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South African Blacks Return To Ancestral Lands Taken by State

MATTHEWS KGATITSOE, now a pensive man in his sixties, shows the pain of the last decade as he points to a pile of bricks hewn out of volcanic rock that was once the primary school of this close-knit rural community. "We will never see buildings like that again in Mogopa," Mr. Kgatitsoe says. "My ancestors knew how to cut those bricks out of the stone. But today there is no one left who can do that."

Seven years ago, government bulldozers flattened Mogopa's 500 or so dwellings, meticulously crafted from the brown and gray rock.

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After being shunted from one temporary site to another, leaders of the scattered community returned to reclaim their land in February 1990, in defiance of the authorities, and have begun rebuilding the once-thriving rural settlement.

The 4,000-member community at Mogopa was destroyed in 1984 as part of the government's program of removing so-called "black spots" from white rural areas in order to realize its vision of territorial partition based on race.

In pursuit of this ideology, some 3.5 million black South Africans were forcibly removed from their homes or ancestral lands over the past three decades.

But last month, Pretoria unveiled land reforms that scrapped racial discrimination in land allocation. It failed, however, to recognize the principle of returning land to communities that had been dispossessed.

Since the reforms were announced, several communities have repossessed their land in defiance of the authorities, and several more are planning to do so.

On May 19, the government made further concessions, saying that it would consider returning land to communities affected by apartheid laws and would set up a "representative" commission to advise the authorities.

This fell short of demands by the African National Congress and civil rights groups for the creation of a Land Claims Court that would have binding powers to settle land disputes, but the ANC welcomed the government move as an "improvement."

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"I feel good in my heart to be back on the land," says Daniel Molefe, an elderly man with a gray beard who was helping rebuild the school. "I want to work for my children now to rebuild the community."

But he is not satisfied with the government's begrudging return of the ancestral land, which the people of Mogopa insist is legally theirs.

"The government must fix up all the damage that has been done here and rebuild the houses," says Mr. Molefe, who led the return of the Mogopa people to their land last year.

In promising the new reforms the government has presented itself with a moral dilemma: Once apartheid laws are acknowledged as unjust, the case can be made that there is a moral obligation to return land confiscated in the name of apartheid and repair damage perpetrated in demolitions and forced removals.

Mogopa - which means crocodile in the Tswana language - is situated on two farms about 12 miles northwest of the ultraconservative town of Ventersdorp, about 100 miles west of Johannesburg.

It is surrounded by corn and cattle farms belonging to conservative white farmers who leased the land for grazing after the Mogopa people were driven off in 1984.

It is a tranquil place at the base of a hill that serves to emphasize the extent of the golden plains that stretch as far as the eye can see.

The residents of Mogopa have such a powerful bond with the land they have occupied since 1912 that they have formed a sub-tribal identity - the Bakwena BaMagopa - which derives entirely from their territorial origin.

Mogopa is close to a similar community on government-owned land, Goedgevonden, which attracted attention 10 days ago when security forces opened fire on right-wing white farmers threatening to remove the community from the land.

The 1,000 or so residents who have returned to Mogopa have built wood-and-iron shanties among the scattered volcanic bricks that symbolize the community's determination to retain its link with the land.

The only rocks that remain undisturbed are those used to mark simple graves in the extensive ancestral graveyard at the foot of the hill.

Some Mogopa residents returned to the devastated site in September 1989 when Gerrit Viljoen, then development minister, gave permission for them to live on the farm temporarily to maintain the graves.

Five months later, the residents moved back to stay and were accused by officials of betraying the government's trust.

During their seven-year absence, the neighboring farmers have not only used the Mogopa land for grazing. Huge piles of volcanic rock next to recent diggings bear testimony to their search for gem stones in the rocks, a source of secondary diamonds according to a geologist.

"Our fathers were clever," Kgatitsoe says with a wry smile. "They did not only buy the land in 1912, they also bought the mineral rights. In the old days the farmers used to pay our fathers for digging rights. But, while we were gone from the land, they just moved in and helped themselves."

Today the school has been rebuilt in precast mortar bricks on a nearby site. But a foundation stone remains, bearing the date 9-1-84 (Jan. 9, 1984), where a new school was to have been built before the community was destroyed in February 1984.

Kgatitsoe, who acts as leader of the fragmented Mogopa community, shows no trace of bitterness as he describes the events of February 14, 1984.

"They came at two o'clock in the morning with guns and trucks. They destroyed our buildings, and they forced us into the trucks and took us away," Kgatitsoe says.

The repression and the broken promises have taken their toll. Today the Mogopa people are scattered far and wide, and many of the young people have left for jobs in the cities. But many return during the weekend now that the community is being rebuilt.

"Our children must come back," Kgatitsoe says with an urgent tone in his voice.

"We are getting very old. But we are very happy to be back on our land. We never thought it would happen," he says. "So there is hope for the future."

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