Friday Activist: Constance Mogale

Zukiswa Pikoli

‘As a black child, you cannot say you’re not an activist unless you are not conscious of your environment!’

The national co-ordinator for the Alliance for Rural Democracy (ARD), Constance Galeo Mogale, is a formidable force in the rural land rights arena and as we conduct the interview her fiery passion is unmistakable as she punctuates her sentences with blazing eyes and razor-sharp analysis.

Mogale was born in rural North West and has a long history of land rights activism spanning as far back as the first democratic dispensation. She describes herself as a daughter of families dispossessed of their land on both sides. Mogale says she started off in activism with just a matric certificate and the passion engendered in her by her two grandmothers who raised her.

Her parents were domestic workers in Johannesburg, with her father being both a petrol attendant and gardener. Her father’s family was originally from and owned land in Lichtenburg but was later removed to Ramatlabama – a village about 25km from the border of Botswana – where she stayed until she completed her matric.

After matric, she moved to her maternal home in Goedgevonden, close to Ventersdorp. There she started to develop a consciousness about land, particularly land as an asset.

Her mother’s family also owned land around Lichtenburg as a result of her great-grandmother clubbing together with other black families in the area to purchase land in the 1940s.

She recalls that many of her grandmother’s friends and family would gather at her family home and lament the fact that her grandmother had sold her land. She remembers one of her grandfathers, a staunch Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) supporter who criticised the ANC’s stance on land, particularly the fact that the Land Restitution Act only went as far back as the 1913 Natives Land Act.

One day her grandmother’s associates invited her to come to a meeting in Johannesburg about their land rights as they needed someone to take minutes. At the meeting were their legal representatives, Geoff Budlender and Durkje Gilfillan from the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), and a representative from the Black Sash. As a result of her participation in these discussions with other landowners and land rights organisations, she started to understand the value of owning land.

In 1996, when South Africa no longer had Bantustans, Mogale helped form the Land Access Movement of South Africa (Lamosa), which represented countrywide land rights movements, and of which she is now a director. Mogale says land is important in rural areas so that people can be self-sustaining, produce their own food and survive without being dependent on mine work. She adds that one of the reasons people were dispossessed of their land was the co-option and collusion of traditional leaders with the government, forcing people to become migrant labourers.

She says that initially Lamosa was sustained by membership contributions as it was difficult to get funding without a profile and especially being a rural, young black woman.

The Alliance for Rural Democracy (ARD) was formed because of a need to collaborate with stakeholders in the land rights sectors, like academics and legal resource centres. Mogale says this was to help people tackle issues of governance in rural areas.

Through the ARD they were able to challenge the Traditional Courts Bill and the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Act. However, they realised that they needed to ensure that agency remained in the hands of people and not give too much power to attorneys.

Mogale believes it is important for people to be able to mobilise among themselves and drive their own struggles. She says this can be done by ensuring that traditional leaders are never in a position to make decisions without consultation. She also firmly believes people must arm themselves with information and a clear understanding of their rights.

Mogale says that the Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Act (TKLA), on the surface, looks like a good act, particularly in its recognition of Khoi-San leaders. However, it does this through the recognition of leaders as identified by the Black Authorities Act that governed Bantustans. She says the Black Authorities Act created false boundaries and forced people under traditional leadership, even if they did not recognise the leader as their own according to their cultural denomination.

With regards to Khoi-San leadership, however, these leaders are only recognised by canvassing community support, unlike other traditional leaders. She said because traditional leaders are now effectively paid by the government, they are susceptible to political co-option as opposed to championing the interests of their communities. This means they can enter into mining contracts without community consultation, endangering the livelihoods of rural people. This is why she gets excited when she speaks of Stop the Bantustans campaign, launched by the ARD soon before the Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill was signed into an act of Parliament.

Mogale says the campaign involved attending all government community consultations and conscientising communities about the bill in order for people to give informed consent. She says she and her fellow activists spoke to traditional leaders and community members alike and openly challenged officials in consultations and were considered a thorn in the government’s side.

On her position on women’s rights, particularly rural women, Mogale says women are not a homogenous group and will have different experiences. She says the majority of women in rural areas are still disempowered and those who have a modicum of power have it by association with men.

She points out that even with empowerment initiatives, such as in mining, where a certain percentage has to be allocated to women, it’s often marginal and is not enough to make a meaningful impact in communities. She acknowledges that there are immediate wins that women can make, but “in the long term we need courage”. By courage, she means a willingness to work together for collective empowerment and speaking up for each other.

Asked if she ever experiences intimidation she chuckles, “Yes, all the time.”

She says her deep, raspy voice comes in handy to create the impression of someone of a bigger physical stature than she actually is. She says she feels as though she has a protective aura over her because there have been instances where she has narrowly escaped harm.

When an article she wrote for Maverick Citizen about the Covid-19 crisis and government’s responsiveness to people in rural areas comes up she reiterates the critique. Mogale says the government has shown its lack of readiness to respond to crises as a result of the lack of information shared, allocation of PPE to health workers and the misguided assumption that people in rural areas had ready and constant access to water for sanitisation.

She says when devising the social support plan of sending food parcels to those in need, the government neglected to source vegetables from farmers in the area to whom they had allocated land, as opposed to transporting them from the cities.

She also criticised the Department of Social Development for not being able to respond to the social crisis and having to enlist the help of big companies to raise money for the Solidarity Fund. She says this makes her question how far the state’s power extends and whether this will not put the country at the mercy of big business.

She says that the government’s lack of readiness is because of its over-concentration on economic activity, meaning it hasn’t invested enough in strengthening the country’s social systems.

I ask her what it takes to be an activist and to have an activist spirit.

“As a black child you cannot say you’re not an activist unless you are not conscious of your own environment!” she responds emphatically.

She says that the societal systems we live in are yet to be transformed, meaning inevitable failure if we don’t actively “dismantle them”. She says there needs to be educational programmes teaching children the value of fighting for social justice “to work for the emancipation of yourself but of others as well”.

She says she’s so passionate about her work that sometimes people think she is a slave driver. Gesticulating excitedly, she says her passion means with or without funders’ support she will never stop being an activist because it is something that was ignited in her as a young girl growing up in rural North West helping her grandmother pursue her land rights.

Her face softens as she says she unwinds by spending time with her family, her children and grandchildren. She adds that her siblings love to come “squat” at her house and on those days red wine is their drink of choice.

Her face glows as she describes how she used to love spending time with her maternal grandmother, listening to her stories and seeing her smile. Mogale says before she died, her grandmother would host a harvest feast that would gather the family and church people around, a real highlight for her.

This article first appeared in Daily Maverick on 17 July 2020.

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