amaBhungane: ‘Those graves were our title deeds’
For black South Africans, dispossession is not something lost in the mists of history: it is a wound within living memory – and for the majority who are poor, it remains a constant threat. In the debate about expropriation without compensation some people forget the dispossession that's already happened – and the cycles of disempowerment and dehumanisation that churn in its wake. Beneath the malls and the golf estates lie the bones of people's ancestors and the ghosts of their dreams. AmaBhungane's Zanele Mji went looking for one petty villain taking advantage of people's pain, but everywhere found evidence of a crime so large that we have no choice but to grapple with it together.
‘To those who personally experienced the forced removals and those who, instead of inheriting the illegitimately wrestled land, inherited the pain of loss of homes or property, the dispossessions are not merely colonial or apartheid-era memories, they continue to be post-apartheid realities. And it is understandable why that should be so. At the risk of being presumptuous, here was the upshot: the ejection from homes; the forcible loss of properties; severing from kin, friends and neighbours; the wrenching of those affected from their beloved connection to place and community; immeasurable emotional and psychological trauma, and the searing bitterness of it all. Concomitant to this was an untold assault upon the dignity of those at the receiving end of this distressing treatment. The continuing post-apartheid realities of land dispossession are more so in the case of those who are yet to enjoy the fruits of restitution or equitable redress in terms of the restitution act.’ – Judge Mbuyiseli Madlanga, South African Constitutional Court
Dotted around the upmarket neighbourhoods of Fourways, crumbling graves hide in plain sight alongside busy roads and the boundary walls of townhouse complexes.
They belong to the people who once lived and worked on the hundreds of farms that made up northern Johannesburg, before it became one of the city’s fastest developing and most expensive areas.
The graves are among a handful of burial sites that have remained in place since property investors began to develop the area in the 1980s. Since then developers have relocated thousands of farm graves to local cemeteries.
Graves have been at the centre of a long dispute between private property developers who own Dainfern golfing estate and the poor black farmworkers who were moved from the land in the 1970s and 1980s to make way for it.
For the farmworkers and their families, the graves, some of which date back to the 1800s, are their only tangible link to land that they were denied formal ownership of during apartheid.
The interrelated network of families who own the graves have lived in the area since at least the 19th century. They are collectively known as “amaNdebele” and their presence in northern Johannesburg dates back to the splintering of Shaka Zulu’s chiefdoms.
So, for Nphoso Speelman Ngoma, Fourways will always be home.
Not today’s flashy suburb, characterised by endless construction and roadworks, malls, townhouses and maddening traffic, where neighbours hide out behind high walls. But the rural, quiet Fourways named for what was its only traffic intersection. The farmlands that he knew like the back of his hand. Where, as a child, he lived among his huge extended family, roamed the veld, played in the Jukskei River and walked barefoot to attend the historic Witkoppen School, known then as the Witkoppen Bantu School.
Ngoma grew up on a plot of the sprawling 600 hectare Zevenfontein farm, where the exclusive residential gated estates of Dainfern Valley and Dainfern now sit.
He can still point out the exact piece of ground where his family compound stood – the place where he was born and, years later, initiated into manhood – even now that it is transformed into Dainfern’s golf greens and mansions.
But to gain access to the property now, he’d have to have his identity document captured at the security checkpoint and sign in as the guest of a resident.
He’s returned just a few times since Dainfern opened in 1992.
Nphoso Speelman Ngoma, a former labour tenant from Fourways who is now an ordained minister. (Cherry Hill)
Ngoma, born in 1950, was the third generation of his family to live and work at Zevenfontein.
He was named after his paternal grandfather, a wealthy man with more cattle than Ngoma could count and two “households”, or wives. His grandfather became a labour tenant, Ngoma says, when land was seized from amaNdebele and assigned to white soldiers returning from World War 1.
Hundreds of families who were dispossessed in similar ways stayed in the area “ngaphansi kwabelungu”, or “under the white people”, as he puts it.
Ngoma is related to many of them in some way. The black people spread across Zevenfontein were a cultural mix including baSotho and baTswana, and a large group of amaNdebele. The Ndebele settlement spread all the way north from Fourways, through Lanseria and into the Cradle of Humankind.
They’re a close-knit community. Most of them share a few common surnames.
“The Mahlangus, the Ngomas, the Sitholes, the Seemelas…,” Ngoma rattles off a list of his relatives. “We are the amaNdebele of Zevenfontein.”
AmaNdebele who, over generational cycles of dispossession, have been pushed out of their ancestral home. Now only their graves remain behind as symbols of their former way of life and monuments to a community whose history has been sanitised from the area.
Some are fenced off just inside the access gate to one residential estate, where the property developer elected not to move them. Another three are next to a storm drain on the side of the busy Cedar Road.
They’re now nothing more than unremarkable heaps of caked earth and stone under grass and wild flowers; the few graves that remain after hundreds of others were removed or buried under petrol stations, strip malls and townhouse complexes that cover Fourways today.
When they still lived on Zevenfontein, each family buried their loved ones in informal family graveyards that were part of their homestead.
Ngoma remembers that in 1957, when he was seven years old, his father and baby brother died within a month of each other. They were buried in a small burial plot where Ngoma’s grandparents and relatives, who died long before he was born, also lay.
The plot was near the family yard and part of daily and spiritual life for the Ngomas. A place of connection to the ancestors where they visited ukuphahla, to talk to their forebears and give thanks or seek guidance.
Ngoma thinks back on his rural life fondly, but the memories are undercut by the bitter reality of black life under the apartheid system. The passbooks they carried that limited their movements and invited harassment from police, and the small controls the white landowner exerted over their lives. His father was allowed to keep a maximum of four head of cattle.
“In those days, if you worked for them, you belonged to them.”
No memory is as bitter as the forced removals that ripped his community apart, starting in the 1970s when private investors began taking an interest in Fourways as an extension of nearby Sandton, which was already beginning to take shape as an affluent residential and business district.
Ngoma’s family was evicted from Zevenfontein in 1975 during a wave of evictions that lasted into the 1990s. Apartheid-era eviction trucks, called “GG” because of their number plates, carried his people to unfamiliar places such as Soweto and Alexandra townships and the Bantustan of kwaNdebele in modern-day Mpumalanga.
Ngoma says the evictions were so sudden that his uncles, who took their livestock out to the fields to graze, were not there to return them in the evening, and the animals roamed. The Zevenfontein families lost all that they were not able to fit on the beds of the trucks.
“How were we supposed to take our graves?”
He smiles weakly and chuckles dryly when he mentions Johnnic (called Johannesburg Consolidated Investment at the time), the property development company that bought 320 hectares of Zevenfontein, including where he lived, and built Dainfern.
“Johnnic! The beginning of our troubles.”
When the Ngomas tried to resist their forced relocation to a nearby farm in the northern suburb of Witkoppen and stay on Zevenfontein, Johnnic dug a massive trench that Speelman Ngoma could not cross to get to his mother’s house.
“We left soon after that.”
They continued to visit their graves on the construction site, until one day Dainfern’s two-metre-high boundary wall was complete and they could no longer reach them. They never saw them again.
When Terrance Landwehr, a former member of the Dainfern Homeowners Association, called me one Saturday morning in September 2017, he warned me not to “reopen this issue because you’ll find a lot of aggression”.
Landwehr, whose German name means “defender of the land”, described the issue of the Zevenfontein graves as “difficult and sensitive for everyone involved”, adding that amaBhungane was doing “such important work exposing real criminals”.
I was just beginning to investigate the Zevenfontein families’ claim that Dainfern failed to honour the terms of a negotiated resolution over the removal of the graves in the 1980s, despite the golfing estate’s announcement of an amicable resolution in 2006.
Landwehr, just like members of the Ngoma and Sithole families that I had spoken to, blames a man named Lucky Moshimane for the breakdown of the dispute-resolution process.
Moshimane is a funeral parlour owner and activist who, in 2004, represented the Zevenfontein families in a negotiation over compensation for the loss of their graves, homes and livestock when they were evicted to make way for Dainfern.
The homeowners’ association, which had just taken over the running of the estate from Johnnic in 2000, found itself facing a public relations debacle in 2004 when Moshimane alerted the local and national press to the fact that the Zevenfontein graves were still missing and demanded that Dainfern account for where they were taken.
Moshimane, who was supported by about 100 families from Zevenfontein, led a march to Dainfern’s gates where they placed empty coffins on the ground and demanded that sangomas be allowed to access the property to connect with the ancestral spirits left behind and trace their mortal remains.
Though Moshimane claimed that his family members were buried in Zevenfontein, other families in the tight-knit community say that he did not. He had grown up on a nearby farm, and attended the Witkoppen Bantu School with Ngoma’s nieces and nephews.
Moshimane was known as an outspoken and well-known ANC activist from the nearby township of Diepsloot.
Ngoma says he believed Moshimane’s involvement in funeral services and his proximity to the Zevenfontein community fuelled his passion for their case.
When both Johnnic and the homeowners’ association claimed to have no records for the removal of the graves, Moshimane allegedly used his burial industry knowledge to trace information that would finally end the two-decade long mystery.
According to a tender document reportedly produced by funeral services company AVBOB in 2006, they were contracted by Johnnic to remove 590 graves from Zevenfontein in 1987.
Records reportedly show that they exhumed 363 black people’s graves and dumped them in eight waterlogged mass graves 75km away in the township of Mamelodi, west of Pretoria.
Avbob also reportedly moved six white graves from Zevenfontein, but, tellingly, to individual burial sites in the nearby Midrand Cemetery.
In a November 2004 statement to the Fourways Review, Busi Pilane of Johnnic reportedly said that the grave relocation was “done through a reputable firm with proper observance of the laws applicable at the time of removal”.
Privately, Johnnic told Landwehr that they would be prepared to defend their actions in court, according to minutes of a meeting of the homeowners’ association.
That left the association to defuse an awkward, inherited mess playing out right on their doorstep. Already, the rumours were beginning to swirl among residents that they were living on top of more than 200 graves that remained unaccounted for.
“The homeowners association had no legal responsibility to deal with the issue of the graves. We considered obtaining a court order, but I decided to handle the issue personally,” said Landwehr.
After extended negotiations with Moshimane, who represented the families, Dainfern announced the closure of the grave negotiations via a press release in 2006.
The families chose Moshimane’s company, Tsogo Funeral Services, to conduct a reburial of the eight mass graves to Fourways Memorial Park, a private cemetery three kilometres from Dainfern.
Moshimane would also erect a wall of remembrance at the new burial site.
And finally, when the reburial was complete, Dainfern would allow the families to conclude the process in accordance with their culture. After 20 years, they would finally be allowed inside the estate to touch the ground and connect with the ancestral spirits they left behind, before carrying them to their final resting place during a cultural rite called ukulanda, meaning “collection”.
Dainfern told the families they would place R1.5-million in trust and all payouts to Tsogo Funeral Services for reburial would be managed by the estate’s attorneys.
It was a lucrative contract for Moshimane.
Mamelodi Cemetary, where the Zevenfontein graves were reburied in eight mass graves. (Cherry Hill)
He charged high fees for services, including R400,000 for the “administration” of collecting burial certificates and affidavits for the families. Tsogo was paid R28,000 for a handful of sangomas or traditional healers, who carried out divinations at the mass grave site on the day of the exhumation.
It is a detail that immediately stands out to anyone who is familiar with how sangomas work. For such a service, they usually accept an offering of a few hundred rand.
In total, Tsogo’s funeral services were slated to cost R1.2-million out of the R1.5-million pledged towards the process.
The remaining R300,000 was also to be paid into Tsogo’s account, but was meant for what Moshimane called a “wake fee” or “cultural fee” of R3,000 per family to cover the costs of a traditional wake at home after the reburial.
Landwehr explained the decision to channel the wake fees through Tsogo: “We had the mandate from the families to accept Lucky as their representative, and at all times they insisted we deal with him only.”
That is when the process began to break down. And all three parties – Dainfern, Moshimane and the Zevenfontein families – point at each other as the cause.
Ngoma says that the day the families collected their R3,000 cash handouts at the Witkoppen School, Moshimane was not present.
Ngoma received his R3,000 for his father’s, grandparents’ and baby brother’s graves. He watched as some families were paid R3,000, others received R1,500 and others were given nothing at all.
Just over R100,000 was paid out in total, according to a handwritten ledger he showed me. At the school, a Tsogo employee explained that Dainfern had paid less than the original pledge, which meant that not all families would be paid their fee.
Moshimane allegedly stopped answering the community’s calls.
A few months after the reburial, Ngoma visited the new burial site and inspected the memorial wall, which he describes as “a mess”.
The names listed on the plaques were a mix of living people, people missing from Zevenfontein and people buried elsewhere, he said. To this day it remains incomplete, with bare face brick showing through a large space where a plaque is missing.
The homeowners association paid Moshimane R15,000 for the wall. But Ngoma says that when he tried to contact Dainfern to follow up on the process, they would not speak to him.
Landwehr said that as of September 2017 he was not aware that the Moshimane had not honoured the financial commitment to the Zevenfontein families because “this detail was managed by Lucky”.
He and the homeowners association were also not aware that the wall of remembrance was incomplete.
A few weeks after the reburial, Dainfern was notified of another loose end left by Moshimane. He owed the owner of the Fourways graveyard R160,000 for the new burial plot, an amount that had already been paid out to him through the trust account. The owner of the graveyard had not been able to contact Lucky by phone.
“Fourways Memorial called a few weeks after the burial because Lucky had not completed payment for the burial plots. We passed the hat around again and settled that amount,” said Landwehr.
Moshimane has denied defrauding Dainfern, Fourways Memorial Park or the Zevefontein families.
In an interview, he initially claimed that the reburial had gone well and that all parties were happy with the outcome.
But when confronted with Landwehr and Ngoma’s accounts, he changed his story and claimed that he had not paid the families or the Memorial Park in full because the homeowners association stopped paying the money.
He blamed the families for the breakdown of the process, claiming that they became greedy and tried to take more money than they were owed.
“Remember you cannot sell a grave, it’s not a business. Graves are priceless,” the funeral parlour owner told me, without a hint of irony.
Like Landwehr and Ngoma, Moshimane repeatedly referred me to a copy of the final agreement, kept in trust by Dainfern, that recorded all transactions made in connection with the graves.
So I emailed David Weyers, the current chief executive of Dainfern, who was not there at the time of the grave dispute.
Wyers initially invited me to come and see the final agreement and then changed his mind, choosing to answer questions via email.
According to him, the homeowners association paid just over a million rand into the trust before they stopped making payments because “they discovered Moshimane to be a con during the process”.
He would not elaborate and referred me to the people who negotiated the settlement.
Ngoma and his nephew Sam Sithole, who both sat in negotiations with Dainfern, say that they were never aware of Dainfern’s decision to cut off the money, nor do they know what Dainfern discovered about Moshimane.
Ngoma has lived his entire life within a 10km radius of Zevenfontein and witnessed the area change dramatically over the last three decades.
Last year, property sales group Private Property proclaimed Fourways “the new North” (presumably the “old North” is the ultra-affluent Sandton CBD and surrounding residential area) because its second property boom since the 1990s is currently attracting billions of rands of private and commercial development.
“In the middle of it all lies the iconic Dainfern Golf Estate” the blog announces, calling Dainfern “hot property” because of the lifestyle that residents enjoy (including birdwatching, whisky tasting and a bridge club) and a high-tech security system that includes biometric access and surveillance.
According to Private Property, “property prices are rising every week”, and last year two properties were listed at a historical high of R28-million and R30-million each.
Now it is not apartheid’s oppressive laws or even the double-layered electrified boundary wall keeping Ngoma out. He has been priced way out of that market.
Instead, in 1995 the Ngomas were among the first beneficiaries to receive stands to build homes in Diepsloot, a township built by the ANC government to accommodate Fourways’ growing squatter population, largely caused by evictions for private development.
While Dainfern’s 1,200 households enjoy 320 hectares of golf course, private hiking trails and other exclusive facilities, six kilometres away most of Diepsloot’s residents share communal taps and toilets and live in shacks or government housing.
It is a stark illustration of the legacy of dispossession that started with the generation of Ngoma’s grandfather, and it will not be righted by the time Ngoma himself dies.
On a sweltering December day in Diepsloot, I seek shade in front of Ngoma’s home with him, his younger brother Daniel and his cousins Simon and Barney Sithole.
All four men are in their sixties and seventies. The grave of Simon Sithole’s grandfather is still intact in nearby Cosmo City, dating back to 1888.
The Sitholes lost graves when they were moved to Alexandra township from a portion of Zevenfontein called Riverglen, where Africa’s most expensive luxury development Steyn City now sits.
Lucky Moshimane disappeared before handing over government records of the reburial to Fourways Memorial Park, so the cemetery was unable to issue proof of grave ownership to the families.
They now have no claim to the new burial site or the remains there.
The men say there is not a door they have not knocked on seeking assistance to obtain reburial records for the Mamelodi graves and to try to force Dainfern and Moshimane to account for why the reburial process was left incomplete.
“We’ve been to the Public Protector, the Hawks and we’ve opened a case with the police. But, i-case yadliwa. [The case was eaten/disappeared]”
After the anguish of waiting 20 years to find their graves, interrupted by the brief hope engendered by Moshimane, they have found themselves back in a similar place.
“At every family gathering, every wedding or funeral, the conversation would always turn to our missing graves. Now, whenever we see the rest of the family they ask us if we’ve heard from Lucky, or if anything has changed with Dainfern.”
The men say they “don’t have the heart” to visit the uncompleted memorial wall at the Fourways Memorial Park.
The wall is a physical reminder of the unfinished process. Without having conducted ukulanda, they know they will not be able to connect with their ancestors at that gravesite.
Moshimane’s conduct has cast doubts over every aspect of the reburial, and without proper reburial records, the families question whether the remains reburied there are in fact from Zevenfontein.
With the collective social, economic and intellectual capital that Dainfern’s representatives brought to the negotiation, they find the claim of ignorance of Moshimane’s malfeasance unsatisfactory.
“Dainfern collected that money from residents and should have been accountable to them for how it was spent. Dainfern had a lawyer overseeing the whole process; shouldn’t he have made sure everything was handled properly?” Ngoma said.
“If they paid the Memorial Park again because Lucky stole the money, why can’t they pay us too?”
Simon Sithole is being facetious, but it’s a valid question.
Ngoma believes that Dainfern has distanced itself from the fallout because it was more concerned with “making us go away”, instead of caring about the opportunity to contribute to restoring some dignity to a community whose history is part of the estate’s foundations.
Who are the real criminals?
Perhaps I should have asked Terrance Landwehr who the “real criminals” are in this case. That is the work of investigative journalists, to point out the bad guys and hold them to account.
Lucky Moshimane is an obvious target: He allegedly took advantage of a desperate, disenfranchised community and profited from their story before stealing from them.
Dainfern was just the beginning of Moshimane’s lucrative business operations in the area. His Tsogo Funeral Services removed graves – also belonging to the Ngomas – from the Steyn City site in 2004, and for other developers.
At the same time, the City of Johannesburg contracted his other company, Jambo Security, to remove squatter camps and long-term occupants of farmhouses around the northern suburbs on land earmarked for private development.
I spoke to people in informal settlements, attorneys who worked on the eviction cases and people who were evicted. They remember Moshimane as “a sellout” who helped private developers remove them from their homes.
But some of his sins may be catching up with him: He is facing charges of tax evasion over Jambo Security. Even his ex-wife, Kefiloe Mokono, who has also been embroiled in the tax charges, says she wants the world to know the truth about him.
Perhaps Moshimane’s most honest statement to me was: “I became successful not because I went to business school or had any training. I met these white men and I dared to speak with them and I learned to think like them.”
But I was drawn to this story and struggled to write it not because I wanted to expose his individual wrongdoing. I am drawn to journalism that places the human experience of unfair systems at its centre.
Since starting at amaBhungane and dealing with the many desperate tip-offs we get, what has struck me is how inequality in South Africa is the result of a system that is set up for continued dispossession.
A pattern of poverty that started in apartheid keeps repeating itself. Even people who want to better themselves are hobbled by poverty and a lack of social capital.
Land claims are skewed in favour of the wealthy and connected (think of the Mala Mala game reserve), while other restitution efforts – such as learnerships and public works programs – are corrupted or never take off.
Democratic initiatives to right the wrongs of the past further frustrate those who are meant to be helped. They are made to take what those in power decide they must have, and often, are then screwed out of the little they are promised.
The Ngomas’ story is a perfect microcosm of this. Each stage of dispossession has set them up for the next. The system that dispossessed Ngoma’s grandfather and eroded his descendants’ connection to what was theirs is still alive and well today.
The real crime was not contained in a single act or moment, it played out systematically over generations and through actions sanctioned as legal under colonialism and apartheid.
In the past, it allowed entities like Johnnic to take what they wanted from black people; today it enables people like Moshimane to take advantage of them.
Private companies, like Johnnic, cashed in on the benefits of apartheid, without being seen as perpetrators. Dainfern made a weak, incomplete gesture and that was it.
It is that easy for private companies to shirk accountability for their role in the system.
And in the absence of a well-developed and properly applied public policy and protocol for historical and systemic injustice, people like Ngoma fall between the cracks.
They are forced to look to those with social and economic capital to hand out justice according to what they are willing to give, which is never much.
The system also allows those with power, including most white South Africans, to dictate how much they are willing to contribute to the collective project of redress.
They hide their privileges behind high walls and shield themselves from the ongoing realities that keep apartheid alive, such as violent crime and inequality.
When Terrance Landwehr told me that amaBhungane is doing much more important work, chasing real criminals, it struck me how invested the upper classes and white South Africans are in the idea that wrongdoing is “corruption”, in the standard sense of stealing public funds.
If we as journalists fail to tell stories of complex interactions in South Africa, we miss opportunities to tackle the subtle and not-so-subtle behaviours and attitudes that keep South Africans trapped in the legacy of apartheid.
It is just as wrong to be indifferent to the unequal systems on which South Africa is built and one’s personal role in it.
Wrongdoing is the continued benefit you reap while hiding behind boundary walls that shield you from your complicity. Racism is wrongdoing.
The Ngomas and Sitholes are still determined to seek compensation for their land, homes, livestock and graves. For now, the they await the reopening of the stalled land claims process, but they are not confident of a positive outcome.
“Those graves were our title deeds,” they told me. DM
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