Allister Sparks

An innovative project to tackle the land issue

2015-03-11 09:07

Allister Sparks

In a week when African National Congress general secretary Gwede Mantashe and leaders of farmers' associations were balling fists at each other over the endless issue of land redistribution, I visited a farm in the Free State that a close friend bought recently.

It was an interesting experience in a number of ways. Firstly, because my friend is Indian, a matter of note in itself. Those of us older than the born frees will recall that in the old South Africa, people of Indian ancestry were persona non grata in the Free State. It was a strange, special animosity even within the broad racism of apartheid, the origins of which I never fathomed.

The practical effect of this special prejudice was that the Orange Free State province prohibited anyone of Indian ancestry from staying overnight on its territory, never mind living or working there. Any Indian wanting to travel from the Transvaal to Natal or the Cape Province had to transit the Free State within 24 hours. No easy task back in the days of horse and ox-wagon travel.

Yet here I was with an Indian man who had just bought a farm in the Free State. Imagine that - an Indian Vrystater, and a boer nogal. Jislaaik!

Nor was it just an anonymous Indian. My friend is Jay Naidoo, founding general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the man who introduced the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) while  a member of Nelson Mandela's first Cabinet.

Naidoo has bought a farm called Rustler's Valley in the eastern Free State. It is a beautiful spot, nestling in the Maluti Mountains near the Lesotho border that used to be a hangout for hippies in the seventies and eighties. The countryside is lush after plentiful summer rains and the mountain scenery is breathtaking.

To describe Naidoo as a Free State farmer is, perhaps, not quite correct. For although Naidoo has bought the farm with his own capital, he is not himself farming it. Nor will he derive any profits from it. The farm workers who came with the purchase run the farm, from management level to field labouring, and they are the main beneficiaries of its productivity.

The only material benefit Naidoo gets out of his purchase is a house, still to be built, which he and his family can use as a weekend getaway - but which is also available to the trust.

Naidoo has acquired this stunningly beautiful piece of land to launch a project born of his socio-political dreams. He aims to turn it into what he calls a "hub of innovations" to develop strategies and skills that can help the rural poor gain sustainable livelihoods, through smallholding agriculture, small-scale entrepreneurship, arts and crafts, eco-tourism and the like.

That is what I call putting your money where your mouth is, of which there is precious little from our affluent elite.

Rational solution

Having visited the place and got a sense of its purpose, I believe Naidoo's project may well offer guidelines for resolving the vexed issue of land redistribution. Instead of balling their fists at each other, Mantashe and the farmers' union bosses should take a closer look at what Naidoo is doing. This is an issue that requires a rational solution rather than the emotional rhetoric and childish gestures that now pass for negotiations.

Naidoo has made over  the 273ha farm, about half of which is usable land, to what he has called the Earthrise Trust, a non-profit trust, with himself, Kumi Naidoo, head of Greenpeace International, and an old Cosatu colleague, Gino Govender, as trustees. The only beneficiary is the trust itself, whose profits will be used to fund its projects.

At the same time Naidoo has given 40ha of the usable land to a separate entity, the Naledi Village Trust, where the workers and their families, 100 people in all, reside in a village of that name. They are the only beneficiaries. The land is theirs to farm for their own profit.

It means that for the first time those workers, some of whom have worked in Rustler's Valley for generations, now own their own land and have security of tenure with land title. Their village is included in that land, so they own their own homes as well. Which means they can go to a bank with their title deeds as collateral and try to raise a loan to fund improvements.

Which in turn means they can enter the national economy, from which they and their forebears have been excluded for generations.

I have long advocated the granting of home ownership, with title deeds, to the millions of black South Africans living in rural and township areas; who live in municipal properties or former Bantustans where their tenure is controlled by tribal chiefs, as was the case during apartheid. Without property ownership they have no physical security nor any economic standing. They have no way out of the poverty trap.

I have argued that giving these folk the land and homes they are living in, with title deeds, would be the gateway for the entry of millions into the national economy, to the benefit of everyone. But it has been like shouting into deaf ears.

Now, at Rustler's Valley, I saw what a galvanising effect this sense of ownership was having on the people there. The place throbbed with energy and enthusiasm. Those farm workers were rebuilding their homes with the  stones littering the land, and cutting grass for thatching.

Skills, from building to roofing to blacksmithing, seem to have emerged from nowhere, enabling the farm workers to revamp an old building into a modern conference centre, which Naidoo hopes will be used for sharing ideas on the complex issue of how to narrow our wealth gap.

The community has built a schoolhouse and engaged an experienced teacher who can take the 23 children of the village through primary level. There are two simple guest cottages in Naledi Village as well, and another more stylish one at the foot of a steep krantz, for foreign tourists who may want a taste of African tribal life.

All hands also work on the larger portion of the farm, where many graze their own cattle and goats. The proceeds from that part of the enterprise go into the general kitty of the non-profit Earthrise Trust, to fund projects and conferences to serve the objectives of the "hub of innovations".

Everything is still at launch-pad level, but the prospects are heartening. I met one of the local farmers' association leaders, who greeted Naidoo warmly and expressed a wish to bring some of his fellow white farmers to see the project.

Many, he said, had responded favourably to the project, saying it made them feel more secure from the unnerving threat of farm murders that is plaguing the platteland.

At least one neighbouring white farmer has told Naidoo his workers had asked whether they could join the community in Naledi Village and commute to work on his farm each day. Would that be possible?

To which Naidoo replied: "You'll have to talk to the manager, Anton Chaka. He's the boss here."

A notion that in those circles was a small revolution in itself.


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Read more on:    jay naidoo  |  land

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