law as an instrument against injustice.
The Land is Ours – Book Extract
‘A quagmire inside and out’
Resistance to the forced relocations was building. The most prominent leader was Alfred Mangena. Although he was not living at Kwandabeni, the community had elected him secretary of the Dock-Workers Association, whose activities were mostly in the Kwandabeni area. Some months before taking up this position, Mangena had written to the South African News to register his protest at the harsh, unfair treatment meted out to Africans who were evicted.
We are sent out, but foreigners are invited to come and take possession…we deserve better treatment from a government that boasts of equal rights for all men, irrespective of creed or colour. Our homes are being broken up, furniture soiled and spoiled, and in many cases destroyed.
The South African News, whose editorial outlook was anti-imperialist, was sympathetic to the position of the Africans. Not only did it provide a platform for those who opposed the forced removals, it also sounded a word of caution about the removals, arguing that the future prospects for Cape Town were ‘grave’. A report on 9 February 1901 contended that, instead of preventing the spread of the plague, the removal of Africans would result in new breeding spots for the disease. But the white population was not prepared to rise up in support of Africans. The same was true of some of the leaders of the coloured community, the most significant of whom was Dr Abdullah Abdurahman. Their reason for not opposing the removal of the Africans was partly because the relocation to Ndabeni primarily targeted Africans rather than coloured people. It is not clear what position was adopted by the Indian community. However, Mohandas Gandhi, their most prominent leader, was of the view that the British government was making a mistake in treating Indians the same way as ‘raw kaffirs’. If these views were reflective of the general Indian sentiment at the time, the Indians would have been an unlikely ally for Africans.
Africans realised that they were on their own, but because of the use of the army and other coercive means, they were unable to resist the relocation. It was only after the forced settlement at Kwandabeni that new ways of resistance began to emerge. There were many false promises: for example, William Sipika, who supported the relocation believing that it would enable him to own his plot, build a home and even run a business, was soon disappointed. At Kwandabeni, none of that would happen. Instead, to make a living Sipika would be forced to make himself available to the city as a labourer. Unsurprisingly, Sipika joined a resistance movement. Living conditions at Kwandabeni were appalling, and with insufficient land available, people crowded into huts and shacks. James Jolobe, the first African minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, described the location as ‘a quagmire inside and out, once the rains in May had worked their way through the earth floors of the huts’. In June 1901, the colonial government decided that Africans should pay their own rent and also train fares to get to the docks. It was this decision that propelled Mangena to the fore of the resistance movement. As secretary of the Dock-Workers Association, Mangena championed the cause of the dockworkers and residents of Kwandabeni. In a letter published by the Cape Timesin 1899, he had called for universal franchise. And now he questioned both the legality and moral basis of the authorities’ decision concerning Kwandabeni: ‘Is this an established location or merely a disused bubonic camp utilised for a temporary purpose?…By what legal process or right of the law or equity have you…acted?’ To channel the people’s resistance, a committee was formed, and Machine Wakani was elected treasurer.
The establishment of Kwandabeni had been justified on medical grounds by the authorities. Dr Gregory had claimed that the native location was necessary for health purposes, and it came into being under legislation that purported to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Gregory also claimed that the spread of infection was partly due to overcrowding, and that he had ‘seen as many as 14 natives sleeping in one small apartment’. While Kwandabeni was meant to be a medical solution to the overcrowding that caused the spread of the plague, the overcrowding did not abate. Instead, it grew worse: contrary to official promises, no housing was provided in Kwandabeni. As Gregory noted, there were merely structures constructed of ‘corrugated iron and shaped like the huts erected by the permanent laymen’. Seemingly oblivious to the irony, Gregory continued by describing the houses as having a ‘comical shape’. The ‘great complaint’ was that the houses were too low on the ground, and so they flooded in May when the heavy winter rains came, and ‘were damp’.
It was in these circumstances of overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions and inadequate corrugated-iron housing that an African named Arthur Radasi was convicted for refusing to pay rent. He was sentenced to three months’ impris-onment with hard labour or the option of paying a fine. The case, reported as R. v. Radasi, came before the Cape Supreme Court,28 where Chief Justice Henry de Villiers overturned the conviction, finding that the municipality did not have the legal power to pass the regulations in terms of which Radasi had been convicted and sentenced.
The victory sent shockwaves along the corridors of power. But it was met with jubilation by the native population. Mangena became aware of the judgment, and in June 1902, with his attorney and an advocate named Wilkinson, he addressed several meetings in Kwandabeni where he explained the implications of the Radasi case. The message was clear. Since the regulations had been declared ultra vires and therefore illegal, they were unenforceable. As such, no one was forced to pay rent, or, for that matter, transport to and from their jobs at the docks. This initiated a boycott, and there was widespread resistance to paying rent. Workers also refused to pay train fares. Mangena was the key spokesperson for the resistance to rental payment. Together with Wakani, he addressed several meetings, calling upon Africans to resist paying rent until such time as the quality of the houses and the general sanitary conditions were improved. Mangena’s call was for equal treatment, based on the promise of the British government that all its citizens would be treated equally. In the wake of this resistance, there were widespread arrests. There was an immediate clampdown, and fourteen Africans were arrested, convicted and sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour. A further twelve were later arrested and imprisoned.
Mangena began to raise funds for the defence of those arrested. On 29 June, he and Dr Seller, who was brought in to assist the Africans, addressed more than 500 people at Kwandabeni. They explained that it was illegal for the government to impose the rental requirement. Mangena also informed them that he would be leaving for England to pursue his law studies. The following day, the people refused to buy train tickets and picketed at the station to prevent others from doing so. Empty trains pulled out of the station with many windows broken. While there was no attempt at collecting fares the next day, extra police were deployed and the boycott was crushed. There were widespread arrests and Wakani and eleven others were charged and sentenced. From then on, the dockworkers regarded 30 June 1902 as ‘Mangena Day’.