In the mid-nineties as an MP for the ANC in Stellenbosch my days were occupied with the needs of farm workers. The vast majority of them were treated atrociously and hidden out of sight behind dam walls and trees, their plight often unseen while they lived a life of abuse and exploitation at the hands of farmers.
For years I intervened on farm workers' behalf, reporting cases of abuse and illegal evictions to the police. Needless to say, I was not a very popular figure amongst the agricultural community.
So if you had told me in 1994 (when I was on the hit list of the far right wing) that two decades later I would be asked to speak at organised agriculture events, I would have laughed in disbelief.
This is exactly what has happened. Over the past few months, I have been asked to speak at a number of agricultural events on the issue of land reform and specifically expropriation without compensation.
I will confess that I was more nervous than usual in the weeks leading up to these events. Each time, expecting a very antagonistic audience, I prepared for the worst. However, what I have experienced throughout the country really took me by surprise.
The impression is so often created in the media and by politicians that all white farmers are right wing, conservative, opposed to the current political regime and against land reform. This is aggravated by organisations such as AfriForum who want us to believe that they are speaking on behalf of the majority of farmers and even the majority of whites.
From my recent experience that is far from the truth. To my surprise the narrative at these annual meetings of organised agriculture has been one of "restoring dignity" and "correcting historical wrongs". Leaders like Dan Kriek from AgriSA used the preamble of the Constitution repeatedly to remind the farmers that "social justice" is integral to who we are as a nation and that "healing the divisions of the past" is a duty for all of us.
Not once did I hear dissenting voices.
In fact, the majority of the hundreds of farmers I have met over the last month made it clear that they completely accept that things cannot continue the way they are. They wanted to help, but did not know how.
Some people would argue that it is only because these farmers are now frightened about the prospects of expropriation without compensation. That might well be true.
Of course farmers are scared that they will lose their land through an uncontrolled process. For most of these men and women farming is a calling. They don't want to do anything else. For them feeding the nation is what they were born and brought up to do. So they are completely at a loss as to what they would do if they could no longer work the land.
So yes, perhaps the shift that I experienced is based on fear. The point is that there has been a shift. Many of these farmers expressed a willingness to give away parts of their farms as well as an acceptance that tenants should have ownership of the land.
They were also keen to use their knowledge to ensure skills are transferred to new emerging farmers where needed. If channelled correctly this could be an enormous asset for new farmers and play a very positive role in the future of agriculture in this country.
It is now up to the government and organised agriculture through continued dialogue to create opportunities for cooperation to translate into something more concrete. The president's recently announced advisory panel on land reform is a good place for this to start.
Of course there are still many farmers who are not positive about the changes in our country and who still treat their farm workers horrendously. However, it is important that it is recognised that they are steadily becoming a minority and that we should resist the stereotypes that are so often part of the political narrative.
- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.
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