Sunday, 17 June 2007

Chapter 8: Eastern Transvaal


Of all the provinces, Mpumalanga on the eastern side of South Africa, is the subject of the greatest number of land claims. Since 1994, it has become a place of friction and antagonism, perhaps exacerbated by an earlier struggle for land than in other areas of the country.
One particular land claim caught the attention of the world – the farm Boomplaats belonging to Mr. Willem Pretorius. This farmer refused to accept the price offered by the government and lengthy legal manoeuvering ensued.

On 17 March 2001 the London Daily Telegraph said that “a white farmer became the first to have his land expropriated by the South African government yesterday as part of its attempt to return land stolen from black communities under the apartheid regime.” “Amid a climate of death threats and intimidation against other white farmers, Willem Pretorius, 50, likened the seizure of his 3 100 acre property in Mpumalanga to the farm invasions in neighbouring Zimbabwe”. The article continued: “there is still vast land ownership inequality in South Africa with 80% of top quality agricultural land owned by whites, who make up only 13% of the population”. (Naturally there’s not a word about who turned the fallow, uncultivated soil into the “top quality” land it is today!). Overseas television networks joined in the fray.

Mr. Pretorius’ neighbour who occupied the other half of the large farm, agreed to accept compensation after receiving death threats and suffering acts of vandalism. This 80-year-old farmer accepted a lower-than-market price – he said it was 50% under-valued – just to get out. His property was to be occupied by the new owners numbering 600 families, and he handed over the keys to his farm in April 2001. Mr. Pretorius held out. He said he bought his farm from the state more than 20 years ago when it was “a piece of veld”, and that he had built the farm up from nothing. He eventually sold the farm for R1,2 million, although dissatisfied with the price. (A valuer set the value of the farm at R2,1 million, while another put it at R1,5 million.)

During the argument about the price between Pretorius and the government, media coverage was unstinting. It was indeed a landmark case. The government asserted that because Mr. Pretorius had received various subsidies from the state during the early years, he could not now claim a market price. He left the farm in December 2001 and bought another farm for the same price, but half the size as Boomplaats. However, the Transvaal Agricultural Union (who backed Mr. Pretorius’ stand) declared that subsidies had been given to many people in society, including students, organizations, and so forth, and utilizing this logic, then they should all be thus penalized!

The farm of 1 276 ha ran 300 head of beef cattle and was a top maize producer in the region. The property had plenty of water from a river “which never ran dry in 22 years” according to Mr. Pretorius. After the world media publicity about those who had been forcibly removed, and the stealing of land by whites, what eventually transpired at Boomplaats? Presently no farming takes place at Boomplaats. The cattle have disappeared and parts of the farm are being hired out for grazing.

The Pig Farm

One of the more scandalous examples of skewed land reform was the transfer of a 2 750 ha pig farm for which the government paid R5 million some years ago. This property consisted of one of the country’s most modern piggeries where 2 400 pigs were sustained by state-of-the-art feeding equipment. The farm was highly profitable, with ample water, fertile ground and modern sheep and cattle feeding pens. Former president Nelson Mandela arrived in a helicopter to preside over the handover ceremonies. He said the farm would be “the bread basket of the community”. The farm was handed over to the stewardship of a tribal chief.

Within a short time, the farm was in total disarray. Squatters from the neighbouring township (where the same chief was something of a warlord) moved in and their cattle grazed at will. The sheep and cattle pens fell into disrepair, while the remaining 500 pigs were in such a state of starvation they had begun to eat each other. (Italics ours). A local farmer was called in and he bought the pigs on the spot. The chief pocketed the cash. In November 2001 I wrote to the Minister of Land Affairs about this and other failures of land reform. I received an acknowledgement of my letter but no indication was given that my complaints and reports would be acted upon.

Given the present state of this farm, the minister did not act upon my information. The people on the farm currently owe R2 million to the Land Bank, we are told and, as with so many other similar cases, nothing much is happening on this farm. It is more or less a squatter camp, says the previous owner who looks in on the mess occasionally.

The Kangwane Story

Mr. Danie Theron (a nom de plume) owned three farms next to the old Kangwane homeland. They were simply invaded by people who settled on his farms and would not move. He offered the government a deal to build houses on the farms as a residential project, but could not remove them from the farms in order to get the house-building started. These invasions occurred in 1996 and were reported on in the local press. Various authorities were brought in to try and remove the people, to no avail.

The police tried to evict them but were threatened. So were security personnel from the local council. At the time, one of the councilors told the press that “it will need the army to move these people because they do not want to listen to the government, the police or the local ANC”.
An official of the provincial Land and Housing Department visited the area but was threatened with shovels, and never came back again. Housing MEC Craig Padayachee tried to talk to the squatters, but matters became heated and he retreated. The invaders were thus completely above the law. They are still there, and the farm owner is still waiting for some cash from the government for his land which has been in essence stolen from under his nose.

His 250 ha farm grew tobacco and oranges – he bought the farm on the open market in 1976. (He told us he was attracted to the bucolic life associated with farming!) His turnover was approximately R2 million per annum. Unfortunately, his proximity to the Kangwane homeland sealed his fate. During the homeland period of the old National Party government, white farms were purchased to consolidate the homeland, and they soon became squatter camps. Mr. Theron’s problems started with the theft of irrigation equipment. They stole R1 000 worth of draglines every night. He gave his workers guns to defend his equipment but even the staff were intimidated and the weapons were stolen. In 1992 he gave up and rented his farm to an indigent Zimbabwean farmer. Eventually debt forced this farmer to give up and he left.


A Wakkerstroom farmer sold a 370 ha piece of his farm for R270 000 to the Department of Land Affairs. Today the new “owners” steal from him because they cannot farm. They were given no working capital, and the ground has descended into a subsistence operation with a few mangy cattle and the odd mealie patch.

The extent of the land claims in the Mpumalunga province is evident from this map which shows the location of the claims as squares: the majority of the land in the province is set for ‘redistribution’.

Season 25

Michelle Burns of the consultancy Season 25 is at the end of her tether. She has 465 land applicant clients and has already invested R330,000 of her own money as a service provider putting claimants in touch with commercial farm sellers. This is the theory. In practice, the administration of the Department of Land Affairs’ (DLA) Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development (LRAD) programme is a shambles. There appears to be no money for farms in this particular area of the country.

Black purchasers and commercial farmer sellers agreed on a deal concerning the farm Blaauwpoort, a 461 ha property with 125 milk cows. According to one of the owners of the farm, documentation was completed in March 2002 and handed in to the Land Bank. Since then nothing has happened with the transaction. LRAD was supposed to be a keynote element in the DLA’s land reform program, and is to be an important vehicle which the government will use to reach its 30% commercial farmland transfer to black farmers by the year 2015. Now it has ground to a halt in Mpumalanga.

Despite the large number of land restitution claims in the province, only R50 million has been budgeted for the 2002/2003 book year. In May 2003, the Land Bank confirmed that it had approved 1 900 applications which would involve an amount of R476 million loan capital.
Season 25 is caught in the middle. It cannot move forward because there is no money, and both the government and the Land Bank do not communicate satisfactorily with the organization. Season 25’s Ms. Burns has been waiting for three years for some of her projects to be settled. She has fifteen projects “in limbo”, she says.

Everything is in an administrative muddle, it appears. The Land Bank is over-committed R75 million on its budget this year in this area, we are told. According to a report at the time, agricultural production on the farms which were offered and approved (but not paid for) is dropping because the farmers believed their money would be paid quickly. They thus did not inject further capital into the farms, and cannot make improvements according to the DLA’s own regulations regarding the conditions surrounding land claims.

Mr. Boetie du Toit, co-owner of the tobacco and crop Blaauwpoort farm, has lost R2,6 million in turnover because of this.(1) “I was told to stop farming after people showed interest in buying the farm and the department (of Land Affairs) promised to sort out payments within a few weeks. That was two years ago”, said Mr. du Toit in May, 2003. DLA Minister Ms. Thoko Didiza is on record as saying her LRAD policy would create a class of black agricultural entrepreneurs, boost the economy and food security in impoverished areas. However, she blames high farm prices as one of the reasons for the failure of LRAD in some areas of the country. Clearly, there is no money to back up her promises.

The Hall Deal

A very smart press release was issued by Mr. Rob Sneddon of the H L Hall & Sons group in Nelspruit in June, 2003. His company transferred 6 000ha of productive land to 1 100 members of the Mdluli clan on a lease-back deal. Also included in this deal were 4 100 legal occupiers of the company’s properties in Mpumalanga. These “legal occupiers” are in fact employees, and this latter group have become owners of their employer’s property courtesy of the South African taxpayer.

They cannot be classified as restitution claimants within the legal parameters of the land reform legislation, and it is a question why the Department of Land Affairs could find R63 million for this transaction involving employees of a company when they do not have money for the 27 genuine land claimants mentioned in the Blaauwpoort farm deal above. While the Mdluli clan (and the workers) have title to the land, they will be paid a certain figure per year for the period of the lease (which is not mentioned in the press release). Given that there are still 5 000 land claims to be settled in Mpumalanga, Chris Williams director of the Rural Action Committee says this is a “huge settlement” which will set a precedent others cannot follow.

Indeed! This must be one of the most expensive land claims in South Africa. We telephoned Mr. Sneddon and asked what else the recipients received for the R63 million other than their lease rental payments from Hall & Sons each year and title to the land which they have now leased? The deal is certainly win-win, as Mr. Sneddon says – win-win for him but hardly win-win for the taxpayers who have forked out a large amount to satisfy 4 200 of Mr. Sneddon’s employees who by no stretch of the imagination can be classified as land claimants. After some testy replies, Mr. Sneddon told our researcher she was “getting up his nose”. But as taxpayers, we have every right to know the ins and outs of this deal which, as we said, is one of the most costly land claims transactions since the land reform program came into being.

The Poaching and the Snaring

One of the biggest scandals to come out of this province is the wholesale destruction of game and livestock through poaching and its corollary, snaring. Mr. Peter Spears farms near Hectorspruit – he is midway between the Kangwane homeland and a municipal squatter camp, between the devil and the deep blue sea! In South African farming, this is the worst position in which you can find yourself, and Mr. Spears’ recounting of what happens to his animals is a terrible story.
In two years he has recovered 4 000 snares. He and the other farmers in the area must watch helplessly as their animals are destroyed, many left to die in the bush. He says many of the squatter camp residents are illegals from across the border and elsewhere in Africa. Township gangs organise the farm poaching, and he knows who they are. One gang boss has six or seven men working for him full time. Spears pays a fortune to bring in security personnel from as far away as Hoedspruit because local security personnel are intimidated and threatened with death if they do their jobs.

What he finds astonishing is that he has to fill in forms and obtain permits and go through the realms of bureaucracy in order to run his farm and buy animals and transfer them, but the criminal township gangs roam untrammeled by even the basics of any control system. His security people picked up one man recently with 40 snares in his possession. These poachers chase the game into one area of his farm and the game become sitting ducks for the meat thieves. (Another farmer nearby who shall be nameless for fear of retribution told us the police are “hopeless” and that he sees them using police vehicles to load up liquor for the shebeens they own and/or run. They also use these vehicles to pick up people on the road and charge them for the ride. “I have seen this with my own eyes”, he said.)

Mr. Spears says as a child they used to sleep in a tent on their farm property (his farm is a family farm), “but now, there is no law and order, no control, and we live like prisoners: burglar bars, alarms, electric fencing”. Now nothing is safe. In 2003 he lost 20 head of cattle and 400 impalas to poachers alone. Foreign visitors know what’s going on, he says, and South Africa’s shameful lack of law and order is no longer a secret. Two poachers were recently caught “and they are still inside” declares Mr. Spears hopefully. “Some who do get caught are charged for minor offences and released without bail, and this doesn’t deter them from doing it again”. His black neighbours who farm on a land claim restitution property thrash anyone caught poaching to within an inch of his life. They have less trouble than Mr. Spears who, like so many whites, will be hauled over the coals if he so much as touches a miscreant. “We are fair game”, he says.

In a newspaper report on Mr. Spears’ travails, he said the snares were made of wire or copper cable, and looped around two trees.(2) His description of the pain suffered by animals who are not killed would break one’s heart – but not the heart of the poachers who are pitiless and ruthless. Every two weeks Mr. Spears sends 100 workers into the bush to clear it of snares.
We asked him about the game farms near the Kruger Park. “They are all suffering. There is no control. The Kruger Park is crawling with poachers. There are lots of people ostensibly out to control poachers but many seem untrained. They need constant supervision which is not always there. The Parks Board should do more. I don’t want to say this but I believe there will be no Kruger Park in ten years. That’s my assessment”. On that note we left Mr. Spears, yet another victim of the lawlessness now endemic in South Africa.

There are many questions yet to be answered in Mpumalanga. What happened to Trevor Tutu’s R2,6 million catfish breeding project. For this scheme, two perfectly good and productive farms were bought out by Tutu’s “development project company”. We were informed that the Department of Land Affairs allegedly paid for these farms but this could not be confirmed. We also learnt that catfish is not a delicacy in Europe (where it was supposed to be sold) and that it can be caught there by anyone willing to fish for it.

There is also the question of the search for graves. We believe R40 million has been allocated to the University of South Africa to “search for graves” in Mpumalanga and other parts of South Africa. Why graves, we are not sure. Someone told us that the finding of graves could help a land claim, although all claims were supposed to have been in by the end of 1998. There are numerous farms in the Delmas district which we could not investigate because of lack of resources, wonderful productive farms which are now “a little bit bankrupt” according to one tribal chief whose land claim farm was sold at a “knock-down sale” in October 2002. The farm was sold for R400 000, a fraction of the price paid by the taxpayers for this productive entity.

Other land claims handovers are being run by mentors and managers while the new owners simply take a percentage of the profits or a lease figure. This type of “restitution” actually creates a “dole class” of South Africans – people who live on the work of others, while the government pretends that their land reform program is “building up a class of black commercial farmers”. We want to look at the Nkomazi Irrigation Scheme which Ms. Thoko Didiza launched in 2001 at a cost to the taxpayers of R37 million. The 241 new farmers involved in the project also received a R70 million loan from he Land Bank. We believe many official organizations were involved in this scheme which is billed as a joint venture.

What has happened to the farm Kromkrans outside Hendrina? The farm owner told a journalist that “his heart was sore, but he knew it was the right thing to do” to give his farm to claimants under the government’s land reform program. Well, we will find out if this was “the right thing to do”. At the time of the handover in October 2002, 600 families were preparing to go onto the 2 000 ha farm (just over 3 ha allocated to each family). At the time of the handover, the community declared they would be talking to the government “about housing” on the farm. The provincial land claims commissioner said his department would support the new owners.

What happened to the Maluleke Land Claim of 25 000 ha in the Kruger National Park? And the Timber Ridge Project? In April 2000, Ms. Thoko Didiza Minister of Land Affairs gave 15000 ha of land to 1 700 beneficiary families along the Timber Ridge area. The amount paid was R21 million. (The reason why we mention these projects to our readers is that we have the information of the handovers but we did not have the resources to investigate all of these queries. However, a pattern has been established in enough other instances for us to raise serious questions as to the sustainability of these projects in the long term.) There are scores of other handovers still to be investigated.

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