Sunday, June 20, 2004

First of two parts

BENONI, South Africa - Daan Duvenage shook his head as he gazed over the wood-and-tin shacks where 40,000 squatters have established homes on a 140-acre swath of his farm.

“I can’t go in there,” he said of the warren of homes, streets and shops where he once grew hay for his cattle. “Too dangerous for me. They know who I am.”

Mr. Duvenage, a white farmer, still holds legal title to the land but has been unable to get the government of President Thabo Mbeki to remove the squatters.

The Witwatersrand High Court ordered the removal of 6,000 squatters in April 2001, but the order was never enforced, and financially strapped local authorities want Mr. Duvenage personally to pay the estimated $262,000 cost of housing them elsewhere.

The Pretoria High Court again sided with Mr. Duvenage last month, but it remains to be seen whether anything will happen.

The farmer said he doesn’t mind seeing white-owned land redistributed to poor blacks as long as it is done legally and equitably. And he understands the government’s concerns about setting a precedent that will encourage more illegal land grabs.

But he also argues that the government must respect and enforce property rights or risk scaring off foreign investment in a nation where black unemployment is estimated to run as high as 50 percent.

The shantytown on his land is surprisingly well-kept, with wide dirt avenues, flower gardens and immaculately groomed lawns. Each shack is numbered to receive mail.

The government delivers water daily and set up voting stations during last month’s national elections, in which the camp voted about 90 percent for the ruling African National Congress.

One squatter, who refused to give his name, said he wished the government would act more aggressively to expropriate white-owned farms as has been done in neighboring Zimbabwe.

But Mr. Duvenage said he doesn’t think it will. “I don’t think they are as stupid as [Zimbabwe President Robert] Mugabe,” he said.

Other white South Africans fear he is wrong.

Mr. Mugabe, who came to power with the end of white rule in the former Rhodesia in 1980, initially promised that blacks and whites would live harmoniously in a “rainbow nation” and, in fact, respected white rights for two decades.

But facing likely electoral defeat in 2002, he permitted his armed followers to seize white-owned farms, causing numerous deaths and a plunge in agricultural production that has left the country unable to feed itself.

White South Africans talk constantly about their fears that the same could happen here.

Making progress

Ten years after apartheid, the black-led government has made remarkable strides. It has built 1.6 million new houses for the poor. Eighty percent of South Africans now have electricity, and 30 million of them now have access to clean tap water — up from 21 million a decade ago.

But there are also huge challenges, including massive unemployment and HIV, the AIDS virus, which infects nearly 5 million people.

The ANC, which had long enjoyed communist backing, came to power after the end of the Cold War and so wisely adopted capitalism as its economic model.

It has reached out to the international business community and eked out an average 2.5 percent economic growth rate. But that is far below the 6 percent growth rate needed to keep pace with growth in the working-age population.

There is a growing black middle class who buy luxury automobiles, send their children to private schools and shop in fancy malls. But most blacks, who make up 70 percent of the population, still live in poverty.

“The [gross domestic product] per capita is actually going down, and unemployment is going up. Unemployment is now around 35 [percent] to 40 percent,” said Marian Tupy, a South African economist at Washington’s Cato Institute.

Eliminating poverty

The ANC consequently campaigned last month on a promise to eliminate poverty and create jobs, leaving some white South Africans to worry that the promise may be fulfilled at their expense.

Those fears were exacerbated by the reception given the Zimbabwean president when he arrived in Pretoria for Mr. Mbeki’s April 27 inauguration. Mr. Mugabe received a thunderous ovation from the overwhelmingly black crowd, only slightly less raucous than for Mr. Mbeki or his predecessor, Nelson Mandela.

That reception, along with Mr. Mbeke’s refusal to publicly condemn the land seizures in Zimbabwe, were taken by many white South Africans as a tacit endorsement of Mr. Mugabe’s race-baiting policies.

Mr. Mbeki’s government says it is simply pursuing what it calls “quiet diplomacy” with a former comrade-in-arms.

“We will not stand on the rooftops and mountaintops and issue invectives against the government of Zimbabwe,” government spokesman Joel Netshitenzhe said in an interview.

“President Mbeki has said many, many times that we don’t encourage illegal actions. We encourage dialogue. Both sides need to meet.”

Reverse apartheid’

One of the toughest indictments of Mr. Mbeke’s policies comes from Pretoria lawyer Philip Du Toit, who recently self-published “The Great South African Land Scandal” — a 271-page catalogue of land invasions, murders and other crimes in rural South Africa.

Accusing the government of “reverse apartheid,” Mr. Du Toit says its policies scare off foreign investment and mark the beginning of the end of South African democracy.

“Botswana, where I grew up, is successful because they respect the right to the title to the land. They support entrepreneurs and welcome development. And there is legislation to protect employers,” he said during an interview in his Pretoria office.

“In South Africa, that does not exist anymore. South Africa is on the track to becoming a Zimbabwe. I’m trying to stop the train. All we want is for South Africa to come to its senses.”

Mr. Netshitenzhe described the book as “based on fiction and prejudice, not on fact” — a view that is shared by Farmer’s Weekly, the nation’s leading farm magazine with a hefty white Afrikaans subscription base.

The book “is not good investigative journalism,” said Chris Burgess, the white editor of Farmer’s Weekly. “It is one-dimensional,”

“The farmers in South Africa are facing very serious problems — crime, the land-redistribution program — which we cover extensively in our magazine,” Mr. Burgess said.

“But we are at a crucial moment in South African history, just 10 years after democracy, trying to rectify some of the inequities of the past. How do we resolve those issues? Du Toit is the wrong man at the wrong time to write this book. It is inflammatory. The book is not helpful.”

Farmland lost

Still, several of the book’s basic points cannot be denied. White farmers are suffering from an enormous amount of rural crime, and the government’s land-redistribution program — which turns productive farmland over to black cooperatives, often people with no farming background — has resulted in the loss of good farmland and of jobs.

“I think the book has the ring of truth on at least one of his key points,” said John Kane-Berman, chief executive of the South African Institute of Race Relations in Johannesburg.

“A lot of black people have been resettled on previously white-owned farms and have not been able to make a go and [the farms] are now vast rural shanty towns that are no longer producing” either food or jobs.

The Agricultural Employers Organization (AEO), which represents farmers in labor disputes, estimates that 500,000 jobs have been lost since 1993, mostly by unskilled black farm laborers.

“The unskilled farmworkers who were supposed to be lifted up are being hurt the most,” said Willie Vorster of AEO. “If the land issue is not handled correctly, it will be Zimbabwe. The chances are very big.”

But Mike Davies, South Africa analyst for the London-based Control Risks Group, disagrees.

“South Africa is not like Zimbabwe,” he said. “There are a lot of differences. South Africa has an independent judiciary, a constitution.

“Our position is that there are risks of investing in a country like South Africa, but there is fundamental political stability and that is likely to continue into the future. South Africa’s economy is very sound at the moment.”


Land distribution

There are three parts to the land-redistribution program.

The first is “land restitution,” in which blacks who were forcibly removed from their land under apartheid can make a claim on the land, no matter who owns it today.

Second is “land redistribution,” in which the government will subsidize blacks seeking to purchase land from willing white owners. The program’s goal is 30 percent black ownership of commercial farmland.

Finally, there is a “land tenure” system, which states that if a laborer lives and works on the land for a period of time, he cannot be evicted unless the farmer provides alternative housing.

At Montina Farm near Mooketsi, in Limpopo, the nation’s poorest region, Kaspaas Pohl and his brothers operate a dozen tomato and citrus farms, employing 35 family members and more than 2,000 black workers.

One of his farms has land claims against it — ironically, by two competing tribes, both of which claim it as their ancestral land. Mr. Pohl says he’d be happy to sell, but the government has no money.

“How can I plan? How can I invest when I don’t know what will happen? I took the risk, buying and developing these farms, and now I lay awake at night worrying about my family, my farms, our future,” he said.

Mr. Pohl has built a four-room elementary school for his workers’ children (the government provides the teachers), and provides farm housing, with water and electricity, that would be considered substandard in suburban Washington but is luxurious in most of the developing world.

Mr. Pohl is a warm and hospitable host — if one can stomach the incessant racist commentary and jokes.

‘They cannot farm’

“Why do they want the land if they cannot farm? Black people cannot farm. They can buy and sell. They can fill a bakke (small pickup) with vegetables and sell them on the side of the road. They do that very well. Afrikaans people can’t do that. We can farm. …

“If Mbeki were clever, he could feed the whole of Africa if he wanted. We don’t mind them governing the country, but leave us to farm.”

From his helicopter, which he uses to move between farms, Mr. Pohl buzzed several large tracts of land that had been bought by the government and turned over to black cooperatives in the past three years. Today, all are in weeds, bankrupt.

“This was a big tomato farm. Now it is [ruined],” he said as he hovered over ransacked housing and tattered greenhouses, where drip-line irrigation hoses lay scattered in the overgrowth. “This was a high-producing farm that was giving 600 people work. Now they’ve lost their jobs.”

On the farm next door, owned and managed by whites, fields filled with ripe tomatoes were being harvested by dozens of black workers.

Making a difference

One man who is trying to make a difference is Cois Harman, a white professor of native African languages who began to mentor black farmers after losing his job under the nation’s “black economic empowerment” or affirmative-action laws.

While he can rattle off dozens of black farming successes, he was highly critical of the land-distribution program.

“Giving 200 people a farm that was farmed by one white farmer is not a recipe for success,” said Mr. Harman, who was raised on a cattle farm. “The cooperatives haven’t got the knowledge, and they end up fighting each other.”

He said that farming in South Africa is difficult — poor soil, little rain, summer hail — and fewer than 10 percent of black farmers he mentors make it.

“But the same would be true if you took white people out of Johannesburg or New York with no farming experience,” he said.

Making a success

One of the successful black farmers is Simon Makhutle, a modest man with movie star good looks who could not suppress his laughter at those who say black people can’t farm.

“They haven’t seen this,” he said, as he drove past acre after acre of sunflowers, sorghum and corn on his farm in Ga-Motlatla in northwestern South Africa. “The white farmers in this area know we can do it.”

Mr. Makhutle, who planted 500 acres this year, returned to Ga-Motlatla to work with his father after getting his bachelor’s degree in political science and criminology at the University of Cape Town.

“I didn’t come back by choice. I couldn’t find a job in forensics, but now sometimes I just love it. I love farming. I have no regrets,” he said as he watched a combine harvest a sunflower field for seeds that will be pressed for oil.

Like all farmers, he complained about the need for better access to credit, cheaper gas and fertilizer prices. And as a farmer on tribal-owned lands, he has no title, making it even harder to secure financing because he has no collateral.

“My only problem is financing,” he said. “Look around you. We can do the farming.”

Woes next door

As for Zimbabwe?

“Zimbabwe’s problem will have to be resolved by the Zimbabwe people,” he said. “In South Africa, some people have land claims. Those who were forcefully removed can go back. It is being done legally and lawfully. … So far, we are satisfied with the way things are going.”

Mr. Kane-Berman said that after 10 years of democracy, the country is doing far better than most had predicted.

“The constitution is widely considered legitimate. The country is basically stable. Crime is a problem, but the government management of public finance has been politically courageous. It has brought down inflation. If you look around the shopping centers, you see people of all races happily interacting together.

“I don’t think the country has a problem with racial animosity. Race relations are basically sound. So far, we have done astonishingly well. … No, our government, at the moment, is not in the business of orchestrating land invasions,” he said.

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