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Promised Land

South Africa

On the road in a harsh environment: heirs to the earth of the Eastern Cape.
Promised land
After years of dispossession black people are hungry for land – and reform lies at the heart of the new
Government’s plans. Troth Wells reports from the Eastern Cape on a community which is buying a farm.

The old man gets to his feet. He brings his hand to his mouth and coughs respectfully. ‘I am just seeking clarification about the farm we wish to purchase,’ he says. He embellishes his Xhosa words with elegant hand gestures. His husky voice and biblical style of delivery hold the attention of everyone.

We are on a farm in the Eastern Cape. Around the table are members of the Zweledinga Residents’ Association (ZRA). Here too are fieldworkers from a local non-governmental organization, the Border Rural Committee (BRC); a lawyer; government officials and planners; and several white farmers.

The ZRA is in the process of acquiring the Gallawater farm from its white owner, Mr King. A youngish man dressed in jeans, thick blue jumper and baseball cap, he knows the members of this community well – perhaps better than he would have wished. They occupied his farm for a spell in 1993.

For all that, both sides like each other. One of the leaders of the land invasion, Godfrey, recalls that time: ‘When we entered Gallawater and the farmer came, I thought “this is not the kind of guy to harass”. His appearance and the way he talked with us was gentle.’

The members of the ZRA once lived in the Glen Grey district of the Eastern Cape, near the Transkei. In 1975 they learned that their area was to be incorporated into the ‘independent’ republic of the Transkei. They did not want to live in an area where they would be even poorer and in a place ruled by a repressive chief, so they moved to a spot near Queenstown. By a grotesque twist of fate, the land they had moved to was then incorporated into the ‘Republic of Ciskei’ which became ‘independent’ in 1981.

‘That was bad enough,’ explains Lungile Rex Bokuva, leader of the ZRA. ‘But in addition we had not received all the land we had been promised when we made the move. In 1993 we got tired of waiting, tired of the promises of land.’ So some of the community moved onto Langedraai farm which the South African Government had bought from a white farmer.

‘We want land not just for residential plots but also for farming,’ Johnny Ngunuza explains. ‘And there is another reason why we need more land. When we moved from Glen Grey our community only numbered about 18,000 people.’ Today the community’s population has grown to around 35,000. Also some of the land promised to them when they originally moved now has other claims upon it from similarly uprooted groups.

Goats join our circle under a tree outside the Langedraai farmhouse, seeking shade from the burning sun and gusty wind. It’s a harsh environment for any would-be farmer. A woman in a floral headscarf speaks to her neighbour and a ripple of dissent goes through the group.

Luvuyo Wotshela, the Border Rural Committee researcher, translates: the community is becoming impatient with the delay in finalizing the purchase of the Gallawater farm. The sale was agreed in August, and it is now December. They want to be in by Christmas. They may even cut a few fences and invade again if nothing happens soon. ‘Careful,’ jokes Luvuyo, ‘don’t do any damage – after all it’s your farm now!’

Such complexities surround the long and vexed history of land in South Africa. More than 70 per cent of the black population may now live in towns or large rural settlements, but many still hunger for land. It is a call from the heart as well as from the head, for ‘land’ has come to mean ‘freedom’.

Still waiting: Lungile Rex Bokuva on the ZRA farm.

Figures often suggest that whites own 87 per cent of the land and blacks just 13 per cent. These figures exaggerate the true position, since, for example, more than 10 per cent of the ‘white’ figure includes state-owned land. Nonetheless, black South Africans were systematically deprived of their rights to live and work on the land. So land reform is central to the Government’s Reconstruction and Development Pro-gramme (RDP), which aims ‘to supply land to the poorest section of the rural population and aspirant farmers… (with) security of tenure’. It also aims to remove discrim-ination against women in gaining access to the land. The new Government’s first major piece of legislation, the 1994 Restitution Act, is establishing a Land Claims Commission and a Land Claims Court.

The RDP promises restitution for those people who lost land because of apartheid laws. This might seem a clear-cut issue, but the reality is less simple. The long arm of apartheid – and the regimes before it – moved people about for years, creating ‘Reserves’ and ‘Homelands’. So different people often lay claim to the same piece of land. And then, from when should restitution date? The Government will look at claims dating back to the 1913 Natives Land Act. But some – particularly the chiefs through their Congress of Traditional Leaders – are now pressing for restitution to go back to 1652 when Europeans first arrived in the Cape.

The other aspect of land reform is redistribution – ‘to those in need’ as the RDP puts it. This is the heading under which the Zweledinga Residents’ Association’s claim falls. The ZRA has bought Gallawater through a Government scheme which can provide 80 per cent of the purchase price. But there are snags.

The subsidy is limited to $2,000 per household. To buy Gallawater the ZRA will need to place over 100 families (about 600 people) on a piece of ground that used to support just one farmer’s family and a few farmworker households.

Such a farm, in this dry, stony region of extreme heat and cold, cannot possibly provide a viable farming life for all of these people. Slicing it up into smallholder units is not the answer since most of the farmland is only suitable for grazing. But about 30 of the farm’s 800 hectares are irrigable, and the community hopes to grow vegetables to sell – provided they can raise the cash to pay for irrigation water. At $20 per hectare per year this is a hefty sum for a community already in debt from the purchase itself.

Creating income is therefore crucial for the Zweledinga group, and the Border Rural Committee is putting them in touch with agricultural advisers and other sources of support. Mr King, the former owner, is also ready to help. ‘Yes, they’ve asked my advice already and I have shown them the pumps and the irrigation system,’ he says. ‘But how on earth can the farm provide for 600 people? We battled to get a living, especially in drought years.’

Nonetheless prospects look quite good for the Zweledinga Residents’ Association. They are articulate, organized and free from any chief’s authority. Gallawater was bought as a Community Land Trust, which gives security of tenure and democratic control while also enabling families to sell out and move if they wish.

For many, communal tenure is the answer to the problems of land reform in South Africa because it should ensure that even the poorest people gain access to land. But commercial production has proved elusive in the extensive and crowded communal-tenure areas such as KwaZulu and Transkei. The chiefs and men who favour the ‘traditional’ rural lifestyle are rarely the people who walk for hours to collect firewood and water. Nor are they the ones who cultivate maize and vegetables for the family. Invariably it is the women who do this.

The ANC is clear that women must have access to land in their own right. But even among the Zweledinga group only 10 per cent of the owners are female, and these are widows rather than married or single women. ‘The men do their part,’ says Mrs Dipuku. ‘The time has gone when men ran the show.’ She laughs and the other women concur. But later the men still sit in a ‘meeting’ while the women prepare the food and cook the meal.

The new South African Government has astonished the world with its commitment to peace and reconciliation in the country. Everyone hopes it can deliver a new, fair and productive countryside as well.

Troth Wells is on the staff of the NI.

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