Land-claim unrest

2013-03-05 00:00

LAND claims settled in the Kranskop area in 2005 are touted by the government as one of the success stories of land reform. Nothing could be further from the truth. Firstly, the recipients were set up to fail because they were given land but no resources, including support services, by the Department of Land Affairs. To make matters worse, one of the parties, the Amakhabela traditional community, is making apparently well-founded allegations that many of the farms transferred to the other party, the Ngcolosi community — including a recent transfer of Mondi plantation land — are on land historically belonging to the Makhabela. They also claim that the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (“Land Affairs”) in Pieter­maritzburg is refusing to engage with them about what they view as a gross injustice. Tensions are rising and there are fears that violence will erupt. If it does, the responsibility must be laid at the feet of the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform.

In 2003, two claims, one by the Ntunjambili/Ngcolosi and the other by the Amakhabela traditional community, for dozens of farms (150-plus) in the Kranskop area were gazetted. No proper verification process was undertaken by the Regional Land Claims Commission to ascertain the historical validity of these claims. However, it seems that the majority of the landowners were prepared to sell, having been offered good prices. Trusts were established by the two communities, but no resources or support services were forthcoming, so outside management was brought in, at a cost, to run the farming enterprises (mainly sugar and timber). The Amakhabela aver — with supporting evidence — that many of the farms had historically been on their territory. Their attempts to meet with Land Affairs about their grievances have reportedly been unsuccessful.

Several months ago, a large tract of Mondi plantation land, which was apparently also historically Makhabela territory, was reportedly handed over to the Ngcolosi. Signs denoting that this is now iThuba (the Ngcolosi commercial company) are seen as extremely provocative, and there have already been threats that people associated with iThuba will be forcibly removed from the area. Community leaders are trying to defuse the situation but, given the complete lack of transparency on the part of Land Affairs and its failure to address the concerns of the Amakhabela, it is likely to be only a matter of time before threats lead to overt conflict — which will then probably lead to ongoing feuding between the two parties. Nor has Land Affairs responded to questions posed by KZN Monitor about this handover. Given the apparent lack of any proper verification processes, it is not surprising that rumours of nepotism and vested interests are flying around.

The situation in Kranskop provides yet more evidence that the failure of the government’s land reform policy lies with its own department. Providing land to emerging farmers — who really want to succeed — without providing any resources and extension services is a recipe for disaster. It also fuels negative stereotypes about supposed “cultural impediments” to black people succeeding as farmers. One such assertion was published in a recent edition of the Farmers Weekly. There is no historical foundation for labelling black farmers in this manner. Historians have shown how, in the nineteenth century, peasant farmers in areas such as the Eastern Cape and what is now Lesotho were quick to seize the opportunities provided by the growth of the country’s population following the discovery of minerals (Lesotho was then seen as the bread basket of the sub-continent). The rapid demise of this farming sector was brought on by land dispossession, the lack of infrastructure and access to markets (transport routes, for example, favouring the rapidly expanding white commercial farming), which forced black peasant farmers into a life of migrancy from which they have still not escaped, eighteen years after the end of apartheid. As under colonialism and apartheid, rural areas still function largely as labour resevoirs for mining and industry. According to a media report, mismanagement at the provincial department responsible for agriculture and rural development has resulted in tractors rusting away instead of finding their way to emerging farmers who need them.

Since 2000, there have been ongoing complaints from both claimants and land owners about the conduct of staff at the Land Claims Commission and the Department of Land Affairs in their handling of contentious land-claim issues. That their lack of transparency and accountability — which is all too common in government departments — may well be the catalyst for an outbreak of violence in Kranskop, is absolutely outrageous. There is an urgent need for intervention from the national level, including by holding the national minister accountable for the abysmal performance of his staff.

• Mary de Haas is a KZN violence monitor and retired sociologist.

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