COMMENT

The looting of the land

Gabriel Crouse says that if you want to see the post-EWC future, just look around you

With SA’s recent Russian visit and talk of mass emigration to its glorious steppes, I was reminded of Leviathan, a Russian film that won at Cannes and the Golden Globes in 2014. Leviathan is a vodka-drenched, suicidal tragedy about land expropriation in Russia’s glittery permafrost.

The story is about a municipal chief with a grudge, a hangover decades in the making and a friend high up in the church who makes the unilateral decision to expropriate the home of a car mechanic for “public benefit”. The mechanic calls in a lawyer to help, but the courts aren’t much use – especially after his lawyer is dragged out for mock execution by the chief and his goons who happen to be police.

Abandoned, the mechanic loses his house, his sanity and worse. The film is the opposite of agitprop. It leaves its audience with the impression of a world below the upper crust of presidential politics so broken that resignation is the commoner’s only salvation.

This is not a world that I foresee in South Africa, it’s one I have already seen. I described the case of Ekuthuleni, where the Mnyandus, William and Walter, and Charles Nxumalo were allegedly burnt out of their homes by chief Thandazani Zulu’s impi, under police supervision, without consequence or even report by those urban elites most closely connected to the case. But those are not the only kulaks snapped up by our very own prowling arbitrary abusive powers, aka leviathan.

Consider (UCT professor) Aninka Claassens’ recent reports. The Umnini Trust members have owned their land south of Durban since the 1860s, but the Ingonyama Trust has recently taken to leasing that land out to third parties and collecting rent for itself. From the same area comes the story of Edward Mpeko, who leased a holiday spot, added 21 guest rooms and an 80-seater restaurant before reportedly being bullied out by apparatchiks, after which the resort was looted – mattresses, windows, bricks and all.

Then there is the case of the Lesetlheng Community Village in North West province who contend their forebears bought the Wilgespruit farm in 1919 but were forced to register it under the neighbouring tribal authority as a technicality required by racist apartheid laws. A few years ago the tribal authority showed its first interest in a century by selling the mining rights to this land. That resulted in the eviction of the Lesetlheng community without consultation or due process. The matter stands before the Constitutional Court and investigation into the potential misallocation of billions of rands in the case is ongoing, according to Claassens, which is a kind of silver lining.

When the stakes are high enough the chances of getting the broader attention of the highest courts and commissions are real. When property abuses are more spread out, however, leviathan is not so bothered.

Gcino Shabalala, midlands chairperson of the Landless People’s Movement, took me on a misery tour between Mooi River and Greytown. One farm we visited used to run 3 000 swine, 800 cattle and crops. Now nothing is going. The infrastructure is hollow and rusting. I saw a new-looking Mercedes truck parked for life. A resident told me that not only is the battery gone, the bearings have been stolen, too.

Preferring anonymity, the resident told me that the state has “recapitalized” this farm multiple times. Tens of millions of rands have been “poured” in and “drunk” by officials with their insider pals, after which a few drips leak through to the residents. Nothing substantial makes it through to the soil or troughs that could generate wealth.

Gcino pointed out another farm with a small clutch of houses wired up on a hilly subsection. He told me the plus-1000 ha farm was bought by the state and leased out to a connected city-dweller (at R1 a year) with no knowledge of, or interest in, farming. A few cattle that serve as status rather than any economic function hoof about, but a “recapitalization” grant is repeatedly drawn. The tenants at least had jobs on the farm before reform, now they have nothing but an empty view.

Then Gcino introduced me to Jabulani Ngubane, a maths and technology teacher who stands tall and talks smart. He represents a local communal property association of about 300 adults that collectively own about 2 500 ha, bought by a state grant at R2.4 million. As in the case of Ekuthuleni, the total value of the R15 000 per head grant was greater than the value of land bought, by about R2 million, so the community applied to use the remainder for recapitalization. The department still refuses to release the money.

Then I went with Jabulani and a traditional leader (who prefers to stay unnamed) to survey another few thousand hectares of reformed land that reportedly came with a R21 million recapitalization grant. The land is divided between four oligarchs, one of whom is a Zuma, said to be related to the ex-president.

A series of mansions, some new, are separated by hills and valleys so as not to obstruct one another’s privacy. There is almost no apparent farming. The irrigation systems have not worked since transfer. Domestic work, I’m told, is the only permanent employment here. The inkosi-induna slotted a finger to the cusp of my pocket: “R21 million in the pocket,” he laughed, before giving me a light slap. “For us, luto!” Nothing.

Jabulani revised this. “It’s ok, [the department of land reform] can give four people R21 million, it’s no problem. But what about the others? There’s nothing happening.” And a chorus emerged about Sebenza – work – of which there is none. We went past an old potato farm and the inkosi slapped me again. “500 hundred” worked there, now a few stray goats ruminate.

Jabulani tells me he’s complained about some of this before, with Gcino, on a Carte Blanche episode in 2011. All the TV-special did was turn him into a “black sheep”, he said, “and now I am alone”. He told me that the CPA he represents tried to get business going by partnering with neighbouring white commercial farmers. The state land reform department told him to “forget it”. He explained: “If ever you are talking about partnership, especially with the white farmers, then you have opened a can of worms with the department of land affairs and nothing will come of that.”

He gave me some time to dwell on lives ruined by the bitterness of racist state officials. “I hate doing this interview,” he said. “I’m fed up with land”. His political will is broken, his hopes of growing a business are broken. But the Leviathan has not cracked his spirit, he has children to teach every day.

The themes are common. For two weeks at every second stop between Harrismith and Pietermaritzburg, I heard beneficiaries of land reform say the same thing. Proud to have the land, want a job now. Can’t run the place myself, no capital, no experience at management and marketing, need a boss. Better to have a boss than no job.

White boss, black boss, whatever – the job is the thing. Better still for grants to be released into equity deals with experienced commercial farmers that fund the seed, tractors, spray and sundry operating costs. That way the business runs at market efficiency, there’s income from work and dividends when the farm turns a profit.

But either the state or Marxist anarchists within the community have halted progress. “Dividends” and “equity” were not the words used by land reform beneficiaries, but when people say “we want to go 50/50 or 40/60 or 60/40 or 20/80, whatever works” I took time to unpack their meaning and that is what it came to. Similarly, “Marxist anarchists” are usually called “the youth” or those with “zonda”, jealousy.

As a survey, this is not science. According to the Institute of Race Relations’ (IRR) scientific survey, a majority of South Africans across all races think “this talk of racism and colonialism is by politicians who are trying to find excuses for their own failures” and 82% think that with better education and more jobs “present differences between the races will disappear”.

Similarly, the first priority for most South Africans has long been jobs and education. According to Markdata’s 2017 survey, jobs come out as top priority. Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! When I first learned to read that was still the ANC’s slogan. Now, at least at the grassroots level of rural development, cadres seem more interested in setting friends up with holiday homes and blocking interracial business.

Perhaps the most mesmerizing case of mismanagement I saw was on a section of a farm once called Craigieburn in the Midlands. A peach orchard, as far as the eye goes. On a phone, I looked at photos from a few years ago when it was in full swing, employing scores year-round, and hundreds at harvest because each fruit has to be plucked and gently ensconced before being taken to the pack-house where each fruit could again be individually placed in a cushion for shipping.

Now the orchards are desiccated. The drip irrigation system that watered tree by tree precisely has been ripped and stripped for scrap. The fences are gone. Many of the trees had been crushed by cattle. State-owned land; I sucked the dust from my gums – there you have it.

Much of South Africa already is Zimbabwe, undercapitalized land abused by the state, a domain where leviathan gobbles up established capitalists and kulaks. What does our leadership want to do about it? First, it seems, they are intent on rapidly increasing leviathan’s terrain rather than chase it off land already owned by the state. Second, it signals that the enemies of progress are not corrupt officials who refuse to doll out grants unless they get bribes in return, but rather “white monopoly capital”.

Ramaphosa’s speech on 31 July signals that he wants no substantial change to the constitution, merely a rhetorical emphasis on the state’s already existing right to expropriate property. Whether or not the constitution’s amendment will be so carefully worded as to give the impression of empowering the executive to dispossess its citizens more arbitrarily without having that exact effect will be a matter for time to tell.

My knee-jerk reaction is to ask why the hell is the country going to all this effort just to change rhetorical tone rather than anything substantial? But on second thought rhetoric matters deeply, especially from a president who has no direct communication with most of his apparatchiks, except through public address.

It matters that Ramaphosa has failed to deny or explain that he once planned to dominate white people slowly until they could be dispossessed without flight risk, boiling them like frogs. It matters that Ramaphosa allowed Malema to answer for him that “our people” means “blacks in general and Africans in particular”. And it matters that Ramaphosa is pushing through an amendment to the constitution sponsored by the EFF, a party whose idea of debate is to offer our-way-or-genocide.

It matters because these are derelictions of presidential duty. It also matters because these are the clearest signals to leviathan, village mayors and municipal officers and police constables and district magistrates and land reform officials, that they’ve been doing the right thing all along.

Keeping white people and black people apart in rural South Africa is more important than putting natural, artificial and human capital to work when the perceived enemy is white wealth not black poverty. This perception is not changing, nor are its consequences.

Gabriel Crouse is a writer commissioned by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823.