Sounding the land – Salem: Of the Land Itself

The R343’s descent into a vision of English pastoralism occurs at around 20 kilometres south east of Makhanda, when it winds towards the crossroads at the bottom of a valley where Salem nestles.

The village’s two churches, the first completed by members of the 1820 Settlers’ Sephton Party in 1832, stand elevated above the genteel grass of the cricket oval. Church and cricket — two weapons of Victorian empire and expansion intruding into a landscape which, aside from a handful of tattered old buildings, is otherwise populated by brush, aloes and thorn-trees.

At the crossroads itself, mounted closed circuit television cameras pry on interlopers, feeding information back to the farm security control centre and the armed response of white farmers on a WhatsApp group. One such farmer screeches to a dusty halt to enquire as to our business and why we are filming “his house”.

There are robbers and house-breakers about, he says accusatorially, before speeding off to a meeting to discuss farm security at the Salem Party Club’s clubhouse on the edge of the cricket ground. It is an all-white affair and excludes their black neighbours, farmers who own and work land restituted in 2006 after a successful claim.

The surveillance cameras appear an updated version of the Salem Village Management Board Location Regulations from 1917, which stipulated that “[black] strangers not desiring to remain longer than 24 hours [in the area] may do so without obtaining any permit, provided that they report themselves to the superintendent within three hours after arrival”.

Otherwise, where is your dompass? Now as then.

History twists and turns and repeats itself in this part of the “Albany District”. The amaXhosa lived here well before the Dutch arrived to call it the Zuurveld and to declare, in 1780, that the Great Fish River was the Cape Colony’s boundary.

The river runs east through the northernmost portion of the Zuurveld and then south for the extent of the Zuurveld’s eastern boundary. The Assegaai River runs through this area of 5000 square kilometres, now known as the Salem Commonage. An area that dwarfs both game farms and agricultural land neighbouring it and which was under a land claim that went all the way to the Constitutional Court in 2017.

Three frontier wars between the amaXhosa, the Dutch and the British were fought in the area. One of those, the Fourth Frontier War, led to Grahamstown (now Makhanda) being established as a British military outpost in 1812.

At the end of the war, Lieutenant-Colonel John Graham ordered his soldiers to clear out the amaXhosa from the Zuurveld.

The horror of the mass removal and extermination is recounted in Ben MacLennan’s A Proper Degree of Terror: “Graham’s Boers and Khoikhoi were hunting unwounded men, women and children alike as if they were wild beasts; they would have had little compunction about putting wounded men down like unwanted animals… the whole force returned to the base camp, ‘having so effectually carried my orders into execution’ said Graham to [one of his officers], ‘that hardly a trace of the K****r man remains’.”

Graham’s orders, Constitutional Court justice Edwin Cameron noted in the unanimous 2017 judgment Salem Party Club and Others v Salem Community and Others, resulted in “a horrific and brutal clearing of all amaXhosa from the Zuurveld. Men were killed; women and children taken hostage. All villages were burnt. Farmlands were trampled by oxen. The population of amaXhosa retreated north beyond the Fish River.”

“In all probability there was no significant settlement of black people at or on the Salem Commonage for some six decades after that war,” Cameron observed. “This is not a matter of extinguishing rights by conquest – a question much debated before the Land Claims Court – but rather physically removing conquered people from land, when according to the Articles of Capitulation of 10 January 1806 the British colonists should have respected their rights to it.”

But the amaXhosa would eventually return to the land; again and again. More blood would be spilled, repeatedly.

A dispossessed people would suffer the trauma of desecrated ancestral graves and the commodification of the touchstones of cultural practise and spirituality; like the lime pit used by the abakhwetha (male initiates) and women who had recently had babies, which was turned into a mine for farmers.

There would be more violence as an uprooted population lived as spectres on the land, and were forced into conversion; into units of labour on the farms of the white colonial settlers who arrived in 1820.

All this would seep into the land itself.

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The Salem Cricket Ground claims to be the oldest in South Africa. The first recorded match to be played there, according to Salem Cricket Club historian Sheila Long, was between colonial settlers in 1844 — most probably on a Sunday, after the church service, she suggests.

A road ran through the ground until 1960, when, according to the minutes of a club meeting, permission to fill it in and move it was finally granted — this took six years to seek out and confirm — after a fielder “running to stop the ball, was hit by a cyclist travelling with head down at full speed”. The fielder was hospitalised.

“It was just there” says Long of the road, “I think the settlers wanted to play in front of the church because it played such a big role in their lives that they didn’t care if the road was there or not…. cricket and the church has always been connected.”

Originally a grass wicket, the Salem pitch was converted into a matting wicket until a return to grass in 1975. In 1977 Harrismith Fine grass was brought from KwaZulu-Natal and transplanted onto the ground. The high salt content in the area’s borehole water means only rain water is used on the wicket. It used to be quick and bouncy, a seamer’s delight, but offered lower bounce and slower speeds in recent years. The recent drought has dried it out and added a touch of turn to conditions.

Long has a personal mythology woven into the club’s history. As a scorer she was said to have the power to “smoke out opponents” she says: “I’d write the name of the opposition batsman on my cigarette and light it. Their wicket usually fell by the time I had stubbed it out.”

Despite cricket having a history among the Eastern Cape’s black population which stretched back to the late 1800s, it was only during the 1985-86 season that the Salem Cricket Club, according to its records, “accepted its first Black player. Miem Bhuti.”

Miem Bhuti was also the first Black player to compete in the Central Albany League. A left-handed batsmen and bowler, he made his debut for Salem Cricket Club at the age of 36. Much like the early 20th century Indian “Untouchable” Palwankar Baloo, Miem Bhuti was “discovered” after several years spent bowling in the club nets to the more privileged.

Simon Amm, a seventh generation descendent of the original 1820 settlers, club captain and “grounds curator” remembers Miem Bhuti’s promotion into a club member after he “used to help the guys practise and bowl [in the nets] and the guys eventually said: ‘Listen this guy is actually decent.’”

Long remembers “a lot of the young black children who used to sit under the tree and watch the cricket, they really took an interest, that was in the sixties and seventies… Children of both colours, both black and white, would have their own matches near the church while the main match went on.”

None of those black children’s early enthusiasm for cricket was developed to competitive level. Their horizons, whether in sport, jobs, or life in general, would always remain more limited than that of their white counterparts.

Perhaps the black children would never quite fit in with the sense of community and family which Amm says is so vital to the values, identity and drive to “work hard” which runs, through cricket, from the 1820 settlers to their contemporary scions.

Long says cricket is about “connecting with family and teaching the younger ones to connect with the families” its about “coming back to your roots” and the “values you learnt from the 1820 settlers who were dumped here in Salem with virtually nothing, they built everything, they built the church on the right”.

The club hosts a bi-annual Salem Settlers Six-a-Side Tournament were participation is limited to the descendants of the colonial families. At least once, teams turned up in ox wagons and settler clothes.

“Thankfully for this club and this community, we’ve always believed that cricket is a sport that you play with people that you enjoy,” says Amm.

“If you think about it, you’re spending at least nine hours in the field with them, within close proximity. There is not much to entertain you other than getting to know your neighbour, whether its fielding at short cover or standing in the slip cordon,” he says.

“Everyone has been around and helped each other, even now we have had smaller issues that we have had to deal with as a community: security is a big thing now… One thing we have learnt is that the more lenient you are the more bold they become and that won’t happen if you don’t take certain steps,” says Amm. These steps include WhatsApp security groups and a swift armed response by white farmers to perceived threats. Keeping cameras trained on the unfamiliar number-plates of cars which turn off towards Salem from the N2, or cars which dally at Salem’s crossroads, are other measures, part of the “net” that Amm says has brought down crime in the area.

Amm’s farm is now a private game reserve stocked with many species not indigenous to the area and where he arranges hunting safaris. He recognises three separate communities in Salem: his own, white and landed; the black farmers on restituted land; and the black labourers. One of the biggest threats to his community is when white farmers leave the area because they cannot run profitable agricultural businesses: “Who do you get to replace them? Are they going to pull their weight?” he says.

Perhaps these were questions asked about Miem Bhuti before he made his debut for Salem Cricket Club: Can he replace a white player? Will he pull his own weight?

Perhaps a similar question hung over the young black children as they ran in to bowl against their white counterparts under the shadow of the settler church: Can we be equals when, soon, some will follow destinies to own the land, others to labour on it?

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Mongezi Madinda is in his nineties. His eyes have returned to a sparkling child-like state which often happens when people age. They seem apt companions for a mouth on which decades of dry humour still hang despite a life in which, even in the twilight years, he still “feels those wounds” that he grew up with.

Despite the violence of his memories, they do not falter.

Madinda’s grandfather had settled on land which the 1820 settlers would take away to build the Salem Academy. His father told him stories of the settlers demarcating tracts of land for themselves by riding on horseback for an hour at a time, before putting down a white pole as a marker. This was repeated, and later, the poles were joined together by a fence.

Grazing, agricultural and burial land was taken away. As were people’s livestock and livelihoods: “When they came they divided the land between themselves and gave us nothing. After they took our land we started working for them. We’d never had money before and knew nothing about it. We became labourers because they had money and we had nothing… we were like a button without a hole,” says Madinda.

The colonial settlers sought to extend, enclose and consolidate the land they owned through a series of approaches to the colonial government in the Cape in the 1800s and, then, to the courts in the 1900s.

Their actions mirrored the process of enclosure led by the landed elite in England. Mike Marqusee, in his Marxist history of cricket, Anyone But England,  noted that “[b]etween 1700 and 1845, half the arable land in England was enclosed by parliamentary acts”.

“The result of this exercise in dispossession — in which the elite made full use of both the market and the state — was a population increasingly dependent on cash wages rather than subsistence farming or traditional rights to fuel and fodder. The cottagers and smallholders who depended on these rights were, in the words of Eric Hobsbawm, transformed from ‘members of a community with a distinct set of rights into inferiors dependent on the rich’”.

The enclosure movement, together with the Games Act, which restricted access to the countryside, would have a profound effect on the growth of cricket in England in the latter half of the 19th century. The parish commons and other traditional sites for folk games were now off limits. The landowning elite decided whether people were allowed to play cricket in areas where they had previously done so as of right. Local variations of the game faded away as more and more people subscribed to the uniform rules issued by the aristocrats and landowners in London.

“Increasingly, ‘village cricket’ sought to emulate not only the kind of cricket played by the leading patrons, but the mores and hierarchy which they had introduced into the game,” Marqusee writes.

In Salem, however, race, class and forced labour colluded to ensure that, contrary to its uptake in other parts of the country, cricket remained aloof of the indigenous population. It simultaneously provided the colonial settlers with a nostalgia for “the picturesque village and the cunningly landscaped country park” of olde England and for the “cult of nature and rustic sincerity” — the Romantic sensibility foundational to cricket.

Madinda, like most boys whose families lived on white-owned farms in Salem, could afford little time for such frivolity, however. He was “forced” to leave school after completing the equivalent of Grade Two “to herd calves for the white man, and I worked,” he says after reciting English grammar from memory with some satisfaction — and a twinkle in his eye.

Work meant “abuse” and “beatings” and suffering the caprice of the landowners.

Lungiswa Madinda remembers being in Standard Five (Grade Seven) when her father was “chased off” the farm he had worked on for several years, for an offence so negligible that neither remembers clearly: “I was so ashamed for my father,” she says, “he worked there for many years but when he was chased off he was only given a 50kg bag of mielies. That is all the white man gave him.”

The family moved to Peddie in the former Ciskei bantustan but returned to the area after the 2006 land restitution case was settled. Mongezi Madinda became caretaker at Castle Farm before retiring a  few years ago. The family live on the farm and Lungiswa is now the driving force of the co-operative that grows crops ranging from chicory to beans and butternut and raises cattle, goat and pigs.

It is a tough living, says Lungiswa Madinda. The traditional markets are closed to her and she sells most of the produce to informal traders in Makhanda. She says racism is rife at livestock auctions where black-owned cattle never receive the same price as those owned by white farmers. Government support is helpful, but sometimes erratic. There are tensions within the claimant community about how the farm should be administered which sometimes means “the land can’t breath”. The white farmers also exclude them from any sense of community.

Lungiswa Madinda isn’t complaining, merely being matter of fact about the challenges she faces as an emerging black female farmer. She strives to “work hard”, to research business models and new markets, to “knock on all the doors” of the department of agriculture and to be “honest with yourself about everything that you are doing,” she says.

She does all this in part as homage to her mother, who died after Castle Farm was handed over to the land claimants: “My mother used to say that if you want to stay healthy, you must use the land,” says Lungiswa. She adds that her mother taught her about people’s connection to the soil, to the land itself — that the acts of digging the earth, planting seeds and nurturing plants and crops, “feed your system” and complete a circle that connects humans to their surroundings.

In Lungiswa’s lounge, there is a newspaper clipping with a photograph of her mother at a land handover ceremony on the cricket oval. It is one of the rare occasions that a black woman has trod on that village green.

The cricket field and the churches remain in the hands of the colonial settlers, impervious to the Constitutional Court’s recognition that neither the white landowners, nor the black community, were to have “exclusive occupation” of the rest of the Commonage.

The “accommodation of both groups’ entitlements, and the history that records it, will be reflected in the eventual order of the Land Claims Court,” wrote Cameron, sending the claim back for a potential negotiated settlement between parties — or kickstarting another round of bickering and fighting. Almost three years later the matter remains unresolved.

                                                                                                Niren Tolsi