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Uprooting apartheid's injustices

South Africa's land- claims process offers a peaceful alternative to Zimbabwe's chaos.

By Kate DunnSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 2000


The cherished map that delineates his community's land cannot be found, but Oum (Uncle) David Cloete doesn't need it.

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His Afrikaans punctuated with the clicking accents of the aboriginal Nama people, the stocky Mr. Cloete intones: "From Donkey's Bay to Harold's Cave, where the bushmen paintings are; to Red Mountain and Vanrhynsdorp; to Flamingo Mountain, over to Bok Mountain and the Ripbok Plain; and on to Green River - all that was ours."

Those 316,000 acres in Oum David's memory were lost when territory was deeded to white farmers in 1925. Now he and fellow members of the Nama community want compensation.

Land ownership has been one of the most painful issues since the end of white rule in Africa.

In Zimbabwe, black resentment was allowed to fester, and a shortsighted land-claims process resulted in armed invasions of white farms. In South Africa, however, most land claims are being settled legally and peacefully, presenting a model of reconciliation and compromise to the rest of conflict-torn Africa.

Nonetheless, the claim being made by the Namas, who live in a community called Ebenhauser, has white farmers worried.

"I have as much right to live here as the Ebenhauser guys," says Albie van Zyl, a burly, apple-cheeked, farmer. His 80 acres near the Olifants River on the outskirts of the white community of Lutzville are among the properties listed in the Nama land claim.

Mr. van Zyl's father acquired the family farm in the late 1950s, more than a quarter century after the Nama people were moved onto higher land, where they have lived in poverty ever since.

Jannie Mostert echoes the perspective of many fellow white farmers in saying, "I didn't dispossess anyone of their land, that happened before our time." Like van Zyl, Mr. Mostert is a member of the Farmers' Action Committee, created to deal with the Nama land claim. Both say that as Christians and good neighbors they would like to help Ebenhauser develop its agricultural potential. But they say they do not owe the Namas land.

Oum David was one year old in 1925 when the British colonial government gave destitute whites the Namas' traditional pastures along the Olifants River.

The white district carved out of the original Ebenhauser area was named Lutzville. In contrast to Ebenhauser, Lutzville's roads are paved, its houses have indoor plumbing, and tractors rather than donkeys plow the fields.

"Ebenhauser lost 3,458 hectares [8,541 acres] of the most valuable land, particularly river-bottom land that is rich due to sediment left by annual floods," says land-rights advocate Charles Williams, an Anglican minister who is working with the Namas.

It wasn't just rich land that was lost; the river brings diamonds as well as water from territory higher up. For the moment, though, the community is emphasizing its agricultural rather than mineral interests.

The Namas are not asking for the land back - for now. "Our fight is not with the people who own the farms now," says Oum David. "Anyway, we don't have the white farmers' knowledge to run their big commercial farms."

However, the Namas are using the threat that they could ask for the land's return as a lever to pry concessions out of both government and the white farmers.

They've asked the Land Claims Commission to compensate them with a community development fund of about $11 million earmarked for agricultural projects. The funds and development program would be overseen by Ebenhauser's elected representatives, working closely with national and local government officials.