Dear Mr Malema, if you can win my Zurich land back, I’m out of here

JOHANNESBURG — The land debate has resurfaced as a hot topic in South Africa in recent times. Former ANC Youth League leader and now the head of the EFF, Julius Malema, has persistently called for expropriation of land without compensation. Amid the ANC’s recent electoral defeats in the municipal polls last year, President Jacob Zuma — looking to smoke out the EFF — has himself reignited calls for expropriation of land without compensation. Of course, this style of land reform failed to work in Zimbabwe and it won’t work here. Moreover, the Constitution currently adequately deals with the issue. It’s timely then that Melt van der Spuy has a sarcastic approach towards this issue by asking a pertinent question: how far back in human history do you want to go, Julius, when it comes to land? – Gareth van Zyl

By Melt van der Spuy*

Dear Julius

As a Social Justice and Community Development Practitioner who works in the Church and NGO sector, I agree with you regarding the necessity of some form of restitution needing to be made for the theft of land during the Colonial and Apartheid eras respectively. You have my backing and support – to the extent that the need for restitution definitely exists.

I do however, have some observations to make regarding the accuracy of some of your more frequent and inaccurate historical claims. I also have some questions to ask you, relating to parameters and limits needing to be applied to the proposed land restitution. Could you please give me peace of mind on that score?

Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of South Africa’s EFF. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.

Let me begin by observing very clearly that ‘invasion, conquest and dispossession’ was the prevailing pattern of all colonisers from the time of Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire and more recently the European Colonizers (whether Spanish, English, French, German, Dutch, Italian or Portuguese.) The fact that it was the prevailing pattern doesn’t make it right, it just serves to recognise that all of humanity followed this pattern.

Let me state equally clearly that ‘invasion, conquest and dispossession’ was the pattern of land theft followed by Mzilikazi, the Matabele leader whose very name means ‘trail of blood.’ During the Mfecane (‘the crushing’) which lasted between 15 and 18 years, he murdered his way across Southern Africa uniting the new Ndebele order and killing all who opposed his vision. ‘Be a part of us or die’ was the choice facing those even thinking about opposing Mzilikazi. Ironically this Mfecane took place concurrently with the time that the Boer Voortrekkers were moving North from the Cape in their own land grab. (There is an urban legend that says Mzilikazi and Piet Retief had a ‘Klippies and Coke’ together somewhere in current KZN.) This self-same pattern of invasion and conquest swept across the globe in Australia, the Americas, to an extent in Asia and of course across the whole of Africa. None of us is removed from the times in which we are born. 

Let’s also be clear about the fact that many European Settlers arriving in new lands were forcibly removed from their own lands in Europe, and had to flee because of the persecution they were facing in their home countries! Conflict arising out of the Reformation swept across Europe and Britain, and the Roman Catholic Church (of the time) ousted many reformers from their land without any title deeds to claim upon return.

Protestant Huguenots from as far afield as France and Switzerland fled to South Africa for reasons strongly faith related, rather than ‘with any agenda to rape, steal and pillage’. They were looking for a fresh and a free start. Sadly, in their plight for that new beginning, they managed to rob many others of their own freedom. 

Julius Malema, leader of South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), gestures during a media briefing in Alexander township near Sandton, South Africa August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

My heritage on my mother’s side, stems directly from these Swiss Huguenots. There is still a family castle outside of Zurich in a little village called Elgg. The castle is known as ‘Schloss Elgg’ and the last surviving male members of this little clan have the ignominious honour of contributing to the Schloss’ financial upkeep on an annual basis, rather than standing to gain anything financially from it! 

My mother’s tribe was a short, squat (mostly fat to be honest), warmongering people by the name of Werdmuller von Elgg. Centuries before the Reformation these little warmongers participated in the Crusades killing all Muslims, Jews and other undesirable types before them. I don’t know who the other undesirable types were, but there must have been more undesirable types than only Jews and Muslims, there always are…(bastards!) 

By the time of the Reformation the Werdmullers’ from Elgg had broken it off with Rome and seemed to be aligned to the radical Reformers in Switzerland under Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli himself was known to have disposed of quite a few people in his time, and is really not my favourite Reformer. 

I prefer the theology of Luther and Menno Simons with reservation in the case of Luther who was an anti-Semite of note. 

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I have no idea what it was that led to the Werdmullers’ squabble with Rome, since faith was not particularly big on the family agenda from what I can tell. I am a first- generation Christian, with little Christian heritage to look to on either side of my heritage. Sex, adultery, debauchery, war, booze, and food (more recently golf, rugby and arm wrestling) seem to have been more important to my clans than faith, so perhaps the Pope offended at a dinner party – who knows? In any event, for the sake of this conversation it is important to note that the little Werdmuller clan was forced off their land near Zurich and made to flee Switzerland and heretical faith was the reason given for their expulsion. 

From my brief and extraordinarily inadequate sweep of ‘world history’ above I need to ask you some questions for advice and clarification Julius:

  1. How far back do we take this thing – we are all children of the times in which we are born?  And, Julius if you’ve read Tolkien, you will remember that Gandalf says just that to Frodo:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

  1. When land is (rightfully) given back to the native African people from whom it was illegitimately usurped (no debate about that at all), do the descendants of Mzilikazi give back the land they stole from the other African tribes and make restitution for the murder of the Khoi and San people they killed along the way, or are they off the hook? Does restitution apply only to white colonizers?  If not, we might find that Africa itself has an enormous problem in trying to discern which tribe stole what from whom and when…phew! The map of Africa is already so divided, except of course as we know it is only really divided by the Nile (which according to Zuma ‘does not cut it.’)
  2. Since Switzerland has been independent from the Roman Catholic Church for some time now, to whom do I make claim for restitution of our few acres of land outside of Zurich? Jules, if you can get that back for me, I’m out of here. I promise to be gone by the end of 2017. I don’t have the Pope’s number but I’m not even sure he will be the right dude to appeal to – he seems to be focused on in house problems in the RC Church at present? Switzerland recognises no State Religion and most Cantons seem to be split equally between the Roman Catholic Church and the Swiss Reformed Church, with a smattering of Jews and other faiths -who have all been allowed back for quite a while now. The only real link to Rome would seem to be the Swiss Guard? (I never quite worked out how they defend themselves with those stupid little red knives. That has to be the reason they opted for neutrality).  

If my idea of repatriation to Europe catches on mind you; you could be inundated by requests from families Du Preez, Le Roux, Uys, Mouton, Du Bois, Du Plessis, De Villiers, Aucamp, Boshof, Bruwer, Delport, Du Toit, Joubert, Lombard, Malan, Marais and so the list continues ad infinitum! You might be compelled to set up an office and perhaps even a government department to relocate all these tribes back to their lands of origin. It’s a heck of a task Julius. The exit of SA Rugby players with surnames of French origin to places like Toulouse, Toulon, Perpignan and Grenoble has likely begun the process. You should be able to pick up on that momentum?

  1. On a more realistic and reasoned note relating to the future of South Africa: Is the land restitution you suggest limited to taking land from the Commercial Sector worth R5,8 trillion, according to you, or do I forfeit the small home – representing everything my family and I have worked for, for 54 years – as well? I’d really like to know Jules, since we plan to do some building next year if things become a little easier for us financially? I’d prefer to hold back on that for now if you want our house. Please let me know before we start. Building is not cheap and it’s also inconvenient.
  2. Equally seriously: Recognizing the need for some form of restitution (which I really do recognize Julius); is it not worth considering a long-term tax break of 10, 20, 30 or 40 years (depending on the extent of the loss experienced) rather than a wholesale land grab? Would that not be a more sustainable and far less emotive way of addressing and redressing the imbalances and injustices of the recent past of this country?

Finally, sir; my own family includes two Xhosa children who we have raised as our own children for close to 25 years now. One is a single subject short of graduating B. Com from UWC, and one is a first year B. Com student in residence at Stellenbosch University on a hockey scholarship. 

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Does the fact that we have ploughed our meagre earnings and spiritual / emotional energy into this pursuit represent a ‘good thing that we have done’, that goes some way toward redressing the imbalances of the past? Or have we unwittingly fed into a form of neo-Colonialism debasing culture (although we have tried very, very hard not to) in the process? I really would value your guidance and advice on this and a few other matters, since I no longer seem able to discern between what is right and what is wrong in these types of situations? 

Failing agreement on the way forward for my family and so many like us in South Africa, would you please consider making appeal to the Swiss and French Governments, or the Pope – or -better yet, all of those, on our behalf?  

Looking forward to your response, input and assistance.


  • Melt van der Spuy (Rev.), IMM. BA. Dip Th. MTh. D.Min (cand.), Director Development Associates International (South Africa). 
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