Sunday 4 December 2016

Revisiting democratic South Africa's first land claim

Saul and Aletta Titus at home in Elandskloof, photographed by Jason Jardem for the 2014 GroundUp story here: Elandskloof 18 Years After Restitution

[Extract from A Taste of Bitter Almonds]

Elandskloof Valley, Cedarberg Mountains, Western Cape, 7 August 2002

Aletta Titus is 62 years old. She wears a blue short-sleeved worker's smock buttoned over a navy-blue jersey, for an icy wind is blowing down her valley this morning. An amber fringe of hair sweeps out from under her yellow doek, and she squints at me in the glaring sunlight through her round tinted spectacles, he face lined and pinched. Her work-worn hands grip the steel tubing of her wire-strand front gate. Behind her stands an apricot tree that in this fruit-farming district is unremarkable but for two facts; first that the tree is dead, yet has not been uprooted but has rather been left to stand and rot; and secondly that for Titus, the tree is a symbol of the hardships of her personal 45-year-battle to reclaim her farm, for six decades ago, in keeping with her people's traditions, as a newborn, her umbilical cord was buried at the root of the tree, a metaphorical lifeline tying her to her ancestral lands in this rugged valley two hours drive north of Cape Town.
Talking to myself and Sunday Times Cape Town bureau photographer Ambrose Peters, Titus is grumpy. She may be a beneficiary of democratic South Africa's first successful land claim for people dispossessed on racial grounds after the 1913 Land Act that assigned 80% of the country's land – including most of the prime arable ground – to the then 1-million whites and the rump to the 8-million blacks, but six years on, she still lives in an electricity-less timber shack built by her husband next to the ruins of her parents' old stone house. The dispossession of the black majority and the indigenous minority accelerated in the 1950s during the forced removals of people of colour from "black spots" that sullied the white landscape, the precursor to the establishment of consolidated semi-autonomous Bantustans in the 1970s (which implied the disenfranchisement of Bantustan residents as South African citizens). An ambitius plan under the ANC to tilt the balance back in favour of the dispossessed has seen, over the past six years, more than 332,000 people restored to 427,000 hectares of land. But 4,5-million people still await restitution, a process which has the impossible target of concluding in two years' time, another 15 million live in the former Bantustans, and another 7-million live on the farms. But the land restitution programme has been bedevilled by right-wing white farmer intransigence against change, the market-related "willing-buyer/willing-seller" policy that has cost the taxpayer R377-million, bureaucratic red-tape, critical skills shortages, and a rose-tinted spectacle vision of the nature of "community" that was unwilling to apprecite how estranged neighbours torn apart half a century ago wereunlikely to be rejoined with each other and their stolen land without bitter infighting.
When the community was uprooted and dispersed, leaving their buried umbilicals behind, one group of 50 families tried their best to retain their ties, working as labourers on the neighbouring farm of Allandale while agitating for a return to their land under the aegis of the "Watchfulness Committee" lead by John Januarie. Others, however, fled to the four winds, to Worcester, the West Coast, the Kouebokkeveld, and Cape Town where they acquired the habits, skills and better education of urban workers, and gradually lost their bucolic farmers' sensibilities, green thumbs, and weather-eyes. As Titus tells us: "The big story is the conflict among us.Most of us [original] Elandsklowers are dead; most of the children were born outside of the valley; there is a big gap between us; those who have been in the city can't fit in."
But it's more than just about generational drift and urbanised youngsters losing their feel for farming: families grow; and diverging communities disagree. The original 79 evicted families have now swelled to 308 claimant households. Meanwhile, the Committee's Januarie died in a decade ago in 1992, four years before the land claim was settled – and his successor on what was renamed the Elandskloof Property Association, Sampie Carolus, was from the Worcester group, a better-educated group that, according to what Elzbeth Engelbrecht of the Surplus People Project, an NGO that helped midwife the land-claim, told me, started exercising an undue influence on the Association and the claim process. And Elandsklowers are so narrowly xenophobic that it beggars belief: Oerson Januarie, the current Association leader who replaced Carolus was born in the valley – but he married Liza, a woman from Citrusdal, a mere 17km away; yet she says that she is often told she cannot talk at meetings because she is "an outsider." Faced with a community that was so fractious that, as Engelbrecht put it, was "so conflictual there was nothing they could do," the Land Claims Commission avoided the claimants themselves, but was then forced to rely on an Association riven by nepotism and factionalism as their representatives, and development in the valley ground to a halt. Most of the fertile lands in the valley are lying fallow, the old Dutch Reformed Church which was – shockingly, by the God-fearing standards of the Nationalists' respect for churches – used as a sheep-shearing shed during the community's decades in the wilderness is still not restored, and the schoolhouse is a hollow ruin with sagging floors, its walls daubed with graffitti.
Chief Land Claims Commissioner Dr Wallace Mgoqi told me that he views the land restitution process as "a cornerstone of reconstruction and development" that needs to "reduce poverty and contribute to economic growth." But he admits that the state's R1,440-a-household planning grant and R3,000-a-household discretionary restitution grant are not enough to ensure that once on the land, people put down roots in a sustainable way. The Commission does have poster-farm success stories such as the fruit and nut orchards in Limpopo or the game farms in KwaZulu-Natal where successful operations were taken over voetstoets by properly-capacitated claimants. But for underdeveloped farms, there is a rocky road ahead: the white farmers who supplanted the evicted blacks decades ago were given a leg up by a semi-socialist agrarian economy managed by produce control boards, their markets shielded by protectionist tariffs; but the re-emergent black farmers today have to deal with slender handouts and tough globalised competition with few protections.
Yet Mgoqi stressed to me that the tough task of forging a new sense of community is the chief impediment to the success of his programme: "Forced removals dispersed people all over the place and they lived in complete isolation. The process of restitution forces them to come together by reason of the fact that they all belong to that piece of land... and they then have to relate in a new way that may be completely different to what they were used to... The major challenge that faces them now is to become a coherent community." He also fears that failure will give ammuntion to the revolutionaries, saying that donor organisations should be linked to claimants to ensure the sustainability of farms "to bring sobriety to the fire-eaters who want to push recklessly for land invasions." 
Engelbrecht claims that today, the Elandsklowers have finally achieved "a sense of integration" in that those claimants living outside the valley have realised they must step aside and allow decision-making on development to be driven by those who have returned. Peters and I take a drive around to ascertain the full extent of the valley, reaching right up to a ramshackle old house on the watershed screened by scraggly bluegums, and are informed that civil lawsuits might see the extent of the restored claim quadrupled in size, making it more sustainable for a community that has also quadrupled over the decades. As we drive and trudge along, we see spanking-new community-owned tractors turning the veld's sod over for new orchards and vegetable fields. The state has allowed the community to harvest the traditional medicinal herb boegoe from neighbouring state forests, and Januarie has sent the local spring water for scientific analysis to see if it is viable as a source for entry onto the lucrative bottled-water industry. The Elandskloof has now been earmarked as a provincial priority project for the R15,000-a-household grant for the construction of proper housing, electrification and other services have been ordered to keep pace with the housing construction, and once the church is restored, there is a plan to link it to Genadendal, the country's oldest mission station, on a tourist "Mission Station Route". As Titus tells us, the Elandsklowers "must first get the inclination [to act] as a community" before they can develop the valley where their and their ancestors' umbilical cords are buried to its full potential.