Roger Roman: "Land Rights are Human Rights"

A Tribute to Ntate Obed Moja

Promised Land: Ntate Obed Moja

Ntate Obed Moja was one of the members of the Mekgareng community that the white landowners considered "squatters" on their land. Moja had been living on the land in question since his birth in 1901. He passed away in 2007. Roger Roman, also featured in the film and the founder of Land for Peace, wrote this tribute to him.

Living and Dying With Dignity.

On Thursday evening, Ntate Obed Moja stayed at the fire later than usual. When one of his family members asked if he was going to bed he said, "The time for me to die has come. I will sit here for a while." At about half past nine he stood up and asked for assistance walking to his favorite spot on the seat outside the front door. "I will sit and rest here, for the last time" he said. With his old walking stick in front of him and with the pale light of the moon directly above him, he sat and rested against the wall of his house. Before him was another house, built in honor of his 100th birthday by the Homeless People's Federation, and to the left was the small room where he was born on February 1, 1901. All around him were members of five generations of his family. After about 10 minutes, Moja slowly stood up, turned around and entered his house, and then he lay down on his bed for the last time. He folded his arms across his chest and closed his eyes, and five minutes later he passed away peacefully. A life lived with dignity ended just the way it should -- peacefully and with dignity, and with the deceased in his own bed.

Moja was not only the father of the Po Land community, but also the longest surviving and oldest resident of the Hartbeespoort Dam area. Apart from a short break during the 1940s, when Moja lived in Johannesburg, he spent every day of his life in Broederstroom. Born on the farm then owned by Voortrekker leader Bart Pretorious, Moja once had his own herd of cows, but in later years permission for that herd was withdrawn by the landowner, and Moja ended up with only a small patch of vegetables. Around him grew not only his own family, but also a small community of people who, like Moja himself, became refugees due to the encroachment of white landowners.

At the dawn of the new South Africa in 1994, the community hoped that its tenure and right to stay would be secured. That did not come to pass. In 1998, when Moja was 97 years old, most of the white landowners in the valley got together, called him and the rest of the community onwettige plakkers, or illegal squatters, and demanded that the local council evict them. Landowners informed the council that if it failed to do so, the landowners would resort to violence. The council, the dregs at the bottom of the apartheid barrel, was, of course, only too happy to evict, as eviction fit into its ethnic cleansing plan for the dam area.

In the fight by community members to remain in their homes, the old man's leadership and strength became central to the community. The council tried to force me (as the landowner at the time) to conduct the eviction on its behalf. The night I got the council's letter, I imagined myself standing in front of Moja, looking into his bright, lively eyes, and telling him he had to leave, to go. And then I tried to work out an answer to the question he was sure to ask: "Why?" I failed utterly to find anything remotely like an acceptable answer, and at that point knew I had no choice but to fight for his right to stay where he was.

The community and I made a promise to Moja then that he would spend the rest of his life in his own home, free of harassment and the threat of eviction. I am proud that we succeeded in fulfilling that promise, and that the old man was able to die as he had lived -- with dignity. His life and even his death are a victory over those who have waged a relentless campaign against the Po Land community and who still seek the eviction of the community. Perhaps those people should ask themselves Moja's question -- "Why?" -- and then they should find an answer compatible with the Christianity they so piously and hypocritically proclaim.

Rest In peace, Ntate. You have earned it.

Roger Roman, August 2007.