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Slave descendants in tiny S. African town battle for church-owned land

by Kim Harrisberg | @KimHarrisberg | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 17 January 2020 01:00 GMT

Reverand Temmers poses for a photo in the Elim church in the Western Cape, South Africa, 11 December 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

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'Not owning land feels like we have gone back to being slaves,' said Elim's heritage officer

By Kim Harrisberg

ELIM, South Africa, Jan 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On the plains of South Africa's Western Cape, a tiny town has become an unlikely contender in South Africa's drive for more equitable land rights.

Nearly 200 years ago, German missionaries set up a mission station in what would later be named Elim to provide a home for freed slaves and indigenous Khoi people who would become their first converts.

Now, their descendants say the time has come for them to own the land the Elimers have been living on for almost two centuries, rather than the Moravian church that set up the mission station.

In February Elimers will present a proposal to the Moravian church council, with different land ownership possibilities, such as buying or leasing the 7,500 hectares they call home from the church.

"Not owning land feels like we have gone back to being slaves," said Amanda Cloete, Elim's heritage officer.

"Our ancestors built this town. We want the land," the 58-year-old said inside the Elim heritage museum she founded in 2004.

Across South Africa, a quarter century after segregation and white minority rule under apartheid was officially ended through a negotiated settlement, land ownership remains a sensitive topic.

President and African National Congress leader Cyril Ramaphosa in 2018 launched a process to change the constitution to make explicit provision for the redistribution of land without pay to address high levels of inequality.

This national conversation has trickled into the town of Elim known for thatched roofing, the occasional horse-drawn cart, slave memorials and wild indigenous fynbos plants.

"People are land-hungry," Kenneth Cloete, 78, a retired Elim school principal told the Thomson Reuters Foundation inside an old church building now used for meetings.

"To have land, especially in South Africa, you feel like you are somebody, you have a self-esteem, a sense of belonging," he said.

Yet Elimers are cautious about challenging the traditional role the Moravian church, which originated in Bohemia and Moravia in what is the present-day Czech Republic, has played in the town.

A sign reads 'Welcome to Elim' at the entrance to the town in the Western Cape, South Africa, 11 December 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg


In the final year of school, Elimers undertake "citizenship classes" set by the church.

They sign a pledge to follow rules such as only cohabiting with a spouse, carrying a dog permit if a pet owner, respecting the church's right to issue levies, obeying their duty to God and more.

If land ownership changes hands, both the church and some residents worry the Elim ethos and "living museum" feel, as referred to by Cloete, will be lost.

"We fear shacks being built here, property values dropping and the culture changing," Cloete said.

Carl Richter, 48, a small-scale farmer who owns Elim's only restaurant with his wife Madelein, agrees with that sentiment.

"But if you own land, we can do something for ourselves, we don't have to rely on others," he said in his restaurant where an 'I love Elim' sign welcomes customers.

The first pioneering missionary, Georg Schmidt, was sent by the Moravian church to what was then the Cape Colony in 1737, research has shown.

Elim was established 87 years later, becoming a safe haven for freed and escaped slaves from Malaysia, Madagascar, Mozambique and Indonesia, due to its proximity to the sea, said Reverend Martinus October, Elim's former pastor.

"Today, many people are shouting for title deeds," said October who has worked with the Moravian ministry for 40 years.

"They are saying the church owns the land, but anyone part of the Moravian church owns the land as we are the custodians, they are the shareholders," October, 73, said.

Pauline Cloete poses in front of her house for a photo in Elim in the Western Cape, South Africa, 11 December 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg


In a town where 60% of residents are pensioners and most young people seek jobs in Cape Town, according to Reverend October, new businesses are needed.

But one of the problems the landless Elimers face is that they cannot get loans for starting a business, said Pierre Apollis, the chairperson of the Overseers Council.

Paulson Engel, a member of the Elim Residential Association, said business pitches involving tourism and exporting flowers fell short after a communication breakdown with the church.

"Who is going to invest in a farm owned by the Moravian church?" he asked.

Elim has its own school, clinic, police station, home for children with learning disabilities, greenhouse and dairy, funded by sources including the church, the Cape Agulhas municipality and donations.

The church's Overseers Council acts as Elim's municipality, collecting waste, supplying water and supporting the elderly, while the Cape Agulhas municipality provides electricity and partial funding for projects and infrastructure.

Carl Richter walks through his vegetable garden in Elim in the Western Cape, South Africa, 11 December 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg


To become and remain an Elimer after the citizenship classes, one must pay at least 60 rand ($4) per year, said Elim's current pastor, Reverend Gert Temmers.

For municipal services an additional 350 rand per month is paid to the Overseers Council, while starting a business and farming require annual levies of 250 rand and 150 rand per hectare respectively.

"The church is strangling small farmers and business owners," said Richter. "It is no longer about winning souls for them, it is about winning money."

Despite these levies, the church is short of funds to pay tax to the municipality, repair broken buildings and keep social enterprises - such as a former sewing factory and bakery - open for business, said Apollis.

The church said there is simply not enough to go around, as money needs to be paid to the Moravian provincial board that oversees the mission stations and the Cape Agulhas municipality for electricity and other services.

The Overseers Council said these funds have been poorly managed by the church.

"There has been maladministration (by the church)," said October. "But not malice," he added.

Temmers said the church "is open to rethinking the management structure" of Elim, including land ownership and the role of the church in fulfilling municipal services.

"The people must decide what they want," he said. Inside the church's office, amid a few notices, posters and inspirational quotes pinned on the wall, a small square of paper reads 'Old ways don't open new doors'.

Pastor Temmers laughed when asked about the relevance.

"I disagree with this," he said. "Old ways can open new doors. We can learn from history to understand the best ways to move forward."

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @kimharrisberg; Editing by Astrid Zweynert and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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