[Reverb Effect’s theme music, lively and interrogative, plays behind the voice of a narrator, interspersed with historical clips of other voices]
Narrator [a woman’s voice]: How do past voices resonate in the present movement?
Man A: …hear the stories of your parent’s…
Woman A: yeah
Man A: …and your grandparents’ and stuff, so I’m living through them or the stories they told.
Narrator: And how do we make sense of those voices?
Woman B: No, and that’s the story of my life [echo]
Man B: And a case has been made!
Woman B: No I am not trying to void the question, I am trying to clarify the position…
Narrator: What were they trying to say? And whose job is it to find out? This is Reverb Effect.
[Music slowly fades out]
Hannah Roussel: Have you ever thought about the land that you inhabit? Here, at the University of Michigan, that might include: what the Diag—an area of green grass, benches, and sidewalks in the middle of central campus—looked like before university buildings fenced it into its diagonal shape. You might also wonder who lived here before there was a university? Or how did the university acquired the land it sits on?
Tara Weinberg is a PhD student here at the University of Michigan who studies land, power, and settler colonialism in South Africa. And it’s not lost on them that their home university has its own problematic history with the land we inhabit. In one of our conversations, Tara noted that one way the university has chosen to handle this history is through land acknowledgements, which are becoming more and more common in email signatures and perhaps at the beginning of events or lectures. [contemplative piano music fades in] They’re often pretty short, and they vary in how much they implicate the university or gesture to the need for action, ranging from simple statements to more direct ones, like that adopted by the Bentley Historical Library, which serves as the university’s archive.
The Bentley Library’s statement states, and I quote, “the historical origins and present location of the University were made possible by indigenous people’s cession of lands under coercive treaties common in the colonization and expansion of the United States.”
The Bentley statement also explains that the then-territory of Michigan acquired funding for the early universities by selling land in the treaty of Fort Meigs, a treaty made with the “Anishinaabeg—including Odawa, Ojibwe, and Bodewadami [Bodewadmi] — so that their children could be educated.”
Meanwhile, the “Native American Land Gift” marker on the Diag uses language that is less direct about the university’s role in settler colonialist expansion, omitting mention of the coercive nature of the treaty entirely. Without the crucial qualifier, coercive, it’s easy for words like cession or gift to sound voluntary, obscuring the violent and, indeed, genocidal tactics settler colonists used to obtain land. And, while indigenous people agreed to the treaty so that their children would be educated at the university, records don’t indicate an indigenous presence on campus until the 1960s, 130 years after the treaty was signed.
A more in-depth and honest conversation about our university’s land can be found in an art exhibit by Andrea Carlson currently on display at the University of Michigan Museum of Art through June 2024. [contemplative piano music fades out] Carlson’s exhibit, titled Future Cache, strongly states in bold words, “You are on Anishinaabeg land.” These words are painted on the wall along side a memorial of the violent burning of Chippewa Indians from their land in Northern Michigan on October 15, 1900, and paintings that the exhibit’s webpage describe as “imagined decolonized landscapes and a symbolic cache of provisions.” “Future Cache,” the webpage continues, “implicitly asks those who have benefited from the legacies of colonization to consider where they stand and where to go from here and seeks to foster a sense of belonging for displaced Indigenous peoples fighting for restitution.” More information on Andrea Carlson and this exhibit can be found in both the episode’s webpage.
Against a backdrop of increasingly urgent and popular land-back movements and trails of broken treaties, the history of land—and indeed, the relationship between land, power, and settler colonialism—matters [contemplative music fades in], both here, in Ann Arbor, and in South Africa, as Tara Weinberg’s work demonstrates. These issues of colonized land and displaced peoples, aren’t just an American or South African story. While the global history of land ownership is complex, questions about the relationship between land, power, and settler colonialism are consistent and rooted in histories of racist and often violent undertakings. [contemplative music fades out]
Welcome to season 4, episode 2 of Reverb Effect. I’m your host and season producer, Hannah Roussel. In this episode, Tara Weinberg shows how a horse race helped shape land rights in South Africa between 1911 and the post-war period. As a special treat, we are including recordings from Tara’s research in the field, interviewing other scholars and descendants of those involved in South African land rights in the early to mid- 1900s. As such, the sound quality varies in this episode, and we thank you for your patience. As always, a link for the episode’s transcript is included on the episode’s webpage.
[contemplative music fades in and out]
[trotting horse and carriage sounds]
Tara Weinberg: When you think of a horse race, you may think of Downton Abbey or Peaky Blinders, or the Kentucky Derby. In other words, an aristocratic sport, where the horse owners are rich and the attendees are a “who’s who” of high society.
But this wasn’t the case in rural South Africa in the early twentieth century.
In 1911, a horse race took place in Daggakraal, a farming area in the northern part of the country, about 190 miles away from Johannesburg.
People from Daggakraal and the surrounding area gathered to race their horses on a white farmer’s land. Most of the farmers racing their horses were also white, but there were a few black horse owners present. A crowd of around 30 people sat on wooden benches to watch.
[We hear the sound of Tara starting her car.]
I’ve just been to visit ‘Mam Catherine Madlala at her house in Driefontein—here she is telling me about her name.
[We hear a clip of a conversation between Catherine Madlala and Sne Ngidi in Zulu. Catherine Madlala speaks about her own name and horses in Daggakraal in Zulu.
Tara Weinberg then translates Catherine Madlala’s words into English]
Tara Weinberg: Madlala is saying that her granny’s name was Cadrina, and actually she was also called Cadrina, but when she got to school the teachers said it was a grownup’s name, and ever since she’s been called Catherine.
According to Catherine Madlala, who was born in Daggakraal in 1945 and whose grandparents told her this story, horses were a common form of transport used by farm owners, tenants, and workers. Racing horses was a popular form of entertainment. But like everything else in South African society, it was steeped in racism.
Back at the Daggakraal horse race in 1911, the volunteer starters let go of the rope in front of the horses to start the race. Two black horse owners looked on keenly. Lunyolo Ngwenya and his brother Ntshebe lived and worked in the Daggakraal area as labor tenants. This meant they sold their labor to a white farmer in exchange for a piece of that farmer’s land. Through their sale of crops and livestock, they had been able to turn over a small profit. But winning a prize at a horse race like this could offer them an extra boost.
[Sound effects of a horse race: clopping hooves and men cheering.]
Tara Weinberg: When the winning horse crossed the line, the Ngwenya brothers cheered. Their horse had won.
But, the jeers of the white horse owners soon drowned out their celebration. The race officials refused to recognize the Ngwenyas’ horse as the winner.
[Ambient driving noise]
I’m in the car again, on my way back from Daggakraal where I attended the gathering of the Ngwenya and the Dlamini families, commemorating the passing of their grandmother. I had the opportunity to chat at the gathering to Thuthuka Ngwenya, the great-grandson of one of the brothers who owned the winning horse. Here is a recording from the family reunion in which Thuthuka Ngwenya recounts how his great grandfather was beaten up by the resentful and racist white horse owners.
[A clip from their conversation plays, with background noises and conversations from other family members at the gathering.]
Thuthuka Ngwenya: So fortunately they won the race … but ohh, hell of problems … because a black person had actually beaten a white person in terms of racing. Then they were beaten up. Ntshebe was beaten up. Heavily so. So these brothers came and said, “how dare you to beat our brothers like this, for the sake of winning the race. You can’t. Then they started fighting.”
Tara Weinberg: The Ngwenya brothers took their assailants to court for assault. The magistrate punished the white thugs with only a small fine—barely enough to compensate the costs of the brothers’ medical treatment, let alone make up for work lost as a result of their injuries.
The Ngwenyas’ brother-in-law, Alexander Dlamini, didn’t think this was right and decided to intervene. He was an educated man who had been participating in the South African Native Convention, an organization which lobbied for the white government to meet the demands of black South Africans for the right to own land and vote in elections, among other things. Dlamini knew someone who might help …
Thuthuka Ngwenya: They said “no man, there is a person here who can just fight for you—fight your case by the name of Pixley ka Seme.” So they brought him here to this place called Daggakraal…
Tara Weinberg: That was Thuthuka Ngwenya again, explaining that his great-grandfather, the winning horse owner Ntshebe Ngwenya, was told that Pixley ka Seme might be able to come to Daggakraal and help them fight their case.
Bongani Ngqulunga: Wow man, how do you describe Seme? I think obviously everyone knows he was a pretty smart guy, even when he was a student at Columbia, a pretty smart guy.
I mean if you think about it, a guy who left Inanda outside Durban and went to the United States to go to high school as a 14-year old and achieved so much by the time he was 30-years old.
He came back to South Africa after 14 years of absence and within a year, I mean he was at the forefront of the efforts of the formation of the ANC and he was not even 30 years old. I mean, when you think about him. In a year, the formation of the ANC, he starts the Native Farmers Association, he starts the newspaper, Abantu Bathoo, second black person to be admitted as an attorney in South Africa. I mean I think if any of us can achieve just one of those things in our lifetimes we would think we would have done well. I mean Pixley did it all, did it all. I mean in  years, despite all the major setbacks that he faced in his life. He was a close confidant and advisor, I mean, of kings of [the Zulu royal] house, of the Swazi royal house, I mean, literally involved in the social and political life of South Africa. That’s how extraordinary of a guy Pixley was.
Tara Weinberg: That was Dr. Bongani Ngqulunga, director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Johannesburg. Dr. Ngqulunga wrote the 2018 biography of Pixley ka Seme, entitled The Man Who Founded the ANC.
When Seme arrived in Daggakraal, he told the Ngwenya brothers that pursuing their assault case in the courts would not truly free them from the violence of white farmers. He emphasized that if they were to have a “haven” to race horses, it could not be on white farmers’ land. But for Seme and the Ngwenyas, this was about far more than racing horses. It was also about being able to take part in entertainment without the fear of racist bodily aggression. It was about how to overcome the reality that the security of black people’s property—whether horses, homes or crops—were subject to the whims of white landowners.
The only way out of this dependency relationship, Seme argued, was for the Ngwenya brothers—and other black farmers in the area—to buy their own land. He created a company that could buy land for black people.
Seme was, in the words of his biographer Bongani Ngqulunga, a “man of great vision.” His editorials in black-run and often African-language newspapers—including his own paper, Abantu Batho—attempted to bring the land buyers and a wider reading public into his vision of land ownership-based empowerment. In 1915, Seme wrote an editorial in which he urged Africans not to miss the opportunity to help themselves by purchasing land:
Bongani Kona reads a quote from the article in the original Zulu: Umhlaba uvele uyindaba yesizwe. Awusiyo indaba yokuba lowo nalowo azixovele, ezitengela ngokuhlakanipa kwake kunganake muntu. Abantu abatenga umhlaba impala baka amafa. Abantu abatenga umhlaba impela baka amafabantwana babo (kodwa kona lapo sebafake imbewu yokupakamisa umoya netemba lesizwe sonke. Ngoba abantwana baonotenga ibona abazokokela isizwe ukuze sipume ebukobokeni …
Bongani Kona reads the same text, translated into English: Land is the root of the nation. This is not a matter to be solved by people only buying for themselves. Land buyers are buying for their children; their inheritance. We must plant the seeds for the winds of change for the country as whole. The children of buyers will lead us out of slavery …
I’m Bongani Kona, a lecturer in the History Department at the University of the Western Cape. I’m reading an excerpt from an editorial by Pixley ka Seme.
Tara Weinberg: Land ownership was the cornerstone of Seme’s vision for a more just future—one in which black farmers could accrue generational wealth, and where there would be black-run schools, churches, businesses, and farms. Seme’s vision was therefore about more than setting up a land-buying company: it was also about establishing an ideal community.
Seme’s vision was highly attractive to farmers like the Ngwenyas, who sought to be self-sufficient, rather than dependent on labor tenancy or wage labor. And so, what began on the race track became a larger endeavor to secure land, livelihoods and honor.
[fade in and fade out contemplative music]
In 1912, black farmers from around the country, including the Ngwenyas, came together under Pixley ka Seme’s leadership to buy into a collective landholding scheme organized by Seme’s company, the Native Farmers Association, the NFA for short. With Seme’s help, they bought land in Daggakraal—where the Ngwenyas lived—and the neighboring area, Driefontein. Many black farmers therefore bought land that their ancestors had been dispossessed of by white settlers in earlier years.
From then onwards, hundreds of families arrived to buy into the land project, financing their purchases through selling livestock, using savings, and by taking out loans. Within the NFA, these black farmers debated the forms of property ownership that would best suit their needs and visions for the future. But while they financially bought into Seme’s company, they did not always buy into his vision.
[fade in and fade out contemplative music]
Tara Weinberg: The stakes were high with the NFA’s land project, because this was a period when prosperity for black farmers seemed possible, albeit difficult.
Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, colonial wars of conquest had made African groups subject to rule by white officials and settlers. Settler and colonial mapmakers refused to recognize the diversity of black South Africans’ forms of property. Instead they emphasized a racialized division between two simplified property forms—private title deeds for white people versus “communal land” held by the Crown or government ostensibly for black people to use (known as Crown land).
In a distortion and simplification of African customary land law, colonial and apartheid ethnographers argued that black traditional leaders (also known as chiefs) controlled land on behalf of their communities, which the ethnographers called tribes. Hence, the government paid local black traditional leaders to administer land for them, as well as collect taxes. Historians have called this a system of indirect rule. Many chiefs abused their power in their role as community heads and, since the end of apartheid, some chiefs have continued to make decisions that enrich themselves at the expense of their communities. This has led many people to heavily distrust them in the present day and seek forms of land ownership that do not rely on chiefs.
At the start of the twentieth century, there was a short window of time in which it seemed possible for black South Africans to buy property and to envision a future where they could be economically prosperous. In 1905, a court case set a legal precedent for black individuals to buy land in their own names. Hundreds of black individuals and syndicates bought land in both urban and rural parts of the Transvaal province in the north of South Africa.
These new landowners were usually of high class and status relative to other black South Africans. They often formed committees to buy land, in which chiefs participated but did not necessarily lead, challenging the government’s argument that chiefs were the owners of land. Like the Reconstruction period in the United States, this was an era of upheaval that created a window for potential change, a window that quickly closed with the onset of further iterations of racial discrimination—Jim Crow in the US and apartheid in South Africa.
This happened in 1913, not long after the Ngwenya brothers won their race, and when the Land Act created a foundation for the apartheid government. In fact, this act was partly a response to initiatives like Seme’s NFA, which the white government saw as insurgent. The 1913 Land Act envisaged a redistribution of South Africa: approximately 7 percent of the country’s land would be reserved for black people, although they made up 90 percent of the population, and 93 percent of the land was reserved for white people who made up around 10 percent of the population. Especially challenging for black farmers was that the act forbade black people from buying land in areas designated as white.
[Background car noises]
Tara Weinberg: I’m on my way to the University of Cape Town to hear Dr. Athambile Masola read a poem by Adelaide Tantsi, one of the women whose history she has been studying.
Athambile Masola: My name is Athambile Masola. I teach at the University of Cape Town and I will be reading Adelaide Tantsi’s “Africa My Native Land”:
How beautiful are thy hills and thy dales!
I love they very atmosphere so sweet,
Thy trees adorn the landscape rough and steep
No other country in the whole world
could with thee compare.
It is here where our noble ancestors,
Experienced joys of dear ones and of home;
Where great and glorious kingdoms rose and fell
Where blood was shed to save thee, thou
dearest Land ever known;
But, Alas! their efforts, were all in vain,
For to-day others claim thee as their own;
No longer can their off-spring cherish thee
No land to call their own—but outcasts
in their own country!
Despair of thee I never, never will,
Struggle I must for freedom—God’s great gift—
Till every drop of blood within my veins
Shall dry upon my troubled bones, oh
thou Dearest Native Land!
[somber piano music fades partially in during last stanza]
Tara Weinberg: By the time the apartheid government came to power in 1948, previous governments and the white settler population had already excluded the majority of black South Africans from landownership and from control over their own labor. The apartheid government extended and intensified these processes of dispossession and segregation. The government forcibly removed black land buyers to ethnically designated land “reserves,” called Bantustans, where the state had appointed chiefs to be in charge of land issues. In this context, very few black South Africans who had purchased land in the early twentieth century were able to retain it.
But Daggakraal and Driefontein are unusual. They successfully resisted the forced removals, and as of 2022, most of the residents still owned the same land that their great-grandparents bought in 1912. This was due in part to Seme’s smart legal strategies, but also to support from the rich white businessman who had initially financed the NFA land purchase—and who profited from the loans he had given land buyers. Driefontein and Daggakraal had particularly strong and united activists, especially the women’s committees, and the communities also partnered with public interest lawyers, who took the fight to the courts. The activists used the media to publicize their struggles, and they also benefited from a fair amount of good luck.
[somber piano music fully fades in, then out]
Tara Weinberg: So, what kind of community did the Native Farmers Association create? What visions of property did the black farmers in the Native Farmers Association put forward?
Seme encouraged the black farmers involved in the Native Farmers Association to buy land from the company in the form of individual titles. This meant that each individual, family, or group of farmers would buy a demarcated piece of land directly from the company. The title deed would remain in the company’s name, but the buyer would get a certificate from the company to indicate the buyer’s ownership.
However, amongst the land buyers, there were divergent visions of what land ownership should look like and how it would help the residents become a prosperous community. Most Native Farmers Association members wished to hold land as a collective, instead of individuals, as Seme had suggested. In other words they wanted to manage and use land in common, with an agreement in place that certain families had priorities to certain plots. This was a carefully regulated commons.
Jonas Moloi, a member of the Native Farmers Association, explained how his group had bought land from the association in what they believed to be a group title deed. First, each household head had contributed livestock or money in order to afford the land from the Native Farmers Association. The group had come to Daggakraal from the Free State province with an existing set of social relationships and a strong sense of trust, which meant that they could buy the land as a group and then divide it up amongst families. The group’s chief, Maitse Moloi, was one of the household heads who bought land. But Jonas Moloi emphasized that his group were buying land neither as individual families nor as a tribe with a chief who would administer land matters. Instead, the land belonged to all the families who had pooled their resources.
Bongani Kona reads a quote by Jonas Moloi [his testimony in the case of Tys Dlamini vs Molapisi Sehlako, National Archives of South Africa]: “Maitse [Chief Moloi] had nothing to do with the selection of plots. Daggakraal was not bought in the name of the chief, it was bought in the names of the 23-24 men—I was one of the men.”
Tara Weinberg: That was Jonas Moloi. His evidence offers an example of how NFA members envisioned and proposed a collective form of property ownership that neither mapped onto the government’s policy of indirect rule via chiefs, nor Seme’s vision of individual land ownership.
While the NFA emphasized a collective form of property ownership, there is no evidence to suggest that the NFA farmers were reading Communist literature, or were in touch with the burgeoning Communist movement in South Africa at the time. Nevertheless, the NFA farmers’ attempt to create a collective landholding scheme was a political act, even though it was not part of a political movement.
The system of undivided shares combined collective management of land with family ownership of individual plots, thereby challenging the notion of private property as a whole—the bedrock upon which South Africa’s exclusionary system of white property ownership was built. Indeed, private property—as an ideology and practice—has also been at the root of exploitative systems of capitalism in place in Europe and the Americas.
Pixley ka Seme opposed collective land management. He feared it would undercut the NFA’s arguments for land rights in government-designated “white areas” if they proposed a form of land tenure which government officials saw as inferior and dangerous. Seme insisted upon a system in which individual families would buy land from the NFA rather than as groups.
So, in 1913, NFA farmers did not implement a vision of collective land management. Instead, each family applied for individual title deeds, even though they had already bought land as a collective. This caused huge problems for people who had already bought land from the NFA as groups. They had to buy land again—in essence a double purchase. Seme earned a commission from each sale, and many families wrote to the local magistrate accusing him of corruption.
Here’s Seme’s biographer again, Dr. Bongani Ngqulunga.
Bongani Ngqulunga: I mean he is described as a very charming guy, with a very interesting sense of self-importance about feeling his own importance and contribution in life. But as a leader, quite an interesting character. A man of grand vision but as it turned out, not a great leader of people in a sense.
Tara Weinberg: Although families owned individual land parcels in a legal sense, on the ground they continued to collaborate to manage and use grazing land and corn mills. In practice, they retained elements of their vision of collective land ownership.
In the five years following the NFA’s founding, residents made a good living from farming. But over time it became extremely difficult to compete on the market with white commercial farmers, whom the government was pumping with subsidies.
NFA farmers continued to raise questions about Seme’s management of their funds, arguing that he failed to pay the NFA’s financiers and mortgagers. It seemed they were right. But financial strain wasn’t the only thing that plagued the NFA. White farmers in the area organized against the NFA and Seme specifically. They continuously wrote to the government to complain about him—saying, in the racist parlance of the time, that black farmers were a threat to white farmers.
Ultimately, the NFA was liquidated in 1919 and Seme lost control of the company.
The NFA continued to operate under the ownership of the mortgager until the 1950s. Thereafter, residents of Daggakraal and Driefontein continued to live on their land, and held the title deeds to prove it. [contemplative music fades in] Between 1919 and 1994, NFA farmers did not lose their initial visions of what their company and community could look like. They channeled them into different forms: informal credit associations, women’s church groups, farming co-operatives, land management committees, movements to combat forced removals, and, in the 1990s, community trusts that could hold land on behalf of families.
Yet, by the 1980s, the land had become overcrowded, as people evicted from surrounding farms sought out the haven of the NFA land. And today, half the population are unemployed.
In 2019, when I was doing research in South Africa, researcher Sne Ngidi and I asked Daggakraal resident Catherine Madlala to tell us more about the significance of horses in her community.
[contemplative music fades out, and a clip plays from Tara Weinberg and Sne Ngidi’s conversation with Catherine Madlala]
Catherine Madlala: “Horses are useless anyway, what can they do for you that cows and cars cannot?”
Tara Weinberg: That stuck with me. But so did this, from a young person I spoke to in Driefontein: “Our community has a great history. But can we eat history?”
Seme’s vision for the NFA was for a prosperous, self-sufficient black community built on a foundation of individual title deeds. The land buyers who bought into the NFA envisioned instead a collective form of property ownership, regulated by committees. The sitting South African government considered both visions insurgent and dangerous in the early twentieth century, but these visions nonetheless offer glimpses into alternate futures of property ownership in South Africa. [somber piano music fades in] Traces of these visions remain in the way that South Africans manage land today.
So far, the country has yet to take those alternate paths towards thriving and egalitarian forms of collective property ownership. Since the advent of South African democracy in 1994, private property remains entrenched as a right in the South African Constitution. The African National Congress government has supported chiefs in their claims to land ownership, most often to the detriment of ordinary people in rural areas. Very little redistribution of land has taken place, to correct for the disproportionate advantage given to white farmers over black farmers. Meanwhile, government organizations have offered minimal monetary or logistical support to collective landholding ventures called Communal Property Associations, many of which resemble the committees formed by NFA members.
Stories like that of the NFA offer insight into robust traditions of political thought about property, which can enrich debates about land in South Africa—and beyond.
[somber piano music ends, then restarts]
Thanks to the following people for making this story possible with their interviews: Catherine Madlala, Thuthuka Ngwenya, and Bongani Ngqulunga. Thanks also to Sne Ngidi, who assisted me with research in Driefontein and Daggakraal, and whose voice you hear on the interviews with Catherine Madlala. And thanks to Athambile Masola and Bongani Kona for lending their voices to readings from the archives. You can find links to Ngqulunga, Masola, and Kona’s work in the episode webpage.
[somber piano music slowly fades out.]
Hannah Roussel: Thank you for listening. I’d like to second Tara’s gratitude to all those who contributed to this episode, and to thank Tara themself, in their role as episode producer. Tara Weinberg is a doctoral candidate in University of Michigan’s History Department. Their dissertation is titled: “Property of the People: Imaginaries of Property Ownership in South Africa, 1900-1994.”
South African freedom music plays a big role in South African movements to claim back land. Since we were not able to obtain the rights to include some of these songs in our episode, Tara has curated a playlist on Spotify. A link to this playlist can be found on the episode’s webpage.
The audio for this episode was edited by Allie Goodman, Reverb Effect’s season three producer. Allie started the production on this episode during her time as season producer, and we are thankful for her continued work. Our editorial board is Kira Thurman, David Tamayo, Jeffrey Veidlinger, Pragya Kaul, Paige Newhouse, Sophie Wunderlich, and Hannah Tweet. Gregory Parker is our executive producer, and I’m your season producer and host, Hannah Roussel. I hope you’ll join us for our next episode, for more stories about how the past reverberates into the present. This is Reverb Effect.
[Reverb Effect theme music fades in and ends]