South Africa: Family Accuses Farmer of Growing Potatoes on Ancestor’s Grave

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A commercial farmer in South Africa allegedly “flattened and then planted potatoes on” the grave of a person who formerly worked on the same land, the South African-based news site New Frame reported Monday.

The alleged grave desecration took place in 2019 on the Riverview Farm, part of a farmstead owned by commercial farmer Michael Vermaak in the Cookhouse region of South Africa’s Eastern Cape province.

A woman named Jane Geswint died in 1983 and was buried on the Riverview Farm after working on the site for several years. Geswint’s daughters told New Frame in a report published on May 24 they “visited their mother’s grave annually until 2019.”

“The first Vermaak farmer we worked for in the 1980s had no problem and availed the land for burials,” Roos Stuurman, one of Geswint’s daughters, told the news site. “We would return every year to pay our respects at the gravesite.”

An anonymous contact allegedly sent Geswint’s family “information and photos in 2019 showing that the grave had been flattened and planted over with potatoes,” according to Stuurman.

Stuurman’s husband, Kiewiet Stuurman, further alleged Geswint’s family “then received a message via third parties that they should not bother returning to visit Jane’s grave again.”

Kiewiet Stuurman said he emailed Riverview farm’s current owner, Michael Vermaak, on an unspecified date to request a meeting to discuss the matter.

“I told him, the lady that is lying there [Jane Geswint] gave birth to the love of my life. So I am going to do everything in my power to enable my family to visit their mother’s grave,” he told New Frame.

“Vermaak did not respond to questions or agree to meet on the farm,” according to Geswint’s family, who added that Vermaak replied to Kiewiet Stuurman’s email saying, “We will get back to you when we are ready for a meeting.”

New Frame said the Stuurmans showed its reporter a WhatsApp message in which Vermaak allegedly “denies the existence” of Jane Geswint’s grave on the Riverview Farm.

“Where are the graves? We didn’t flatten any graves. We did clean around graves at Cabrere where we’re going to make fields, but we haven’t flattened any graves. Come have a look, please. Make sure of your facts before you make any accusations, please,” Vermaak allegedly wrote in the message, though no date or further information was provided for the alleged correspondence by New Frame, which identifies itself on its website as a “not-for-profit, social justice publication” that is “pro-poor and pro-working class.”

Kiewiet Stuurman said his wife’s family filed a formal charge against Vermaak of “disturbing graves” at the local Kamesh police station in March. He added that the family is currently waiting for local police to approve an escort to accompany them to inspect the gravesite.

Members of a rural community in KwaZulu-Natal, a province bordering Eastern Cape, similarly accused a commercial farmer of desecrating the graves of former farmworkers in 2018, sparking mob violence that damaged the farm.

“Kranskop farmer Carl Gathmann‚ his family and staff came under attack late on Monday evening after community members were told that gravesites on his farm were graded in preparation for a new crop,” South Africa’s Sunday Times reported in August 2018.

“Police had to be called in when the community set fire to the farm and blockaded the roads with burning debris as tensions spilled over on Tuesday,” according to the newspaper.


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