The Fires of Kruisfontein
The Ortmann family should be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the founding of their farming business in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. The sugar and timber estate, centred on the farm Kruisfontein outside New Hanover, is run by the fifth generation of the family, brothers Dieter and Reinhard with their cousin Rupert and farm manager Andrew Smith.
It offers employment to over 90 full-time and 35 seasonal workers. But rather than being able to focus on the landmark, they have become embroiled, through no fault of their own, in a nasty dispute. This resulted in the Gumede family, who had occupied one of the labourer’s houses on the farm being temporarily removed from the farm by order of the Land Claims Court, Justice Ncube presiding.
Local activists and media have insisted on presenting the Ortmanns as the villains of the piece. But the court papers tell a different story and show a farming family under siege, while simply trying to do the right thing in accordance with the law. The Ortmanns and their employees have been subjected to acts of violence, physical threats, arson and the contravention of previous legal orders. Throughout, the Ortmanns have behaved with scrupulous regard for the laws governing land occupation and tenancy but received only abuse in return.
The Gumede family, consisting of Lucy Gumede, eight of her children and a number of grand-children were resident in a three-bedroom house on the farm. They were in occupation as a result of Lucy and her late husband’s having worked on the farm. But none of the family has been employed on the farm for several years. The Gumedes’ precise status – whether they were occupiers or labour tenants – remains to be determined and is the subject of a separate legal process in terms of the Labour Tenants Act (LTA).
As all responsible farmers do, the Ortmanns insure their sugar and timber plantations against fire. Earlier this year, the insurance company inspected the farm and found that the fire belt which passed the Gumedes’ dwelling was no longer compliant. It is required to be 18 metres wide and must contain no combustible materials. The Gumedes had however extended their yard fence, without the Ortmann’s consent, to encroach on the fire belt and had stacked timber and other combustible material within its limits. The insurance company informed the Ortmanns that cover would be suspended and that the Insurer would not be liable for compensation unless the matter was rectified.
The Gumedes were asked, through the lawyer the state had appointed to deal with their tenancy claim, to clear the firebreak. This was no trivial matter. According to the insurance company, the farm faced potential losses of up to R32 million, a sum which would destroy it as a viable business unless covered by insurance. But the Gumedes refused to act, forcing the Ortmanns to approach the Land Claims Court on an urgent basis for an order compelling the removal of the fence and combustible material and the reconstitution of a compliant fire belt. It was when the Sheriff and the local SAPS attempted to execute this order that the Gumedes’ disregard for the law, and indeed malevolence, became clear for all to see.
When the authorities arrived to remove the fence, members of the Gumede family lent against the poles in such a manner as to prevent their removal. In the word of Judge Ncube, ‘the situation (then) became volatile’. A member of the Gumede family armed herself with a brick and threatened to assault the Sheriff and his deputy. The police and the Sheriff felt compelled to withdraw. They returned just over a week later and found that the poles that had been removed had been re-erected. The chaos which erupted on their return is probably best described in the impartial language of Judge Ncube’s ruling:
‘Two members of the Gumede family armed themselves with beer bottles and threatened to assault the Sheriff. (One) threw a beer bottle at the driver of the Bell loader … (a) splinter injured his eye and he had to seek medical treatment … (another Gumede) retrieved his firearm from the car and threatened to shoot the farm manager and the driver of the Bell loader.’ He was arrested. ‘On three occasions (a member of the Gumede family) pulled down her pants and defecated in front of all the people.’
Some degree of self-righteous anger may be understandable although it is not possible to condone the consequent behaviour. But some members of the Gumede family had already gone much further. Five days before the events described above, four fires were deliberately started in the sugar cane plantation. The following day two members of the Gumede family were caught in the act of setting fire to a sugarcane field. One was arrested and the other later handed himself over to the police. The entire incident was captured on film. When the farm manager followed them in a fire truck a bottle was thrown at him. Members of the Ortmann family have been threatened and had bricks thrown at them.
There was a total of seven fires at this time. But there is a longer history to arson on the estate. In the dry months of mid-2016, there were a total of 86 fires set on the farm. Emergency responses became an almost nightly event. But something more malevolent than arson was at work. Shots were fired out of the dark at the responders by unseen gunmen. The Ortmanns and their emergency team all wear bullet-proof vests. The firetrucks have been re-engineered so the hoses can be operated from inside the cabins. ‘It’s just too dangerous to stand on the back and operate the hose’, says farm manager Andrew Smith. The Ortmanns have not accused the Gumedes of direct involvement in these incidents as there is no proof. But the Gumedes’ later, witnessed, behaviour is of a general pattern.
The Extension of Security of Tenure Act (62 of 1997) allows for the urgent removal of occupiers of land pending an application for their eviction, provided certain requirements are met. These include ‘a real and imminent danger of substantial injury or damage’, that there be ‘no other effective remedy available’ and where ‘the likely hardship to the owner exceeds the likely hardship to the occupier’. Judge Ncube deemed that all these conditions had been met. In his opinion, the Ortmanns had ‘tried everything possible to follow the right channels and comply with the law’. But the Gumedes, in his view, ‘have persisted with their violent attitude and deliberate disobedience of court orders.’ Judge Ncube stated that ‘if the respondents are not removed, there is a real likelihood that Mr. Ortmann, Mr. Smith or any of their employees may be killed’. Accordingly, he ordered that the respondents be removed from the farm.
Judge Ncube made it clear that his order applied irrespective of whether the Gumedes were occupiers or labour tenants. He was sufficiently disgusted at their conduct (described by Judge Ncube as reprehensible) to award costs against them, making it clear that this was the court’s ‘expression of disapproval’.
The Gumede family and its media allies have subsequently made much of the claim that the family has been rendered ‘homeless’ by the judgment. But the court papers show that this is not true. Lucy Gumede admitted under oath that she owns two RDP houses in New Hanover and confirmed that one of her sons stays in one of these houses. In any case, it is the responsibility of the uMshwathi municipality to house people who have been legally removed from farms and/or who are facing imminent eviction. The report carried in provincial media that the family have spent two weeks camping out in the local municipal offices is untrue although they did spend one night there.
Farming, even where it is managed well, is a precarious business. Dieter Ortmann points out that the farm is currently having to negotiate low sugar and timber prices while dealing with drought, frost and soaring administered prices. The two legal judgments cost over R1 million, a massive cash-flow dent incurred in little more than a month. This is money which would otherwise have been reinvested in the business. Ortmann says he now has to worry about where next months’ wages for the farm’s labourers is going to come from. ‘And this saga isn’t over yet’, he says. The Gumede’s residence in town is only a couple of kilometres from the farm and farmers and workers still feel they have to wear bullet-proof vests when active at night.
The next step is that a probation officer from the Department of Rural Development will be interviewing both sides to determine what damage has been done and what issues led to the breakdown in the relationship. However, for the moment the farm is at least able to go about its daily business with degree of relief from the immediate threat of violence.
Perhaps the only positive aspect to the saga has been the Ortmann’s determination to act within the law. The supporting institutions like the court, the Sheriff’s office and the SAPS did eventually work. But the cost has been enormous. Dieter Ortmann says the farm has paid a total legal cost for land and labour disputes of over R4.5 million since 2001. Even so, the legal costs have been small next to the emotional toll.
Despite this, the Ortmanns are going nowhere. ‘We’re South Africans’, says Dieter, ‘we’ve been here for five generations and we owe it the families employed here to keep the enterprise going.’
David Christianson was commissioned to write this article by the Institute of Race Relations, a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Go to https://irr.org.za/