BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA -- Six years after being forcibly removed from its farming village and sent to a distant tribal reserve, the small Bakwena ba Magopa tribe is living in hope again that it may get its ancestral land back.
In an unprecedented development that may reflect changing times in South Africa, a five-judge panel of the country's highest court, the Court of Appeals, intervened Friday in the little tribe's drawn-out struggle with apartheid's eviction laws to advise President Frederik W. de Klerk's government to negotiate a settlement with it.
Although he did not put it in so many words, Acting Chief Justice Christiaan P. Joubert gave the impression he regarded the case involving South Africa's most notorious forced removal as a relic from the apartheid past that should not be dealt with in his courtroom in the new climate of de Klerk's reformist policies.
"Before we begin this case," Joubert said, "I want to ask what is at stake here? These events deal with the past, and I am looking to the future. Is there no prospect of finding a solution to this matter?"
Lawyers said they knew of no previous instance in which the Court of Appeals had intervened in this way to press the litigants to negotiate.
After an adjournment and telephone calls to Pretoria, the minister of development aid, Stoffel van der Merwe, agreed to meet the tribe for talks Sept. 20. It was decided that if the negotiations fail, the court case will go ahead Nov. 20.
The tribe sees only one thing to talk about through all the tangled legal undergrowth that has accumulated around the case. As its spokesman, Matthew Kgatitswe, put it: "We want our land back. That is all."
The tribe's lawyers are hopeful. "I think this puts us in a strong negotiating position, and the political climate is in our favor," attorney Nicholas Haysom said.
The saga of the Magopa tribe began under the previous administration of president Pieter W. Botha. Intent on erasing "black spots" in "white" South Africa in accordance with apartheid's grand plan to divide the country into separate racial compartments, the Botha administration ordered the little tribe of fewer than 1,000 people to leave the farm near the western Transvaal town of Ventersdorp, about 100 miles from Johannesburg, which it had occupied for 72 years.
The people were ordered to go to a resettlement camp called Pachsdraai, in the Bophuthatswana tribal "homeland," 150 miles away.
When they refused, police surrounded the community in the early hours of Feb. 14, 1984, loaded the people in trucks at gunpoint and drove them away.
Bulldozers flattened the stone houses, clinic, churches and school they had built there. With no time to bargain, the tribe sold their cattle to neighboring white farmers for one-tenth of their market value. Crops were left unharvested in the fields.
After more than four years of misery, during which they moved three times in search of a better place to settle, some members of the tribe drifted back to the farm in the fall of 1988.
They were granted permission to send a group back to clean the overgrown graveyard where their ancestors are buried. In three weeks the work was done, but the pull of home proved too strong for those who had returned, so they put up corrugated iron shanties and stayed.
When they were still there six months later, the government applied to the provincial supreme court for an eviction order.
The tribe's lawyers presented a defense based on the contention that the forced removal was illegal to begin with, so they could not be evicted from land that was still rightfully theirs. They lost the case, but the judge granted a stay of the eviction order pending an appeal to the Court of Appeals in Bloemfontein, South Africa's judicial capital. While waiting for the appeal to be heard, more tribe members have drifted back and built shacks among the ruins of their old homes. According to Matthew Kgatitswe, 280 families have returned.
A visit there last Thursday revealed a bustle of revived activity. The returned villagers have begun building a new school with aid money from the U.S. government, which has followed the saga of the Magopa people closely. The building, with five classrooms, has reached roof height, and Kgatitswe estimated it would be completed next month.
A corrugated iron hut serves as a community clinic. The tribe, which has always prided itself on its self-sufficiency, levies a $2 fee on every household to pay the wages of two nurses it sent to Johannesburg to be trained.
Children, chickens and a few farm animals scurry about among the shacks and the rubble of the old houses. The community is coming to life again.
"We are here to stay," said Kgatitswe, who has opened a shop. "Whatever the result of the negotiations, we will not leave again."
For the Pretoria government it appears to be a no-win situation. If the court case goes ahead and the government loses, it will forfeit its ill-gotten land and what it calls the "black spot" will return. If it wins, it will have to bring out the bulldozers again and blot de Klerk's reformist image with another forced removal.
Which is perhaps why Justice Joubert advised the administration to negotiate.