Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The Seed is Mine The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper, 1894-1985

This marvellous book has achieved what few can but many aim for: to draw us into the lives of working people. And in the case of South Africa we not only suffer their pain but also rejoice in their conquests. - M.C. Steele in HISTORY

One of the many achievements of this brilliant biography is to provide a key to understanding not only of what has torn South Africans apart, but also of what has bound them together. - Brian Willan in THE SPECTATOR

Some 15 years in the making, based on interviews, archives, conversations with members of the Maine family, but aided most of all by the prodigious memory of Kas Maine himself, this life of an illiterate sharecropper takes on an unexpected clarity. Like good crystal, touch it anywhere and it rings true. Van Onselen has done South Africans a favour by addressing the essential question: how did we get to be like this? - Christopher Hope in THE NEW STATESMAN

... a magnificent celebration of the art of the oral historian ... This is a remarkable, possibly unique historical record focusing so intensely upon one family ... Along the way, van Onselen crams nearly a century of a nation's history into the life of one man. - David Anderson in THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT

Harvard Educational Review

The Seed Is Mine
By Charles van Onselen
New York: Hill & Wang, 1996. 649 pp. $16.00 (paper).
The seed is mine. The ploughshares are mine.
The span of oxen is mine. Everything is mine.
Only the land is theirs.
- Kas Maine
This quote opens a remarkable and beautifully written oral history. It is the biography of Ramabonela Maine, also known as Kas Maine, who was born in 1894 to a BaSotho family in the Transvaal, in South Africa. Charles van Onselen of the University of Witwaterstand in Johannesburg spent fifteen years working on this book: his first interview with Kas Maine was in 1979, while Maine was in one of South Africa's resettlement camps. Maine's life, his prodigious memory, and the "five hundred or more scraps of paper which Maine himself had been careful to preserve" (p. 10) served as the core of van Onselen's program of structured interviewing of Maine's wives, children, and grandchildren over a period of ten years.

The result is an extremely accessible history of South Africa's rural and agricultural origins. Most outsiders do not recall that twenty--five years ago, most South Africans lived and worked in the countryside. Kas Maine was a prosperous sharecropper who was able to maintain his economic independence; he never worked for anyone. While in earlier years Maine enjoyed good relations with landlords that he could trust, "the economic distance between landlord and tenant was widened by the racial and political inequities that came first with conquest, then with segregation, later still with the policy of apartheid" (p. 7).

For example, Black tenants were denied equal access to state resources, such as credit from the Land Bank. This "hastened the decline of sharecropping" and drove those sharecroppers who refused to accept wage labor west and north into "drier areas where grain farming was less dependable." By 1913, South Africa's Native Land Act prevented Black South Africans not only from buying property outside of designated areas, but also forbade sharecropping in the "agricultural heartland of the highveld" (p. 7). Van Onselen writes that verbal sharecropping contracts between relatively affluent Black tenants, like Maine, and poor White landowners continued for nearly a half century after they were outlawed. These arrangements continued because many of the White landowners were poor, and they needed the oxen and mules owned by the Black sharecroppers to produce the tobacco, maize, and vegetables.

However, mechanization and the Marketing Act of 1937, which guaranteed White farmers a minimum price for their grain, made landlords less dependent on the sharecroppers' production techniques. Those Black sharecroppers who did not want to be wage laborers were forced to move into the newly established Black homelands, and their children were forced to work in the mines, as wage laborers on White--owned farms, or to live in the cities. Maine's family serves as a symbol of wealthy Black sharecroppers who were destroyed as they were forced onto poor, dry land and beaten down by the consolidation of apartheid.

This book will be prized by historians and educators interested in learning more about South Africa and the effects of apartheid on the economy, traditions, and customs of Black sharecroppers who comprised the backbone of the country. Anyone interested in historical methodology, biography, or qualitative research should read this book; it is a fine example of the melding of interviews and historical documents to tell Maine's story, which is really the story of all South Africans. Finally, this text will help students gain a better understanding of present--day South Africa as it moves toward democracy and modern capitalism for all