Tens of thousands of hectares of commercial forest throughout Southern Africa is subject to land claims made in terms of the Restitution of Land Rights Act.

The communities involved and the commercial forest owners are looking to find a way that their rights and interests can be reconciled.

I, speaking on behalf of the community that has lodged such a claim, am not bold enough to propose a solution to the challenge that faces us - all I can do is to spell out in broad detail the road we have travelled and our hope for the future.

The Mnisi Clan was forcibly removed from their land in the 1930's and 40's to make way for commercial forestry.

Our lives then were very different. We were just a few hundreds of people living traditional lives as our forefathers had lived before us on the high plateau above Barberton. We were poor people but life was good. There was plentiful grazing for our livestock, the soil was rich and fertile, the men would hunt and the women would collect fruit and medicinal plants from the virgin forests that crowded the valleys - rivers and streams flowed everywhere.

Very few people took up formal employment on the white-owned farms and mines because everything we needed was provided by bountiful nature and our own labour.

All that ended when we were removed. We were pushed into crowded native reserves, we were forced to go and work in the mines and on the farms to buy what we had previously produced ourselves. The Mnisi Clan was split up and scattered and much of our history and cultural heritage was lost. Through the long hard years of apartheid, most of us did no better than to survive. Our lives were degraded and miserable. After I buried my mother at our ancestral kraal I was compelled by the forest owners to exhume her body and rebury it elsewhere.

Thanks to the democratic reforms that took place in South Africa, the Mnisi Clan have the prospect of recovering their land. But the land has changed, our people have changed, the world has changed and it is impossible for us to go back to where we were or to regain what we have lost. The challenge that faces us is however clear. It is to find the means to use the land that is being restored to us, to regain our dignity, to rebuild our family and to restore the welfare we once enjoyed.

This is a daunting task. The grasslands have gone. The indigenous forests are all but destroyed, the rivers are dry and when we visit the ruins of our villages and the graves of our ancestors, we find them in a desert of blue gum and pine. The forests, the birds, the animals, the water - it has all gone.

The land and environment that is being restored to us is not the land that was taken away.

How do we then use the land to our community's best advantage?

The forest owners tell us of the millions of rands they have invested in the land, in the forests, in the roads and in their paper and saw mills. They tell us of the contribution the industry has made to our country's economy, to job creation, to progress, to development.

They tell us that this investment must be preserved and protected in the best interests of us all.

What is being proposed to communities such as ours is to preserve the status quo. Our ownership, they suggest, will provide two types of benefit.

  1. An annual income from a lease agreement with the forestry companies.
  2. Empowerment and employment opportunities. In the form of contracts to provide logging, planting, maintenance and transport services.

These proposals are not very attractive although the rental income will go some way to alleviate poverty, it will not change our people's lives in any fundamental way.

Contracting in the forests may make a few people richer but it will not increase employment and will not change the character of the work, which is arduous, dangerous, largely unskilled and low paid. In fact our experience is that the use of contractors in the forestry business results in an overall worsening of employment conditions.

But the biggest problem is that these proposals do not meet our community's needs.

We want to rebuild sustainable communities.

We want to rebuild our culture and our traditions.

We wish to restore dignity to our people. Cash and jobs will not bring this about.

We would like to see a comprehensive social and economic development proposal put on the table by the forestry companies. That will help us achieve these goals.

The key components of such a plan would involve the following;

  1. The re-establishment of communities on or near our land.
  2. A diversification of economic activity to include;
    1. Subsistance and small scale commercial farming enterprises.

    2. More downstream value adding processing of timer in the forest areas through the introduction of hi-technology machinery for furniture and wooden component manufacture.

    3. The introduction and development of conservation and tourism enterprises.
  3. The provision of social services by the State in the form of schools, welfare and adult education programmes.

Such a programme creates the potential to give the restoration of ownership some meaning and significance.