There are ghost farms on the foggy N17 into Bethal in Mpumalanga. Farmhouses, as quiet as the stone with which they were built, stand lonely on empty tracts of land and vacant kraals. The colossal Secunda silos loom a few kilometres away.

The air was not thick and dirty as it is now 50 years ago, when these farms were bountiful and alive with the sound of tractors and ploughs, dogs barking and men's voices. But death lurked in these fields: at one time almost palpable as a presence, so much so that the memory and fear of it has succeeded into three generations.

Bethal was ruined by the potato farmers' siege on their workers in the late 1950s, and the legacy of that is at the centre of a race debate that was surely inevitable. The testimony of investigative journalists Ruth First, Joe Gqabi, Drum magazine writer Henry Nxumalo and Jurgen Schadeberg 50 years ago would lead to the mainstream exposé of murderous exploitation, setting in motion mumbling wars over race, class and belonging that have rendered this a town without a soul - crumbling, angry and forgotten.

What happened in the 1950s in Bethal should never be forgotten. Many of the farmers compelled their workers to dig up the potato harvest with their bare hands, and those who could not keep up, or became exhausted, were beaten unmercifully. The men and women who died, either from the beatings or the cruel manual labour, were mostly buried out in the open fields, with members of their own families sometimes having to load their bodies into the earth.

The most harrowing accounts from 50 years ago belong to Nxumalo. Progressive Drum editor Anthony Sampson agreed to send Schadeberg and Nxumalo - posing as a master and servant - to Bethal to investigate rumours about the brutal treatment of farmworkers, and their discovery created such a furore that the issue of the magazine in which their investigation appeared was sold out.

Rumour had it that the agricultural community in Bethal bought every issue and stoked a massive bonfire, but the National Party government, then in power for a mere 10 years, was compelled to set up an investigative commission. Not surprisingly, it merely condemned the farmers. Nothing more was done.

So the ANC - which was not yet banned at the time - supported a national boycott of potatoes and the vegetable soon became as much symbolic of apartheid South Africa as Bantu education, the pass, wage discrimination and other repressive laws. At the height of the boycott, about 100 000 bags of potatoes were said to have been abandoned at the Johannesburg produce market alone, such was the impact of the campaign by black people in the city at the time.

Many of the Bethal farmers, particularly the Jewish farmers - of whom there were several in the 1950s and even through to the 1980s - have long since deserted the area. A sense of alienation pervades the almost exclusively white farming community.

They say the departures were because of a series of devastating farm attacks in which farmers and their wives were threatened, held up, kidnapped and a few murdered.

The blood and danger spread a lingering terror in Bethal, taking an undeniably political hue with racial undertones of Us and Them.

Although most of the whites seem to prefer to advance the theory that "things have only been like this" since the ANC, in their opinion, oversaw the depradation of the town, the other theory directs blame at the sins of the fathers.

Conditions on the farms in Bethal in the 1950s were so barbaric, even medieval, that it became impossible for workers and activists to ignore their situation and, ultimately, it fell to peasant Gert Sibande to mobilise enough resistance to organise the potato boycott that would cripple the agricultural economy and earn international headlines. Sibande, who encouraged workers and the poor of Bethal to refuse to succumb to pain, oppression and murder, is lionised as one of the country's most courageous political figures.

He became a member of the ANC's national executive committee in 1957, and was later banished from Bethal before being named as one of the accused in the Treason Trial of 1957. All these years later, Sibande, long dead, is again a source of deep angst in Bethal.

The ANC in Mpumalanga has set aside money in its sports, culture and recreation sector for the creation of a R3 million brass statue of him, to be erected either outside the Bethal Museum in the main road, or in the town square, where it would share space with monuments to fallen Boer fighters. The museum space is as unsuitable as the square. It has a small paved area outside which is cracking open with weeds allowed to flourish through neglect. Inside, the white history of the town disturbs. Displays feature plastic dolls wearing the white lace clothing of the Trekkers, and an old South African flag hangs heavy with dust in a corner.

The museum is also set for a R6 million upgrade and historical reconstruction, within the culture budget, much to the delight of Amos Hlatshwayo, the curator. He hurts over the fact that the museum currently has no reference to Sibande, although it fondly displays sepia pictures of two Afrikaner farmers' wives - Elizabeth du Plooy and Alide Naude - whose names were combined to create the word "Bethal". A 1930s wedding dress has pride of place. So, even here, an honour for Sibande would be long-deserved.

Sibande is also the subject of The Lion of the East, the hotly contested, R20 million Mbongeni Ngema musical that has drawn attention to the small town and the 50th anniversary of the potato boycott. Those who oppose both the statue and the musical are mostly white. Rightly, they believe the ANC-led Govan Mbeki Municipality, which serves the Gert Sibande District into which Bethal falls, is reneging on promises to improve infrastructure, viability and quality of life.

This much is obvious. Bethal is clearly in an economic crisis, its roads and buildings are in utter disrepair, unemployment is rife and a feeling of hopelessness seeps into conversation on the streets. But opposition to a brass statue and a show that may yet bring some honour to the town is somewhat misguided.

Common accounting practices appear to have eluded the critics. Every department has its own budget, and the R3 million Bethal statue and the Ngema musical will be paid for out of the allocated culture budget, not that for infrastructure, housing or health.

Yet both events have entrenched racial divisions in Bethal, where whites do not recognise a black community's pain that has lingered for 50 years. They do not know, nor do they care, about Sibande or the suffering and brutality that happened on their farms.

The Selborne Lodge, once the pride of Bethal, is a devastating example of what Bethal has become. The hotel, which once had a busy inside bar and tables in a convivial pavement setting on the main road, is now a hovel. The people who live there, all black, pay R100 a month for a room to a mysterious councillor at the municipal offices. They have no receipts for their payment, and they do not receive services, although they put money together to install a prepaid electricity meter for lights and a hot water supply.

A few weeks ago, the front of the lodge was battered in by what the residents describe as a bunch of screaming white boys. It is now barricaded with wooden beams. Meanwhile, the lodge has gone up on auction, the previous owner having disappeared after failing to pay an enormous service bill.

The black women in the hotel say white men insult them in the street, calling them prostitutes. Indeed, the white men outside make this allegation openly, waving angrily in the direction of the lodge where the women stand, arms folded defiantly, or protectively, at the back entrance.

The truth, like so much about Bethal, is not known.