Social justice activist to the last breath


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Cosmas Desmond

One of the most compelling books on dispossession and forced removals is the late Cosmas Desmond’s The Discarded People.

In the preface, Lord Caradon wrote: “This is a terrifying book. It is an account of callous contempt for human suffering, the ugliness of systematic cruelty, and the self-righteousness of the oppressor … sometimes a book can make, can alter, the course of history. Father Desmond’s book could well do so.”

While Desmond’s book might not have changed the course of history, it was avidly read by those who sought to understand the devastation caused by white land seizures through the 20th century.

It was a process in which bloody conquest was given legal sanction in a myriad laws as Africans were shoved off the land. As segregation broadened into apartheid, so the process of reserving 87 percent of the land for white use was pursued more systematically.

Page Yako hauntingly captures this squeezing:

Yes, we fold up our knees

It’s impossible to stretch out

Because the land has been hedged in.

When Desmond arrived in Mnxesha (Dimbaza) in 1969, 15km from King William’s Town, the population stood at about 3 400 people with more than 2 000 children:

“… There was grinding poverty, squalor and hardship equal to the worst places I had seen. There were the familiar, tiny, one- or two-room houses, many with a number of ragged, hungry looking children or a bent woman sitting outside. It was not quite true that I could no longer be shocked or disturbed. I was, in particular, by the sight of one tiny baby, a virtual skeleton, unable to move or even cry and covered with flies.”

Desmond highlighted the story of Mrs E M: “She arrived at Mnxesha from Burgersdorp in December 1968, with her six children. By May 1969, two of the children had died; two others, aged 13 and six, had ‘gross pellagra’, according to a doctor; another younger child was in hospital with malnutrition.

“She is a widow and was supporting herself in Burgersdorp by doing domestic work; now she has no employment. She is only 37 years old and so does not receive a pension. As Mnxesha is a rural area she cannot get a child maintenance allowance.

“Since she went to Mnxesha she had no source of income apart from a few cents which she manages to earn by collecting wood from miles away and selling it in the settlement.

“She has taken her children to the nurse several times but because she did not have 20 cents they were not attended to. She was receiving government rations, which were obviously inadequate.”

While Desmond’s travels documented the impact of removals across the country, it was Dimbaza that became the focus of attention. A year after the book was published, a 33-year-old Anglican priest, David Russell, resolved to live on the government welfare handout of R5 a month: “I could run away – or I could make a symbolic gesture to show my fellow whites what is happening to the people they put in Dimbaza.”

The response from government was to cut the amount in half to R2.50.

Most significantly, a documentary titled Last Grave at Dimbaza made in 1974 was shown around the world.

Paul Miller wrote: “Last Grave ends on a sombre note in the township of Dimbaza. The concluding sequences show the graves of African children, some marked with plastic feeding bottles, and a long row of empty graves, a foreboding for the future.

“The film ends reminding the viewer that in the hour it took to watch it, six families had been kicked out of their homes, 60 people were arrested for pass law violations and 60 children have died of malnutrition.”

There was a time in the early 1980s in which jobs came to Dimbaza, benefiting from its declaration as an industrial hub. Fortified by generous subsidies, factories, mostly foreign owned, ringed the area. But as tariffs tumbled down and subsidies eroded, the factories were abandoned.

Some 40 years after Desmond wrote The Discarded People, Dimbaza – which means a place where rubbish is dumped – is still a place for the superfluous. A part of what Mike Davis has called the “mass of humanity structurally and biologically redundant to global accumulation and the corporate matrix. So it was. So it is.”

Born in London and arriving in South Africa in 1959 to serve the Catholic Church, Desmond’s work earned him a banning order in 1971. In the aftermath of the murder of Rick Turner in 1978, Desmond left for London once more and only returned in 1991. He always had a child-like sparkle attached to an acerbic bite, which he often turned on at what he saw as the betrayals of the leaders of post-apartheid South Africa.

While he might have left the Catholic priesthood, he often returned to the scriptures, writing in 2008 that the rural poor were “still the hewers of wood and drawers of water”. For Desmond, apartheid did not die; rather, it had “a makeover and bought some new clothes”.

Tellingly, when he signed the wall at Ike’s Bookshop in Morningside, Durban, he wrote: “Now we are all discarded.”

Desmond’s work has been largely ignored in post-1994 South Africa, probably too vivid a reminder of how the past persists in the present. In a world where research has often become the captive of surveys and statistical analysis, Desmond’s book reminds us of the power of bearing witness.

As we approach a century since the passing of the 1913 Land Act, Desmond’s book is a classic account of dispossession, standing alongside Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa and Charles van Onselen’s The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper.

l Ashwin Desai is professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg. His latest book is Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island


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