Fire across the land: The steep price of state failure on land - News24

Jul 17, 2019
17 July 2019 - Where the state lacks the ability – perhaps the will? – to enforce its laws, and surrenders authority to the strongman best placed to press a claim through force, then a successful and legitimate land reform programme becomes impossible. So does much economic activity – and with it, tragically, the future of the country.

Terence Corrigan

The South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal is a fertile, well-watered corner of the country, land well suited to a farming life. Yet over the last few days, something disturbing has been afoot in the Mtwalume area. Fire blazing where crops should grow, reports of intruders invading a farm and setting fires, a manager accosted and thrown to his (intended) death in the flames, and roads blockaded. There had been, apparently, little protection offered by the police.

Precise details are unclear – and perhaps a very different picture would emerge when they are – but the prevailing narrative is that the property in question is owned by the Mathulini Communal Property Association (MCPA), acquired as part of a land claim. The perpetrators are alleged to be a group with its own designs on the land, organised as a 'concerned group'.

Spokesman for the MCPA, Inkosi Bhekizizwe Luthuli – who is also a member of Parliament for the IFP – released a media statement which pointed to the damage that this was doing: "The farms that make up this land claim produce 400 000 tonnes of sugar cane annually and employ 1 200 people. This violent hijack of a legitimate land claim is a desperate and unlawful attempt to achieve what has failed through legal processes that have so far cost the beneficiaries R6,5 million in legal fees."

Perhaps more to the point, he castigated the government for its inaction, saying that it raised suspicions about connivance between the alleged invaders and the land reform authorities.

"We have previously written to President Cyril Ramaphosa," he said, "calling for an intervention in this matter, but to no avail. Perhaps now that a farm has been invaded, roads illegally blockaded and a man nearly burned to death, the government will take notice."

The message here is a chilling one. In the midst of this volatility, the state had failed to discharge that most fundamental of its duties: to shield those under its (nominal) protection.

There is a ring of sinister familiarity around this. In April, the Anderson family's Emerald Dale Farm near Donnybrook came under a similar attack. Arson, intimidation, the mutilation of livestock and a blockade of access roads. At issue here, at least on the surface, seemed to be old-fashioned South African xenophobia: demands from some disgruntled former employees (and some others with no apparent connection to the farm) that a small number of Zimbabweans should be dismissed, failing which, "consequences" would follow.

Here, too, state action was tardy. Although a court order was issued interdicting 20 named people from intimidation, vandalism or blocking access to the property, the sheriff of the court was initially unable to serve it, as the police claimed they lacked the personnel to assist.

Nor was much help forthcoming to break what had effectively become a siege, with the protesters regulating who could enter and leave and on what terms. Only after a few days were public order police officers deployed, and proper access restored.

The Andersons' lawyer, Hans-Jurie Moolman, said at the time that this case raised serious questions about the willingness and the ability of the police to enforce compliance with the law. This has implications for the country's entire governance and political direction. "Despite assurances from government that land politics will take place within the law," he remarked, "it says something when a police commander gets to decide where his or her unit can assist and where not."

Nor are these isolated instances. We at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) – and in particular our colleague, Gabriel Crouse – have documented a number of such cases that involve the grabbing of property by thugs or crooked officials while the State stands by. Crouse's account of the seizure of the Ekuthuleni farm between Eshowe and Melmoth in KwaZulu-Natal is a chilling case in point.

William Nyandu, a resident of the farm that generations of his family had lived on – the farm had once been a Lutheran mission – had tried to secure legal title for the farm's community. He had placed his faith in the democratic dispensation to help with this, something that had apparently brought him into conflict with a traditional authority as well as mining interests. The matter came to a tragic head on the farm in 2014.

Writes Crouse: "Lucky for them, a police escort arrived in vans and nyalas along with a heavily armed impi (representing their opponents). But the police were there to escort the Ekuthuleni leaders out, not to protect them in their own homes. So they were taken away, their goods were looted, their cars and homes burned down." 

Whatever ownership might have been vested in this unfortunate community was rendered irrelevant by the failure of the state to protect it.

The implications of all this are serious in the extreme. Inkosi Luthuli put it well: "If we allow nefarious forces to capture our land claim processes for their own ends, we will never get South Africa's stalled land reform programme properly on track." This is perhaps too limited a view, for the dereliction of duty shown by the State robs everyone but the most venal of their just stake in the future.

Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development released a statement on the matter. "We must also caution against political parties making cheap mileage out of a very volatile situation," it read, "We urge for maturity as irresponsible statements and grand standing will only ferment a cycle of acrimony, criminality and violence. We must do all in our power to stem illegal farm invasions and ensure that such acts of criminality do not derail the legitimate process of restitution, nor cause hardship and suffering to the rightful beneficiaries of such claims."

Fine words these, but rendered less than credible by the desultory response of the State to such criminality. Indeed, there is profound irony in the injunction to refrain from "irresponsible statements" as that "will only ferment a cycle of acrimony, criminality and violence". This has been the stock-in-trade of much of the country's political elite in relation to South Africa's land politics for years, accelerating rapidly as expropriation without compensation became its preferred policy option.

In an angry society, where leaders and activists have wilfully stirred passions against any one group – in the land debate, against "white" farmers, as land thieves, exploiters, rapists and so on – or where property rights are denigrated as a plot to deprive people of their patrimony, it is entirely predictable that political and psychological barriers elsewhere will fall. There should be no surprises here.

Where the state lacks the ability – perhaps the will? – to enforce its laws, and surrenders authority to the strongman best placed to press a claim through force, then a successful and legitimate land reform programme becomes impossible. So does much economic activity – and with it, tragically, the future of the country.

This incorporates farmers – black and white – foreigners, businesspeople, the more prosperous, land reform beneficiaries trying to make a living on their holdings, farmworkers and their families and those across the value chain who depend on the farming economy for their living. Ordinary people. Ultimately all of us will pay a steep price for this.

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations.

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