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March 01, 2009

Land reform goes wrong in South Africa

by Bongani Mthethwa

The orange trees are dying. They stand, row on row, overgrown and choked by a forest of alien vegetation. Just a decade ago, this 33ha citrus farm, called Middelplaas, yielded enough money for the farmer and the small community to thrive on. Now all that remains are a few oranges hanging from branches entwined in thorn bushes.

Middelplaas is a stark example of what has gone wrong with land restitution throughout South Africa. A process designed to give land back to those from whom it was taken during the apartheid area has become a bitter pill for the government to swallow.

And for thousands of claimants, who eagerly moved back to their ancestral properties, the promise of an improved livelihood tilling their own soil has proved empty.

About four years ago, six KwaZulu-Natal communities in the small agricultural town of Weenen — which means “place of weeping” — celebrated their return to 11000ha spread across seven productive farms.

Weenen and its surrounding areas are prime vegetable-production country, with produce grown here found in supermarkets countrywide. But today there is little hope for them. The once-thriving farms have collapsed, leaving behind nothing but hardship, hunger and dashed dreams.

For Gudleni Mbatha, this dream is in tatters. The new land was her future free of hunger. The day she got it, she believed she would be able to grow crops and feed her small family. Instead, the 59-year-old grandmother and her family are scrounging for food. “We’re all very hungry, mntanami (my child). I’m going to cook porridge; that is all I have for my grandchildren,” said Mbatha, pointing to her dilapidated house.

Nearby is a disused soccer ground, once the site of a successful potato farm. Now the 53ha Toil Investments farm lies barren, a swathe of cracked earth where nothing grows.

Further along is another ruined vegetable farm, its fences torn down. All that’s left of Tugela Estates is a rusting irrigation system and water pump, abandoned by claimants who had no idea what to do with it.

Another R22-million white elephant can be found close by. Set up by the government to supply water to local farmers, this irrigation system remains untouched.

Ndoshi Masoka, chairman of the Silindokuhle Community Trust that represents the six communities, blamed the government for failing to provide them with post-settlement help. “It’s shameful what’s happening. The government spent millions buying us these farms, but we don’t know what to do with them. White farmers were producing everything, but now these farms have collapsed.”

He also blamed divisions within the community as the reason why the farms had failed. “When we decided that some of the farms should be leased back to the previous owners so that they could remain productive, some among us felt that we were taking the land back to the white people,” he said.

Bart de Bruin, 49, who used to own the orange farm, described the conditions on the farms as a “disgrace”.

Another local farmer, who asked not to be identified, said: “We kind of expected this. Farming is extremely hard work. You can’t just take anybody and put them on a farm. Unless there is experience and expertise, you can’t make a success of it,” he said.

The Times

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