On one side are Zulus who say they were unjustly evicted from their land under apartheid. On the other, descendants of a Scotsman who became a white Zulu chief and then the patriarch of a mixed-race family that still controls vast acres of sugar cane.
A contentious blend of legal claims, racial privilege and ancestral attachments is threatening to erupt in this fertile coastal region of South Africa.
The dispute over the land, in eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, is part of a long-standing feud between members of the Macambini community of Zulus and descendants of John Dunn, a 19th century Scottish hunter and trader.
Their argument, observers say, is an example of how one group of people who were oppressed by apartheid could play a part in dispossessing others. With the specter of neighboring Zimbabwe's violent land grabs and worries about South Africa's own slow-moving efforts to settle land claims hanging over them, the two parties agreed to postpone a court date this month in favor of trying to negotiate a settlement.
Previous attempts to settle out of court have failed, and few are confident about this effort.
Tempers have already reached the boiling point. Scores of Macambini Zulus have moved onto the contested land and erected homesteads. Landowners have been threatened. And in recent weeks, more than a dozen sugar cane fields have been torched. Meanwhile, claimants accuse the landowners of intimidating them and shooting at their houses.
Community leaders say their people's patience has worn so thin that a full-scale invasion of the land is unavoidable if a favorable solution is not reached.
"The situation is now at trigger point, and something terrible is going to happen," Lesley Sibiya, a committee leader for the claimants, told a local newspaper recently. "We are heading for a Zimbabwe-style land grab."
The Macambini claim they were unlawfully evicted in 1976 from Mangete, about 70 miles from the port city of Durban, so the Dunns could plant sugar cane. About 300 families were resettled a few miles north in Wangu, an area designated for blacks under the segregationist apartheid policy.
The Dunns, most of whom are mixed race and were classified as "colored" under apartheid law, say they inherited the 6,300 acres from their ancestor and subsequently obtained title.
Although a small portion of the land has been sold over the years to independent farmers, most of the area's landlords are direct descendants of John Dunn, or people who have married into the clan.
"The Dunns claim to be the legal owners," said Thabi Shange, land claims commissioner for KwaZulu-Natal, traditionally a predominantly Zulu territory. "The [Macambini] say they are not necessarily legal owners, but they are historical owners."
State Has Been Slow to Resolve Land Claims
Similar disputes are tearing at Zimbabwe, where war veterans and other militants have occupied 900 white-owned farms. The government in Harare, the capital, has condoned occupation as a justified protest against unfair land distribution.
In South Africa, thousands of black families were forced off their land under apartheid. The new government's land redistribution program has been slow, causing widespread frustration. But in general, the process has gone relatively smoothly. Most restitution cases are settled through negotiation.
In KwaZulu-Natal, Shange said 14,808 land claims were filed between 1994, when the black majority took power, and the December 1998 deadline for lodging a claim. So far, 419 claims have been settled, and the government continues to sift through the others to determine their validity, she said.
The Dunn case underscores the urgency of speeding up the process before the anger snowballs. Sibiya said the situation may already be beyond repair.
"We are getting to a point where we are going to hit back, and it's not going to be nice," he said. "Bloody confrontation is looming here."
John Dunn, the Scotsman, was appointed a chief by Zulu King Cetshwayo in the mid-1800s and was granted several thousand acres of land. The king saw Dunn, who was fluent in Zulu, English and Afrikaans, as an assistant who could help him deal with white colonial authorities.
Between 1858 and 1878, Dunn emerged as one of the most powerful leaders in the Zulu kingdom. He ruled over nearly 25 square miles and had at least 6,000 black subjects.
He took 48 Zulu wives in addition to his first wife, a mixed-race woman from the area near Cape Town. His wives bore him 117 children. Dunn died in 1885, leaving behind a lucrative but disputed inheritance.
Historian Catherine Burns at the University of Natal in Durban said the Dunns were classified separate from the broader indigenous black community because of their famous ancestor. In 1935, Parliament allowed Dunn's children to claim their father's land. Sixty-seven of them were ultimately awarded about 100 acres each.
In 1976, following decades of struggle for proper ownership documents, the government pledged that Dunn's descendants would receive deeds to their allotments. About 300 black families living on the Dunn land were forced to relocate. Now those people want to come back.
Zulu Chief Khayelihle Wiseman Mathaba lodged a claim on their behalf in 1997. The case was referred to the Land Claims Court after negotiations broke down.
"There are bad feelings, grudges," said Shange, the land claims commissioner. "What we are dealing with is a case of conflict, bitterness, resentment and frustration . . . which is why it is so difficult."
Burns, the historian, added that the Dunn case shows how even oppressed people, such as those of mixed race, could play a part in the dispossession of others.
But Pat Dunn, a great-granddaughter of John Dunn, maintains that the landowners are the real victims in the current row.
Arsonists recently burned 90% of her 100-acre sugar plantation, she said, and she estimates the loss conservatively at $140,000. About 1,100 tons of cane has simply been thrown away, she said.
In the fields, rows of singed stalks waver in the wind. Although the fire did not kill the crops outright, the plants are useless, she said. They must be harvested while they are young and have a low sucrose level.
Lyndon Dunn, a harvesting contractor and Pat Dunn's cousin, said the burning of the fields had also threatened the jobs of scores of seasonal laborers.
In April, a community center built by the Dunns was razed during a spate of arson attacks. An attempt to destroy a church built by the family failed.
"They've made a statement that if they can't get us off the land, they will burn us off, so they've started," said Pat Dunn, who chairs the Mangete Landowners Assn.
A Cultural Divide Dating to 19th Century
The group represents 63 farms, many of which have been hit by arsonists. About 1,000 informal homesteads have been haphazardly erected recently on these farms, which are involved in the land-claim case.
Dunn argued that not all the "squatters"--or "invaders," as she calls them--are genuine claimants. Rather, she regards them as opportunists who have taken advantage of the disagreement to grab land.
She also claims that the land her ancestor inhabited was largely unoccupied when he received it and that indigenous people flocked there because he was a benevolent landlord and respected chief.
Mathaba, the Zulu chief, argues that the Dunn family misunderstood Zulu custom, under which the land was given to Dunn for safekeeping, not as personal property. Zulu tradition allows only for common land ownership, and chiefs were merely "custodians," Mathaba said.
Enock Mfaseni Khumalo, who is building a second home on Dunn land, believes that because he is a black South African, all land inherently belongs to him.
"My color tells you that I am a true African," Khumalo said. "This is our land. When [John] Dunn arrived here, the land was not free. There were people here. I couldn't move to England and tell people there to leave unless I have paid something. Did Dunn pay anything?"
However, Khumalo noted that being at odds with Dunn's descendants is like going to war with his own kin.
"They are from our own blood, these people," Khumalo said. "They are our brothers and sisters. I don't know what the fighting is all about."
There are differences. Pat Dunn said the descendants of John Dunn decided to live more in line with their European than their Zulu heritage.
"The Dunns felt they had their own culture," she said. "Even though they respected their [Zulu] grandmothers, they didn't want to follow Zulu culture. It didn't appeal to them."
Mathaba said his people are not out to harm the Dunns, but rather to redress injustice.
Those wrongdoings still torment Roseline Zikhali and Sbongile Sibiya, both 70, whose families were forced in 1976 to move off land where their ancestors had lived for decades.
There was little time to pack up, the women recall. No formal notice of their intended relocation was given. Their fields of subsistence crops were left to rot, and much of their livestock was stranded as gangs of armed soldiers herded them onto trucks for transportation to Wangu. Government compensation for the land left behind was paltry, community leaders say.
"The [coloreds] told us that the government had told them they were superior. They were no longer supposed to live together with Africans," Sibiya remembered.
'I Want to Reconnect With My Ancestors'
Community leader Sydney Bongani Msweli says a small tin shack and one zippered tent were allotted to each household, regardless of the number of family members.
They were expected to gather wood from a nearby forest to build their homes. The land wasn't good for pasture or crops, Msweli says.
"I want my land back," Zikhali said. "I want to reconnect with my ancestors who are buried on that land. [The landowners] have planted sugar cane on top of some people's graves. They don't respect us."
The landowners dispute claims that the Zulus who were moved were not given adequate notice, compensation or building materials. And they say they have documents to prove it.
But local politicians and community leaders warn that no matter what the outcome, coexistence is the only real long-term solution.
"If the Dunns win, those people are not going to move," said Mathaba, the chief. "They are going to resist. There is going to be violence in that area."