DOORNKOP, South Africa — It was a bitter winter morning in 1974 when heavily armed white police suddenly stormed into this quiet rural community with dogs, trucks and bulldozers to forcibly move thousands of terrified blacks to distant dumping grounds in so-called black homelands.
"I was asleep," recalled Aaron Thamaga, who was then 12. "But then there was a light in the house. The roof of my father's house was grass. . . . And they were burning the roof. Then they knocked all the walls down."
The brutal attempt to erase what was called a "black spot" from a white area drew little notice two decades ago. Doornkop was only one of hundreds of nonwhite communities cruelly demolished under apartheid's "forced removals" policy. Its residents were among about 3.5 million people uprooted at gunpoint by the white minority regime.
But justice is finally coming. The dispossessed now can begin to reclaim and resettle their property under South Africa's new land restoration law, the most significant legislation to redress the wrongs of apartheid since the country's historic all-race election in April.
The denizens of Doornkop went home filled with bitter memories and ambitious dreams last week, the first community to move back since the far-reaching law was enacted two weeks ago.
"My ancestors are buried here," Thamaga said emotionally, pointing to a dilapidated, weed-choked cemetery filled with broken headstones and rusting tin crosses. "I think they are happy today to see my face. I'm so happy. This is my land."
Members of 45 families--about 200 people in all--were trucked back to reclaim the 2,000 acres in the rolling green hills of the Eastern Transvaal that were settled by their forebears nearly a century ago.
Joyous singing, ululations and solemn prayers of homecoming soon echoed across the desolate fields, empty but for broken bricks and a cluster of bullet-riddled walls under nearby trees. That's all that remains of a poor but vibrant farming community that once boasted livestock, orchards, shops and schools.
"It was a very peaceful place," 54-year-old Deborah Kgoroba recalled. "We were almost all churchgoers. We were almost all family too, because so many people married. And we plowed our gardens and vegetables. There was no hunger at all. And they moved us to places all covered with stones, and trees with thorns, and snakes all around."
She and her parents were trucked to an impoverished township in Lebowa, about 50 miles away, while all their belongings disappeared somewhere else.
"We lost everything," she said. "I went to where the police said to complain, but to this day, nothing."
The eviction was typical. Although 283 Bapedi-speaking farmers jointly held a deed to the land, the government officially declared Doornkop a "black spot" in 1964 and ordered it removed. Not surprisingly, the residents refused to move.
And in the next decade, the area saw an influx of thousands of black migrants, most made homeless by other forced removals and evictions from white farms. It also saw repeated attacks and arrests of community leaders and harassment of residents.
Police finally cleared the site in June, 1974, after four days of house-to-house searches. Accompanied by snarling police dogs, they shot locks off doors, beat and arrested those who resisted and forced the rest onto trucks as bulldozers leveled the village while a police helicopter clattered overhead.
"It was horrible," said Helen Makatelele, 38. "They are shouting at us. They don't give us a chance to pack. All our cutlery is broken. And we cannot take our sheep, our cows and our chickens. I was crying so much."
Residents were taken to three rural townships built on arid parcels of land, but many later migrated to Soweto and other slums around Johannesburg.
No one today publicly justifies those policies. How to right the wrong, however, is another question. The restoration of land to the dispossessed is one of the thorniest problems facing South African President Nelson Mandela's new government.
Some cases date to 1913, for example, when the Natives Land Act banned blacks from owning land outside tiny reserves, later called homelands, in the country's poorest and least arable areas. That was more than three decades before apartheid was created.
Later laws, particularly the Group Areas Act of 1950, added harsh new restrictions by decreeing where members of each race could live, work or go to school.
Much of the land seized under the segregationist laws was sold at rock-bottom prices to white farmers, who then often hired black laborers in a feudal-style system of farm tenancy.
The land and group areas acts were repealed in 1991. But their pernicious effects are entrenched.
Whites, who make up 13% of the population, own an estimated 80% of the land. Nearly half the black population still ekes out an existence in the overcrowded, overgrazed and underdeveloped homelands where so many were sent.
Under the new law, people can file claims to property they say was taken illegally.