This week I conclude the last in my series of articles to inform and warn readers on the thorny issue of inheritance.
The story that follows involves orphans who became victims of a cultural practice that was set up with all good intentions, but brought about only bitterness.
In recent times people have died in an unprecedented manner and numbers, causing pain and loss that only the Almighty could fully heal. But as people came to terms with the pain, many saw death as an opportunity to inherit from loved ones and improve their lives. Some of you will have heard a hymn whose lyrics got distorted by some artists to say (loso lwa gagwe le a nthabisa) simply meaning, “His death will make me happy.”
In the late 80s and early 90s many children were orphaned. As if the loss of their parents was not enough there was an element of displacement and separation for orphaned individuals who were unable to determine their own destiny. In the midst of all this, corporations and employment agents were caught napping because there was no policy that determined the proper distribution of terminal benefits in a manner that would protect the children of the deceased.
Ms Kala Thupa died leaving behind two daughters who were both under the age of 10 at the time. Kala’s mother was named as beneficiary and also caretaker of the two girls. There was a legitimate assumption that all would be well as per our tradition. She saved the money from the company that employed Kala in the bank, using some of the proceeds to build a house on her plot with the good intention that Kala’s daughters would be housed comfortably.
The elderly woman also invested money in buying cattle and branded them in her name, but declared to everyone around her that she was doing these things for her grandchildren (ke direla bongwana ngwake).
Sadly grandma Kala did not live to see the children leave the nest and be independent as she died just four years after her daughter’s death. The girl’s Same and Kele were then left in the hands of their uncles Petso and Nchi, with the family deciding that Petso should step into Mma Kala’s shoes and take over as caretaker of the orphaned girls. This meant that he was identified as beneficiary for all that Mma Kala had, and the money in the bank, the cattle and the village plot upon which the house was built was transferred to him.
The girls grew up to be assertive individuals and thanks to the information uncle Nchi passed onto them, they were familiar with the family history from the time their mother died to the present day.
The eldest daughter Same, came to the Kgotla to file a civil case against uncle Petso who was now married and was seemingly enjoying all that he held on behalf of the orphans for himself.
Same wanted the court to call her uncle to come and show cause as to why he should not hand over all that he had inherited from Mma Kala to her and her sister.
The date of hearing was set and the matter was heard.
The content of Same’s complaint.
- Same pulled out a file that Nchi had kept for them and produced her mother’s death certificate, together with copies of the correspondence from the firm that had employed their mother with details of the terminal benefits. Same related how their grandma had invested their mother’s money.
Uncle Nchi who appeared to have stopped briefly at a drinking spot before coming to the Kgotla, could hardly wait for his turn to give supporting evidence. He told the court that he saw with his eyes how Kala’s orphans were disinherited by their uncle Petso when their grandmother died.
There were other family members who attended the kgotla, amongst whom were those that felt that the orphans were very ungrateful since they had been raised from nothing to become educated women. In their opinion they should just remain under their uncle until they married. Then there were those who said Petso should not reap from the field of death (Lesang go roba khumo mo tshimong ya Baswi)
Uncle Petso agreed with all that Same and Nchi said before court. He told the court that their family did not have much until the time when their late sister received large sums of money from her employer. He further said that it was natural that when the girl’s grandmother died, as the oldest remaining member of the family he had to ensure that the orphans were looked after. He considered that he had done a good job, but it was not work he could do for nothing.
Petso told the court that he ensured that the cattle were well looked after, emphasizing that without his efforts the cattle would have all died. On the question of money he said he had used it to buy food and support the girls, and there was nothing left.
With regard to the house he said that it was on land he had inherited from his mother, and if the girls wanted the house they could buy it ( gosiame aba kumule gaise ya ga mmaabo ba tsamaye).
WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WERE THE JUDGE?
- Grandma Kala had good intentions to build and house the orphans who were used to good accommodation in town. She had not thought she would soon die.
- Mma Kala was not wrong per se to buy cattle and invest on behalf of the orphans.
- Mma Kala’s bank account which carried money from Kala’s terminal benefits was taken over by her eldest son, who became the girls’ caretaker.
- Nchi felt left out of the game and considered Petso a thief.
- Same feels there was gross unfairness from the beginning. Their mother’s money should have been kept for them.
- But how else could Petso manage to raise them as this was long before the introduction of food baskets for orphans?
It was not easy to agree with Same and accuse Petso of greed and theft.
In judgment I had to acknowledge that Petso did a good thing to raise the girls to a point where they were both working for themselves. It takes a lot of sacrifice to do so. I call it a labour of love to which there is no price (Rato losa duelweng).
In the end Petso was ordered to surrender the cattle to his nieces, but they were in-turn to give him some beasts in thanks giving (go tlhapisa matsogo) because of what he had done in rearing the cattle. It would not be justice for Petso to be ordered to go empty handed.
Petso was ordered to compensate the girls for the house he wished to keep for his family. The house had to be valued and Petso would then compensate the orphans, but the compensation should take into account that they grew up in the house. The girls had benefited from having a roof over their heads and had received good care from uncle Petso. When all was said and done I asked Same if she would be happy to have all the things she demanded and loose the love and attachment of an uncle who had protected them for all those years. Same wept and said it was Nchi who had encouraged her to drag her uncle to court.
There is a strand of ingratitude and jealousy in this story. In every human being there is an element of good, and it is better to reflect on the good that people have done for you before you shut the door in their face.