Resistance politics

Betterment Schemes: Ignoble intentions

During the segregation period, a government intervention to make the reserves more economically functional had drastic effects on rural populations throughout the country, and the Northern Transvaal region was no exception.

The people of the region came under attack by “officials clutching manuals on soil erosion”. Concern about the capacity of the reserves to sustain its inhabitants saw the government appoint a team of specialists trained in techniques of conservation. While both Black and White farmers were thought to have contributed to the destruction of natural resources in the area, several conditions pushed authorities to target only Black farmers and owners of livestock in their attempts to reverse the depletion.

White farmers had long complained about the “destructive” methods of Black farmers. Officials were concerned that the failure of the reserves to sustain its inhabitants would push them to migrate to the cities.

Mine owners were worried that if their workers’ families were not more or less self-sufficient, they (mine owners) would have to increase the wages of their workers, since their wages had always been subsidised by farming activity at home.

The government thus appointed a Native Economic Commission in 1930, which presented its report in 1932. The report argued that Black farmers were in the grip of superstition, and practised a form of farming that was unscientific, uneconomic and had destructive effects on the soil. The entire problem was put down to overstocking which, if left unchecked would create desert-like conditions. The solution spelt out in the report was a reorganisation of rural society “which would include significant reductions of stock, the fencing of lands, concentrated settlements, improved seed and an expansion of agricultural education” (Delius, p54).

Following the 1936 Native Trust and Land Act, all land in the reserves came under the control of the South African Native Trust. The trust appointed a large team of technocrats to implement policies regarding land use. The Trust proclaimed in 1939 that in the defined betterment areas “stock numbers would be assessed and ‘surplus’ animals culled”. (Delius p56)

In 1938, the state began implementing Chapter Four of the Land Act in the Lydenburg district: measures included “the registration of labour tenants, a minimum period of four months of free labour, and heavier taxes for landowners who rented land to Africans”. It was hoped that these measures would end the labour shortage on the farms. There was mass resistance to the scheme in Lydenburg. Residents of Sekhukhuneland suspected that the real reason for all these official activities was to dispossess the Black people of the area.

In the Pietersburg district the Trust bought 250 000 morgen of land from companies and absentee landlords. About 10 000 Blacks were already living on these areas, and enjoyed a fair amount of control over their own conditions, and some had acquired considerable assets in cattle and/or land.

The Trust’s takeover of the land at first appeared benign, with residents anticipating better conditions in which to live. But in 1940 people were charged for cutting down trees for firewood, and in 1941 the issue of stock culling reared its head. Officials also failed to explain to tenants that they were not the owners of the land and that their monthly contributions were rent, and not, as residents thought, used to settle the mortgage.

Another complaint was the size of the plots allocated to the tenants. The plots were small, not very productive, and harvests were too small to sustain the inhabitants.

By 1943 the residents were furious, and began to defy the authorities. Ploughing where they were not allowed to, some refusing to register with the trust, as required. A body to represent their interests emerged, with school principal Mathews Molepo and Pietersburg resident Sebantu Seboto as leaders. They were advised by a lawyer, former communist Hyman Basner.

When officials tried to remove tenants from land intended to be common areas, a revolt broke out, with tenants in open clashes with officials. On 9 November the tenants gathered outside the police station when Jacobus Mashala was arrested but they forced police to release him.

The next day, 500 armed residents gathered and up to 2000 people engaged in open defiance. The revolt was put down when an airplane from Pieterburg was used to intimidate the protesters. Ringleaders were charged and many were deported, and the state went to some lengths to win over the chiefs.

The incident became a talking point among the people of the Northern Transvaal, especially in Sekhukhuneland and the Zoutpansberg areas, respectively, to the south and north of Pietersburg.

But by 1945, the Trust became increasingly effective in imposing its regime. It limited livestock, frequently by culling, or selling the stock to White farmers. Land was fenced in, and attempts were made to confine former farmers to villages in order to force them to seek employment in industrial occupations. Tree cutting was banned, rents and various taxes were levied and residents were “hemmed in by a string of restrictions”.

The ANC in Northern Transvaal

With the installation of the National Party in government in 1948, the policies that the Trust had been trying to implement were restructured in accordance with the evolving apartheid programme. The Bantu Authorities Act of 1951 was the cornerstone of this reconfiguration: it dissolved local and national councils and sought to install Bantu Authorities in the reserves by persuading pliant chiefs to take up positions in a bureaucracy of separate development. In contrast to the Trust, which had downgraded and eroded the power of the chiefs, the new administration sought to do away with other forms of representation and reinscribe the chief as the centre of authority in Black political and cultural life – all this as part of a scheme that would ultimately crystallise as separate development and homeland policy.

But these attempts were far from successful, and popular anger simmered throughout the apartheid era, continuing the resistance to the policies of the Trust. Much of this resistance was attributed by officials to the Sebatakgomo or Fetakgomo movements.

Future Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd took control of the Native Affairs Department in 1948 and purged the organisation of its United Party officials, installing apartheid apparatchiks such as WM Eiselen, who grew up in Sekhukhuneland, and NJ van Warmelo, an ethnologist who also came from the area.

Chief Kgoloko, “in theory” in command of the southern part of Geluks location, was unpopular with the authorities as he had resisted the installation of Bantu Authorities. His death in 1953 opened the way for the government to install Chief Morwamotse, who they thought was more sympathetic to their designs. Eiselen installed Morwamotse as the Pedi paramount on 20 August 1953.

The locals referred to the new Bantu Authorities as boipuso, a term that meant self-rule but which also carried connotations of illegitimate rule. The failure to make the people accept boipuso was attributed to the influence of the ANC.

The ANC had long had a presence in the area, from the institution of Union. Chiefs Sekhukhune II, Tseke Masemola and Sekwati Mampuru had nurtured links with the ANC, and the latter two had been members of the ANC’s House of Chiefs since the 1920s.

Congress held meetings soon after the Land Act was passed in 1913, at which the act was denounced. In the 1920s, however, the moderate policies of the ANC gave way to union radicalism, especially through the influence of the ICU. But by the 1930s this upsurge waned, and the chiefs had a weaker role within the ANC, especially since the Native Affairs Department had set about wooing them.

The ANC’s strength in the area only recovered after 1936, when Rev James Calata tried to oppose the Hertzog Bills, and Dr Xuma renewed the struggle in the 1940s.

The influence of the House of Chiefs had diminished, and with the new ANC constitution of 1943 the Upper House was abolished, but Xuma embarked on a drive to get chiefs to establish branches in rural areas. The Matlala branch was relaunched in the 1930s, and others were established in the Duiwelskloof, Zoutpansberg and Pietersburg area in the 1940s.

Pedi migrants also played a role in maintaining contact with the ANC after establishing contact in urban areas where they worked. Elias Moretsele, who joined the ANC in 1917 and had been active in campaigns during the 1920s and 1930s, opened a café at 41 Pritchard Street in Johannesburg, which became a meeting point for Pedi migrants as well as ANC members. David Bopape recalled that Lembede, Mandela and Tambo woud often have lunch at the café. Moretsele became a father figure for young men from Sekhukhuneland working in the city.

But the failure of the ANC to address struggles in the rural areas meant that they had an ineffective presence in these areas, and the Transvaal African Congress was divided over the issue. With regard to land disputes in Pietersburg, the ANC was eclipsed by the Communist Party, which was much more active in the region.

Yet, some ANC activity in Pietersburg has been recorded. M Molepo, who had led struggles against the Trust in the area, convened an ANC meeting in 1942, at which a working committee was established. Dr Xuma came to the Pietersburg municipal location in January 1943, where complaints about the Trust’s activities were aired, and the meeting decided “unanimously to support the ANC” (Delius, p84). But the ANC’s failure to follow up the issues saw support for the organisation diminish. So-called “agitators” such as Molepo and Thomas Maimela were deported.

David Bopape embarked on a drive to recruit members after WWII, and he travelled to Sekhukhuneland, Zoutpansberg and surrounding regions. He claimed to have enlisted thousands of new members. But Bopape seems to have had a flimsy grasp of some issues. While he attacked cattle culling and the shortage of land, a sentiment approved by the locals, he also attacked the migrant labour system, which irritated locals, who saw migrant labour as one of the few means of survival.

By 1948, when the National Party came to power, the conditions for ANC activity and rural mobilisation became much more difficult. Officials began to refuse permission for meetings to be held.

Migrant Labour

The centrality of migrant labour for the Pedi has to be appreciated to understand the dynamics of the region. From the turn of the century, Pedi men migrated to the cities and to mining areas en masse, working as domestics and miners. Later, in the late 1930s, some began to find employment that was better paid, working in shops, offices, hotels and industry, especially on the Rand.

In Johannesburg, some village clusters emerged. Harry’s Hat Factory in Doornfontein drew men from Manganeng, and Iscor in Pretoria saw many Pedi men from the late 1930s.

Later still, some began to become self-employed, as tailors, hawkers or taxi drivers, with a few even setting up unlicensed shops in the locations.

These migrants also established patterns of accommodation, living on the tops of blocks of flats or in hostels on the East Rand. According to Delius: “The Johannesburg City Council had established Wemmer Hostel in 1924, Wolhuter (known as Jeppe by migrants) Hostel in 1932, Mai Mai Hostel in 1940 and Denver Hostel in 1946. Jeppe and Denver Hostels, in particular, housed increasing numbers of Pedi workers. After the war some migrants also secured houses in locations.”

Migrant associations also emerged which served to create solidarity among the sojourners. Burial societies acted as welfare agencies, and had strong links to villages. They took care of matters when migrants died, but they also took care of the unemployed and the homeless.

After 1952, with the compulsory pass system, migrants found their movements increasingly restricted. The authorities moved to evict those living on the top floors of blocks of flats, and many were moved from the inner cities to less congenial hostels in Soweto. The new conditions provoked a radicalisation of migrants, and there was widespread alarm at the encroachment of apartheid structures in the rural areas. Morwamotse’s installation as paramount in 1953 reinforced the worst fears of the migrants.

Migrants turned to the unions to channel their grievances and give expression to their political concerns. The Communist Party also played a significant role in their politicisation in the 1940s, having stressed the importance of the peasantry in its theoretical formulations. The party was especially active in sites where the migrants lived and worked, in factories, hostels and unions.

In the 1950s, migrants from Sekhukhuneland such as Elias Motsoaledi, Flag Boshielo and John Nkadimeng played an especially important role in rebuilding the ANC in Johannesburg.


Flag Boshielo was the moving force in a project to put rural issues on the ANC agenda. Arguing that rural struggles and the land question were central to the struggle against apartheid, he got permission from the Communist Party to establish a rural organisation. The initiative was driven by ANC members who were also members of the Communist Party, and in April 1955 a resolution was passed in an ANC branch meeting in Johannesburg to “organise farms and reserve natives into a trade union under the auspices of Sactu”.

The resulting body, Sebatakgomo (meaning “a predator amongst the cattle”), held its inaugural meeting at the Bantu Hall in Lady Selbourne in Pretoria. Alpheus Malivha delivered the main address, and Boshielo was elected as chairman, while Nkadimeng was made secretary. Others, such as Elias Moretsele, also helped fill the ranks of the new body. According to Walter Sisulu, it was “the first well-organised [rural] movement in the history of the ANC”.

The Sekhukhune Uprising

The word Sebatakgomo was part of a call to arms used by the Bapedi, called out when a dangerous animal or an enemy intruded on the area of the tribe. It is an “exclamation of danger and war”.

The Sebatakgomo movement was formed in Johannesburg, in a hostel in Jeppe by mine workers from Sekhukhuneland. In Sekukhuneland itself, the Khuduthamaga committee oversaw the development of the movement. There was a conflict between the Makhuduthamaga and the Marenjara, the latter being those who supported the “betterment schemes” of the Bantu Authorities Act, a relatively better off and more educated strata. On 16 May 1958 the Bapedi King Morwamotse Sekhukhune and his wife Queen Mankopodi Thulare were banished to Cala in the Transkei.

A mass meeting to demand the release of the king resulted in protestors being shot and killed, sparking off the beginning of the rural revolt. The homes and businesses of collaborators in Manganeng were burnt, and some were killed. Kgoshi Kgolane was killed in Madibong, and an attempt was made on the life of the acting king, Kgobalale Sekhukhune. The revolt spread to villages in the surrounding area, in Makgane, Mphanama and further afield. State reaction was swift and brutal, with police deployed to the region. More than 300 people were arrested, and many were tortured.

The Sebatakgomo movement responded by establishing a defence fund called Fetakgomo to help those arrested. But many of the Sebatakgomo were evicted from the area and confined to faraway areas, and the movement was banned.

Leaders of the movement included many unionists, communists and ANC activists, such as Mmamagase Elekia Nchabeleng, Marutle Flag Boshielo (of the CPSA), John Kgwana Nkadimeng, Elias Motsoaledi, John Mahwibi Phala, James Nchabaleng and Segotle Phakwago.

The law firm of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo later represented those arrested, and Tambo was asked to defend those who had killed pliant chiefs.

According to Roger Southall: “Nearly 5000 Africans were arrested and incarcerated in jail for varying periods, some to be released, but a large number to be charged with committing an offence.  By April 1961, 114 persons were awaiting trial for murder, 121 for arson and 289 for other less serious offenses.  Of these, 30 were later sentenced to death, 9 being later reprieved.  Under the impact of this frontal attack, the Pondo resistance was crushed.” (Southall.p.113). A state of emergency was declared in the area.

MK attempts to re-emerge

The ANC began to re-establish itself in Sekhukhuneland in the 1970s. In 1972, Peter Nchabaleng, who served eight years on Robben Island after being convicted for involvement in an earlier MK sabotage campaign, was released and banished to the village of Apel in Sekhukhuneland.

Another Robben Islander, Nelson Diale, was also released in 1972, and was banished to his old village Masemola. Nchabaleng and Diale formed discussion groups, and were visited by Tokyo Sexwale, then the leader of an MK unit.

Meanwhile, in 1973, former Sebatakgomo and ANC cadre Martin Ramokgadi was released from Robben Island, as was Joe Gqabi in 1975.  The two got in touch with John Nkadimeng, who was then based in Soweto. Ramokgadi visited Nchabeleng and Diale after the Soweto uprising of 1976, and they set about trying to create a local MK structure.

They established units at Apel and at Masemola, and tried to create a web of recruits throughout Sekhukhuneland and surrounding regions.

Sexwale’s unit launched the first MK attack since the 1960s by blowing up a section of railway line near Pietersburg, using plastic explosives. In November 1976, after crossing into South Africa from Swaziland, Sexwale wounded two constables after throwing a grenade at them, the first encounter to see blood spilt.

The reaction from the state was swift. They arrested 163 activists, including Sexwale, Tsiki, Ramokgadi, Nchabaleng, Diale and Gqabi, all were put on trial. By 1978, Sexwale, Tsiki, Ramokgadi were given long sentences, but Nchabaleng, Diale and Gqabi were acquitted. The latter escaped because of the refusal of Elleck Nchabaleng, son of Peter Nchabaleng, to testify against his father and the other two. Elleck was in turn charged and sentenced to a six-year term on Robben Island. Gqabi went into exile.

Last updated : 20-Sep-2011

This article was produced for South African History Online on 04-Jul-2011