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Peacemakers broker South African land reform

White farmer Peter Nicholson partners with the Venda people to tutor them to a successful takeover of his land.

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / September 17, 2008

Mentor and farmer: Peter Nicholson (center) is working with Venda community members like Chief Alfred Nemamilwe (left) and the chief's son, Patrick Nemamilwe, to help them succeed in shepherding his farm when the South African government gives it to them.

Melanie Stetson Freeman – Staff




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When Peter Nicholson looks at his 20,000-acre Alicedale Estates, he sees the lush orange groves that he carved out of the arid scrubland 15 years ago to generate a healthy income for his family.
When Chief Alfred Nemamilwe looks at it, he sees the vast territory of the pastures, villages, and sacred sites of his Venda-speaking ancestors that his people will control once more.

This might sound like the beginning of a conflict. But Gerrit Booyens, an idealistic white businessman, has a third vision for this vast chunk of land. He sees a peaceful melding of both Mr. Nicholson’s and the chief’s dreams: an equal business partnership between the two, with Nicholson training a new generation of black farmers and Chief Alfred ensuring that his community begins to see commercial farming as an engine for local jobs, as well as a last chance to preserve their cultural heritage.

Mr. Booyens, whose agribusiness career became business peacemaking with postapartheid redistribution, is under no illusions. “When you bring white farmers and [black] communities together, you have to unpack their fears. I fear you will take me to the cleaners. You fear you won’t get enough for the land. He fears that without the land, his children will not follow in his footsteps.”

But when people start talking about their fears, he says, they find they have more in common than they realized. “Because we are different doesn’t mean that any one of us might be wrong. Together we might be stronger.”

Booyens’s job is to get the whites – whose land will be bought by the government – to talk to the landless blacks who will receive the land in the near future. He talks with black communities about the opportunities, and the responsibilities, of running a commercial farm. But most important is getting the two sides to work together.

Though several African nations have encouraged white farmers to sell their land to black communities that claim ancestral rights, few countries have succeeded without using force, as in Zimbabwe.

South Africa’s farms are the envy of a continent where subsistence farming is the norm. South Africa specializes in large-scale commercial farming that easily meets the nation’s food needs, while exporting highly profitable products, such as citrus and wine, to Asia and the West. By pushing the huge social experiment of land justice, South Africa is taking an enormous risk with its food supply – and its economy.

The hope is that a more fair distribution of land will help lift out of poverty millions of South Africans who were rendered landless by apartheid and who now make up the masses of unemployed urban poor. With the nightmare scenario of Zimbabwe sitting next door – the result of forced land redistribution, followed by massive farm failure and food shortages – South Africa seems to realize that getting it right is crucial.

• • •

It’s late afternoon at the Tshipise community center, and Booyens is holding a meeting with leading members of the local community about the massive commercial farm that soon will be theirs. Some would be happy to see the farm return to brush, so that they can return to farming and herding in the old ways. Others are more interested in taking ownership of and preserving local ruins of a society that prospered here, then mysteriously vanished – an African version of Macchu Picchu. Booyens is trying to show them the possibility of having it both ways, a thriving commercial farm and greater opportunities to enhance their cultural heritage.

“We were the first people to smelt iron here in this region,” says Mashudu Dima, a wizened man in a silver goatee, noting that the cultural site of Mapungubwe shows evidence of iron smelting. “These are things we need to bring back.”

“Yes, but part of our land we need to develop for agriculture, because it will sustain the community, jobs will be created,” says police chief Mainganye Nephawe.