History fight over Salem land claim

TWO world-renowned South African historians are squaring up in the Land Claims Court in Grahamstown over events that happened between 70 and 200 years ago.

Celebrated left-wing South African historian and theoretician Martin Legassick is taking on prolific South African historical and political author Professor Hermann Giliomee over a massive land claim in Salem, some 15km south-west of Grahamstown.

At stake is the old Salem Commonage – thousands of hectares of valuable farmland in a winding green valley that was in 1940 divvied up between descendents of the Salem Party of the 1820 Settlers.

Dozens of Xhosa claimants, described in court papers before the Land Claims Court as the “Salem Community”, are laying claim to the old Salem Commonage – now consisting of several productive white- owned farms.

Rallied against them are several farmers – including some descended from the original Salem party of settlers – who say the Xhosa have no claim to the land as they had not been dispossessed of it in terms of any racially discriminatory laws or practices.

In fact, Giliomee and fellow historian Dr Jan Visagie, whose reports are before the court, say no paramount Xhosa chief had ever claimed the Zuurveld – a large tract of land West of the Fish River that included Salem – as Xhosa territory.

They concede Chief Ndlambe had moved into the Zuurveld after 1800 and had been the “strongest chief in the Zuurveld” but say he had never claimed it as his.

They say the Fish River was laid down as the colonial boundary in the 1770s although several Xhosa chiefdoms had come to live west of the river.

They believe there was no evidence on the occupation of the area around Salem itself prior to the allocation of so-called “leningsplase” to white colonists in the 1700s.

Legassic disagrees and said old-fashioned histiographies were often blinkered and exclusive concentrating mainly on whites.

It “regarded blacks as inferior, as trouble makers and a violent hindrance to white settlement and development”.

He said the more modern histiography included the history of all inhabitants including the black majority and used a variety of sources including archeological evidence and oral histories.

Legassic points out Visagie and Gilomee’s interpretation conceded Xhosa settlement preceded colonial settlement by Europeans in the Zuurveld.

A key issue for the Land Claims Court however is whether or not descendents of the current Xhosa claimants were dispossessed of the Salem Commonage after 1913 – the cut off date for land claims.

The commonage was initially allocated to the Salem party of 1820 Settlers for their use.

But the claimants say that before the settlers arrived and right up to 1940 numerous of their ancestors also occupied the commonage and used it to live on, graze cattle, grow crops and bury their dead.

Legassic refers to several historic letters between the Salem Village Management Board, the Administrator of the Cape Province and the Secretary for Native Affairs to prove this.

But in the 1940s the white community who had, until then, shared the commonage were allowed to sub-divide it and transfer portions of it into their individual titles. This resulted in the claimant community losing all rights to the land for which they were not compensated, says the claimants.

The farmers say this was not the case and rights to the commonage had only ever belonged to those white settlers to whom it had been allocated.

The matter continues this week.

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