Your landlord allowed you to live on his land, to use a small portion of it to grow maize and vegetables and to graze cattle. He allowed you to raise your family there. Customarily, he and his neighbours would build a little farm school in which your children could complete their first three or four years of schooling. If somebody fell gravely ill, you got a child to run to the big house and the farmer would take the sick one to the doctor.
In exchange, he asked for your family’s labour: yours, your wife’s, your children’s. That was the deal.
True, each district had its customs, its set of unwritten rules. If your employer breached what was considered reasonable, there were ways of making his life hard. But still, the white man’s judgement counted a great deal. He could, for instance, until recent times, pull your kid out of school to work on the farm. He could restrict the number of cattle you could graze to a minimum and thus deplete your family of its assets and its wealth. For the relationship to work, something human had to pass between you and the white man, something generous.
When apartheid ended in 1994, some two million black South African labour tenants were living under the proprietorship of 50,000 or so white farmers. What was to become of their relationship now that apartheid was over? For everyone to cast ballots in the same election, each vote counting as much as the next, and then to return home to a world of conqueror and conquered – the dissonance was too jarring. The Mitchells were new, but they had stepped into the drama of an endgame.
the elision in the "something generous" line is remarkable - the implication is that the landlord has no reason to be generous, and yet it's the only way for the relationship to be humane ...