Tue. Nov 12th, 2019

Wordfest South Africa

Wordfest is South Africa’s premier multilingual festival of languages and literatures with a developmental emphasis.

REVIEW: Botlhale Tema, Land of my Ancestors: An epic South African story, based on true events

3 min read
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The memory of the “true events” on which this moving story is based have been lodged partly on paper in the public archives of South Africa (and perhaps other countries) and partly in the hearts and minds of the author and her family and community, the protagonists of this South African epic.

Dr Botlhale Tema is a distinguished educationist with an outstanding record as a national and international public servant. She published the first version of this book in 2005 under the title The People of Welgeval. Among the author’s reasons for the re-publication are the need for a more resonant name that would engage potential readers, the success of an appeal to the Land Commission by which her clan has achieved restitution of their property rights to land that now forms part of the Pilanesberg Reserve and the fact that her clan has discovered its roots.

Welgeval was the traditional home of Dr Tema’s Moloto clan, who formed a non-tribal, Afrikaans-speaking group, growing distinctive crops like sweet potatoes. They were independent and well-educated: partly with missionary help they had by the early twentieth century achieved ownership of the land they farmed. Dr Tema recalls her father ruling that no child of his should marry before achieving a professional qualification. Their stability and independence were threatened by the ZAR, tribal authorities and the Natives Land Act but they held on until 1980 when the apartheid state in the person of the Bophutatswana government evicted them from their land.

Dr Tema grew up believing that her Moloto had always been settled at Welgeval. In the early 2000s, when she was working on the UNESCO slave route project, she learned for the first time that slavery had not come to an end in Southern Africa with the abolition act of 1834. Through the archives-based work of historians like Fred Morton and Jan C.A. Boeyens she learned that her Moloto clan descended from two young men who had been child slaves in the mid-nineteenth century, taken from their families in Moletji, 200 kilometres north of Welgeval and bound as inboekelinge to Afrikaner farmers in what is now North-West province. Once released from their bondage they established the line from which Dr Tema descends. So this story of slavery, unknown to any of the descendants of the two brothers, was preserved in the archives, as was the story of the Molotos’ right to the Welgeval land, upheld by the Land Commission. For the story of the decades between, Dr Tema had the communal family memory to draw on.

This is the story which Dr Tema tells in The Land of Our Ancestors. Her account of the discovery of the story and its happy conclusion in the present is told in factual accounts in a Prologue and an Epilogue. The century and a half between is told in the “historical novel” which forms the substance of this book. Dr Tema succeeds admirably in her aim to “get the taste and feel of the place…to understand the story of our survival and reinvention”.

She writes with clear grasp of descriptive image and sympathetic delineation of character. Much of the story is convincingly told in the first person by protagonists. There are grim episodes but humane sympathy shines through and Dr Tema shows a fine turn of phrase. When the community is first evicted and settled in Sandfontein, Welgeval is remembered as “an idyll of seclusion and choice.” Many South Africans will respond positively to this book, a work of hope rather than blame, and we can pray that all deserving South Africans will receive their just restitution.

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