The Ingenuity of Rural Life

R.W. Johnson

  • The Seed Is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper, 1849-1985 by Charles van Onselen
    James Currey, 668 pp, £14.95, February 1996, ISBN 0 85255 740 X

Kas Maine sharecropped on the marginal farmland of Willem Nieman, a staunch Afrikaner, chairman of the local National Party branch and hater of the English and the Jews. When Kas’s first son was born in 1921, he and his family celebrated in Sotho fashion. Kas then picked his way across the stubbled fields to Nieman’s house to enact his part in one of the seigneurial rituals of the Western Transvaal. Sixty years later, among the thousands of hours he spent recalling his life for Charles van Onselen – Kas was blessed with a memory from which nothing faded – he described how the ritual went:

When a child was born you went to the landlord and said: ‘We have a baby boy’. The landlord would be pleased and say: ‘Oh, you have had a little monkey, have you cut off its tail?’ Then we would say: ‘Yes, master, I have cut off the tail, it’s a person now, no longer a baboon.’ That was how the white farmers used to put it to us.

Sotho tradition did not allow the birth of a son to be celebrated without the sacrifice of a sheep; and the farmer, whether he liked it or not, was bound to provide one. But in order to establish that he was utterly the baas, he would ritually humiliate the tenant – and then give him the sheep. Only those who lived through the days of the old racial supremacy have any inkling of how complicated such interchanges could be. But Nieman was an ideologue. He knew his part in this little rite – and refused to play it. He was happy to have Kas describe his son as a monkey, and happier still not to give him the sheep. Sixty years later Kas still smarted. Nieman was ‘bloody rotten’, he said; he was ‘unwilling to take a kaffir into consideration’.

This was no small matter. The previous year Kas had realised that the failure of his wife, Leetwane, to become pregnant, together with the fact that a plague of locusts had spoiled his crops, could only mean he was suffering the curse of some malevolent neighbour. Kas trekked hundreds of miles into the Kalahari desert to visit a famous old herbalist. If he prepared the right ingredients, she assured him, and took care never to kill a woman, he could live as long as she had. She knew her stuff. Kas managed not to kill any women and lived three times longer than the average African male. The locusts left and Leetwane quickly became pregnant. But now Nieman in his ‘bloody rotten’ way had spoiled everything. Kas had no sheep of his own to slaughter and sure enough his son, Mosebi, soon died of diarrhoea. But one of Mosebi’s aunts then confessed that it was her fault because she had failed to perform the necessary cleansing ceremonies after giving birth to a stillborn child – and it was well known that such misfortunes could easily be passed on if proper measures were not taken.

Mosebi was buried under a bluegum tree at a crossroads: not a clever move since Kas had to ferry grain past this spot on a regular basis – it was one of his extra trades – and would flog himself to a frenzy of exhaustion every time in the impossible attempt to forget the dead child. Only when the right propitiations had been made did he know any inner peace, and shortly afterwards, to his dismay, he discovered that some of his donkeys had wandered into Nieman’s fields. But Nieman told him not to worry, they had done no harm. That season, when Kas harvested 50 bags of maize, Nieman remembered the donkeys and fined him 35 bags, leaving him just enough to starve on through the winter.

When Kas had another son, he said nothing to Nieman. Before long, he had a chance to leave his land and sharecrop with Piet Reyneke, an old Boer War veteran who was well aware what a good stock-farmer Kas was. Kas was happy; he had nothing against Afrikaners as such: Nieman was clearly a complete shit but Reyneke was a good ou (‘chap’). Kas was comfortable with Afrikaners and knew their ways. His father and a man called Hendrik Swanepoel had been best friends and run a grain transport business together, so Kas had spent a lot of time riding in the back of a cart, where he had heard his father and Hendrik laughing and chatting as equals. He had grown up with an easy confidence that although the whites might have the whip hand, it was always possible to deal with them. So he was drawn into the world of the Afrikaners just as they were drawn into his.

These details occupy just a few pages of van Onselen’s magisterial book – a work to set beside the finest products of the Annales school in its comprehensive understanding of peasant life. Written with style and humour, the narrative bowls along, gradually imparting a more thorough knowledge than one ever thought one wanted of what it was to be a black sharecropper, a Jewish dry goods store-owner or an Afrikaner farmer in this somewhat unpromising part of the world. In no time at all it is engrossing.

The story of Kas is the story of South Africa’s dispossessed and landless black peasantry. The dispossession was already far advanced when the Natives Land Act of 1913 decreed that no African could own land outside the native reserves, but the Act itself was definitive. Thereafter, men like Kas could only have access to land with permission from white farmers, who might allow them to graze their livestock or take a crop from otherwise under-utilised land. Increasingly, the law frowned even on these practices. Besides, Afrikaner farmers might be so averse to the sight of a successful black farmer that they would take the law into their own hands and chase him off the land. These difficulties were enough to annihilate black commercial farming – that was the intention – without the droughts and locusts the Western Transvaal is prone to.

Despite all this, Kas and a few others like him hung on, demonstrating every sort of ingenuity and skill, diplomatic and strategic, as well as a relentless energy and organisation which not only made the traditional image of the ‘lazy kaffir’ quite absurd but far surpassed those of white farmers. Kas’s sense of himself was so utterly bound up with the land that an immense torrent of labour poured out of him for almost ninety years. His remarkable longevity and van Onselen’s equally extraordinary effort in reconstituting every detail of his life – he has ransacked the most unlikely sources and conducted thousands of hours of interviews with Kas and his extended circle – have extended a riveting biography into a unique account of what white supremacy, then apartheid, really meant in the South African countryside.

This is a more surprising story than one might have imagined, in part because the black experience has usually been recounted from the point of view of the minority of blacks who lived in the big cities or told by whites who have chosen and written up their material in the context of the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggle. Their reward is that today their works have entered the canons of rectitude. Van Onselen shares their feelings about apartheid but his book is free of moralising. He has written about Kas only because Kas was so remarkable; his efforts have gone into research rather than into muscular acts of ‘interpretation’. As a result, this is Kas’s story, not his. And Kas was too busy being a Sotho, a farmer and a paterfamilias to be an exemplary figure of the struggle.

Men like Kas enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with Afrikaners. Some of his landlords were his friends and partners, less talented farmers who relied on his ingenuity. Kas would spend the whole day with these men, talking, scheming and joking with them, he fluent in Afrikaans, they in Sotho. If they thrived, such Afrikaners would come under heavy pressure from their peers to abandon Kas and do their business with other Boers but, at least until well into the Thirties, they were as likely as not to give their loyalty to Kas. Threatened by drought or some other crisis, Afrikaners who knew of Kas’s reputation as a ngaka (‘herbalist’) would call on his talents – despite their formal Calvinism. Sometimes he would be asked to get rid of such frankly African problems as a tokolosh (a terrifying wizard with an outsize penis). When he went into the grain transport business with Hendrik Swanepoel, the two men would eat, drink and sleep under the same wagon as partners and friends; sometimes even Kas’s landlords would call by and they would get drunk together. With the Jewish and Asian owners of the small-town trading stores, who played a key role in extending credit to men like Kas, his relations were even more intimate. A Jewish hawker like Hersch Gabbe would stay at Kas’s home in preference to whatever hospitality was on offer from other whites. Over and over again, van Onselen shows how a simple division into white oppressors and black victims fails to explain the complex sociology of rural life.

Kas, moreover, was an unabashed patriarch who worked his wives and children dreadfully hard – in times of shortage children and animals would eat from the same bag of oats; a happy polygamist who even fathered a child outside his multiple marriages; and a man willing not only to beat his daughters quite mercilessly but to make them marry against their will. Although himself a wonderfully innovative farmer – he was far ahead of many whites in latching onto automation – he resented his daughters ‘wasting’ their time on education. When the ANC’s ancestor, the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union, came preaching for converts, Kas listened carefully but never joined. He suspected that the ICU activists might be the sort of people who preach militancy but become scarce when trouble follows. He judged people less on what they said – with apartheid, he would remark dismissively, the whites became full of nonsense – and more on what they did, specifically on how they behaved towards black farmers like himself. The most ruthless landlord he ever saw, a man called Motsuenyane, ploughed his tenant’s crops into the ground and then planted his own on top. ‘It showed one something about the rich. Whites were rich, but rich blacks were also shits. Motsuenyane was just a shit.’

And the best landlord he ever had? Walter Moormeister, a known murderer who liked to carry a gun and was, even after 1945, an unabashed Nazi sympathiser. Moormeister behaved well to Kas, who remembered him ‘like a brother’. Kas was, however, fly enough to know that people changed, that their opinions might be so much gloss, that you should never be too trusting. After all, there was the example of Koos Meyer, who worked well with Kas in the early days: ‘Koos Meyer was the man who made me rich.’ But Koos became greedy and overworked even the uncomplaining Kas, who finally told him what he thought: ‘You know, one day God will allow us to purchase property – just like you – and I will hire you, and overwork you just as you are doing to me.’ Van Onselen does not glory in these moments of rebellion any more than he does in all Kas’s knobbly incorrectness: he just records it, knowing full well that history never comes neatly packaged.

Kas’s world was, above all, a world of work. Because the uncertainties of climate were so great and the need to keep shifting from farm to farm inevitable, Kas worked not only as a sharecropper, grain transporter and ngaka but also had gainful employment washing and sifting for diamonds; as a shepherd, water-carrier, cobbler, labourer, seamster, cattle-trader; in washing, spinning and knitting wool; and as a blacksmith and tractor mechanic. ‘When a chameleon moves from one position to another it changes colour,’ Kas told the author. ‘Likewise, when I moved from one farmer to another I had to adopt a strategy that would meet the circumstances’. But in good years all Kas’s other trades gave way to the land. Ironically, 1948, the year the Afrikaner nationalists came to power, marked the best harvest he ever had. Even after paying off the farmer in kind, Kas was left with 1000 bags of sorghum, 570 bags of maize and over two hundred bags of sunflower seed. In good years Kas would have to sneak unseen into town for extra bags, harvest his crop by night and hide away from jealous Boer eyes the extent of his success. The 1948 crop was too prodigal to conceal, however, and, together with the mood engendered by the National Party’s victory, resulted in a rising wave of hatred against ‘rich kaffirs, coolies and Jews’, which led in 1949 to Kas and others like him being driven away from their homes, some of them at gunpoint. Even then, Kas never dreamed of accepting defeat. He had seen how in times of drought thousands of starving African men, women and children would descend on the white farms, begging for work and payment in kind. Kas might send his women out to glean the dried grass blown onto fences or to gather cowpats, sometimes even rising early to raid a neighbour’s fields for cow-dung, for this was the fuel of last resort, but he and his children would never contemplate the possibility of giving up their independence.

Kas’s forced move took him into the constituency of Cas Greyling, the tough-as-nails National Party MP for Ventersdorp. Van Onselen has carefully investigated the lives of Kas’s landlords and all the other major figures in his saga, and the result is an unparalleled account of rural South Africa as the apartheid juggernaut gathered pace. Greyling is best remembered for his racist Parliamentary tirades: van Onselen shows us what his racism meant. Greyling led the local campaigns against ‘black spots’ and ‘squatters’ – by which he meant families like Kas’s digging a hard living out of the infertile soil – and complained ceaselessly about ‘Jews being made rich by kaffirs’. Although he was not averse to buying oxen from Kas, his aim was to destroy sharecroppers as a class: the only proper role for an African in ‘white’ areas was as a landless labourer, a view strongly echoed by his white farmer constituents. By 1955 the Maines had been driven off. And so it went on with endless little rearguard actions by Kas and his family, buying time here, taking a harvest there, always being pushed towards the overcrowded ‘homelands’, a fate Kas resisted with all his energy, tenacity and guile, though even he could not hold out for ever.

At many points in van Onselen’s treatment of the subtle interplay between race and class, one is reminded of E.P. Thompson, who wrote so centrally about class, while warning against simple, reified usages of the term: in the end there are just relations between men and our own conceptions of them. Van Onselen is writing of a world where the class differences between poor whites and prosperous black share-croppers were, for some time, relatively minor. ‘Poor Afrikaners emerged from the comparative seclusion of this shared experience far more “Africanised” than their protestations would lead one to believe, while better-off Africans were far more “Afrikanerised” than cultural purists are willing to concede,’ he writes. ‘Class stroked away at the fibres of the emerging culture until it, like the fur on the cat, was best reconciled with the underlying shape.’ The real change came with the rise of mechanised farming and the growing economic gap between white farmers and blacks, with the former using their political power to complete the destruction of the peasantry.

While Kas was nothing if not a patriarch, van Onselen insists on the plasticity of the relationship between family structure and economic activity. Sometimes Kas would be driven by economic forces to make strategic changes to his kinship network, but the needs of his extended family also caused him to make economic adjustments. Race, class, family, climate, season and market conditions were all factors in the equation. By the end, Kas’s children had leaked away to work as domestics or in the mines or at Sun City and the old trust had gone; some of them even stooped to robbing their elderly father. By 1981 Kas had been reduced to a miserable life in a patch of overcrowded homeland with all his sons gone, reflecting sadly on the implosion of his family’s morals. Despite that, he brought in a harvest of 90 bags of mealies that year on his own – he was 87. At the age of 90, his sight impaired by cataracts, Kas began scheming to manufacture cement bricks. He never stopped till he died.

In his discussion of the earlier period at least, van Onselen’s theme is how bound together Africans and Afrikaners were, in dress, religion, language and superstitions; men working together, eating, drinking and even sleeping together. It seems likely that they also shared their sexual adventures, perhaps even with the same women. At the very least, one would have expected some white farmers to have tried to exercise droit de seigneur over some of the younger and more nubile tenant farm girls – this sort of thing, after all, has been part of everyday South African life, even in suburban settings. In rural life, too, there must surely have been an unspoken world of transgressions, tensions and taboos. It is difficult to believe that this, or anything else, escaped van Onselen’s notice. It may be that this world remained truly impenetrable, even to him, but it seems more likely that a wish to protect Kas may have stopped him writing about these matters. In the course of the 17 years that he spent researching and writing this extraordinary work, van Onselen grew close to Kas and his family. He allows this to show only at the end, when he speaks obliquely of ‘the tall white man’ who sat incongruously among the four hundred mourners at Kas’s funeral in 1985, but there are many intimate and moving passages throughout this Herculean work of historical recovery.

Van Onselen’s defence of liberal values in South African universities has seen him singled out for abuse and attack by the heroes of the current cultural revolution. The most ardent exponents of Africanism find it unbearable to admit that he has produced a work which understands the black experience more deeply and with a greater wealth of detail than anything they have produced: indeed, ideologically they do not want to believe that such a thing is possible. Yet as the madness subsides, there will be no escaping the centrality of this work.